Make It Mondrian
Walls of windows and smart design give a mid-century split-level a boldly modern new look
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A new two-story, glass-faced tower adds space for a lofted home office and establishes a bold architectural presence. Steel-reinforced mullions in a Mondrian-esque pattern give the window wall strength and style. Photo Gallery »
SIZE 3,000 sq. ft.
TYPE Split-level house
LOCATION Glen Ellyn
House-hunting always takes vision, but sometimes the quest also calls for a giant leap of faith. “We almost drove right by this place because it had absolutely no curb appeal,” says the executive who bought the modest 1950s house in Glen Ellyn with her husband in 1998, when they made a work-related move to Chicago from California. It was a time of high demand and low supply in the town, with “people knocking on doors and asking to buy at any price,” she explains. So their strong desire to live in the community, “a half-hour from everywhere and both of our jobs,” prompted a closer look.
Once the house was theirs, do-it-yourself cosmetic fixes—removing country-kitsch wallpaper, ripping out soiled carpets, refinishing newly exposed hardwood floors, painting—did much to improve things. The touchups held them until 2002, when they gutted the kitchen and reconfigured the living and dining areas with the help of interior designer Chris Ebert. Yet certain issues remained. “The house still felt dim, even when the lights were on or sunlight was streaming in, because of the way it was situated on the lot. And we needed more space to entertain,” says the husband, also an executive.
Ultimately, a desire to own “a statement place” that matched their sophisticated modernist aesthetic motivated them to undertake a second, far more major renovation in 2007. “We really love architecture and wanted a home with a strong design pedigree. So we decided to spend the money and do something interesting with what we had,” says the wife. By then, Ebert had joined Normandy Builders and the couple hired them for the job.
An addition that followed the footprint of an existing backyard deck added about 1,300 square feet of interior space. Its window wall echoes the one in front but is even larger. The homeowners relax in the garden. Photo Gallery »
Ironically, buying the plain Jane now paid off. The brick split-level, an anomaly in a sea of picturesque four-squares and colonials, was “as nondescript as a blank canvas,” says architect Troy Pavelka, Normandy’s design manager. When the couple asked for changes that would make a big and boldly modern visual statement, as well as increase space and natural light, he unleashed his creativity.
Following the home’s clean lines, Pavelka replaced a single-story grid of street-facing windows with a dramatic two-story glass-fronted tower, which holds a lofted home office, and gave it a butterfly roof that angles down to meet the existing gable roof in a V. A two-story addition to the back of the house, also sporting a butterfly roof and with a wall of windows analogous to but even bigger than the one in front, pushed the living space out another 15 feet.
The new windows, fabricated by Pella, proved to be the home’s most technically challenging and artistically compelling feature. When the rear windows turned out to be the largest contiguous grouping the company had ever been asked to do, “they didn’t blink an eye. They just figured out how to do it,” Pavelka says. The solution required steel-reinforced mullions that also allowed designer and architect to give the curtain walls patterns that enhanced their architectural substance. “We were both thinking Mondrian when we came up with it,” Pavelka says.
In all, the plan added 1,300 square feet to the 1,700-square-foot house; required Pavelka and Ebert to rework another 500 square feet on the interior (replacing countertops and appliances and updating mechanical systems in the kitchen; updating bathrooms; and adding a new washroom to the lower level); and cost $450,000, more than twice the home’s $223,000 purchase price.
“The results were well worth it,” says the husband, pointing out that “a year and a half later, drivers are still constantly slowing down to stare when they drive by, and delivery guys ask all sorts of questions.” But the ultimate compliment came from a group of teenage boys trick-or-treating on Halloween. “They told us, ‘We love your house. It’s so cool,’” says the wife.
Photography: Eric Hausman