I think I’ve established by now that Bucktown has a lot of extraordinary residential conversions. Often, owners or architects give these new homes a sleek public face or a snazzy moniker. And when it comes time for a resale, prices tend to reflect a presumed lofty status in the neighborhood. Not so with today’s newly-listed machine shop conversion on Wabansia Avenue.
The enormous live-work space—square footage unknown—is asking $1.3 million while modern mini-mansions all over the neighborhood are priced at two and three million dollars. The totally obsessive homespun interior design is the brainchild of its artist owners and is downplayed by an ivy-cloaked exterior and a modest alley entrance.
The three-story 1888 structure likely became a machine shop in the 1920s, making tools and fixtures. When the sellers acquired the place in 1992 it had been on the market for two years. The scope of such an undertaking didn’t work for most buyers at a time when Bucktown was seen in a more marginal light. The place was very raw, as the before pictures confirm, with oil-soaked joists and an unwieldy industrial zoning which required a Phase One environmental study and variance for residential use. According to Connie Grunwaldt of @properties, confirmed by public records, the address is still technically its own tiny Planned Manufacturing District (PMD) in a sea of residential.
“At the time, everyone was opening up spaces and making lofts. We wanted rooms, we wanted cozy,” says seller Peter [last name withheld]. Peter and his partner got to work immediately, moving into the ground floor in ’93 and the upper floors in ’94. Once the work was complete, they made the ground floor into professional studio space. “People come through and say ‘this is so nice, you left so much original detailing—the wood floors, the stained glass, the crown molding.’ Nothing except for the trussed ceiling in the living room and a [lateral] beam on the upper level is original.”
The sellers gave great latitude to a talented young carpenter during the build-out, and he designed intricate parquet floors, quirky wood trim, rounded skirt boards that arc and curve up the stairs (instead of knifing their way in right angles), and stunning railing details.
The stained glass work, of which there is plenty, was also commissioned. The dazzling tile mosaic caking one of the upstairs bathrooms was entirely the work of Peter’s partner. And the many old doors, plaster work, Greek key trim, terra cotta tiles that were molded and multiplied, and painted Chinese panels were salvaged artifacts.
The sellers, who are leaving for a farm life in Missouri, bought a pickup truck’s worth of walnut wood at one point from that state for $80—what would’ve cost several hundred dollars in the city. They crafted cabinets and panels from it.
One very minor detail is probably the goofiest—how the sellers set out to create their own stainless steel fridge 20 years ago, before stainless steel was in high demand for appliances. They got some galvanized steel and fastened it to a regular Kenmore, to great effect.
As for sleeping arrangements, the house has three large bedrooms and three full baths. The vaulted third floor is dedicated to the master and guest suites.
The basement doesn’t take on water and, astonishingly, has 9-foot ceilings. It was once a useful part of the machine shop and has never been refinished for living. A buyer could make a handy darkroom or pottery space of it and the sellers did begin to construct a walk-in wine cellar.
If you’re worried about all that ivy, rest easy. The building is three bricks thick and Peter has witnessed how the ivy protects the façade from the elements. “When you think about it, they have homes in Ireland that have been covered in this stuff for 300 years.”