This New Old House
Nostalgia. For most of us that means a warm, fuzzy feeling as we look at old snapshots, hit that college reunion, or revisit the little café in Paris where he proposed. Sometimes that longing for what once was means memories of home. When the opportunity arose for one Highland Park resident to build her dream house, she was determined to capture the look and feel of the 100-year-old Georgian she grew up in. Working with architect Stuart Shayman and interior designer Stephanie Wohlner, she achieved that goal marvelously, creating a residence whose layout, architectural detailing, and decorative flair embrace tradition without being slavish to the past.
Clearly conjuring its antecedents, the home combines grace and functionality, with a proper entry vestibule, a wonderfully wide center hall, back staircase, and lots of built-ins. At every turn, the house surprises with the kind of spaces one thought were long gone, even in new homes that echoed past styles. There’s a pantry off the back hall and the master bedroom suite includes a dressing room. And a commodious bookcase forms a solidly satisfying terminus at the top of the main staircase.
Photography By Tony Soluri
While the conservatively scaled living room possesses a parlor-like aspect, the dining room is luxuriously large, with two tables. “Whether it’s with family or friends, I love to entertain,” says the homeowner. “In my previous house, I had a much smaller dining room, and every time I entertained, I had to bring out the folding tables and folding chairs. It was a hassle. Now I can have an intimate dinner for four couples, but also seat 24 if I need to without basically doing anything.” Devoting so much space to a room most folks use but a few times a year may seem extravagant, but because she no longer has to spend time setting up extra tables and chairs, this hostess actually entertains more than ever.
Although she loves the attributes of an older house, when it came to decorating, the homeowner was determined to avoid creating interiors that looked as if they’d been frozen in time. “I tend to like old fashioned things,” she admits, “so I told Stephanie I didn’t want my house to look old lady-ish.” While Wohlner filled the home with superb reproduction antiques and handsome fabrics, a light color palette of green, tan, and blue—combined with the residents’ far-from-musty art collection—endow the house with a youthful energy. In the living room, where Fortuny-clad pillows sit atop an English-style drop-arm sofa, hangs a striking, large-format nude by Chilean photographer Roberto Edwards. Tim McWilliams’ vaguely Pointillist portrait of Mick Jagger enlivens the upstairs hall. And Wohlner spiked the sun-filled family room with an oversized, hide-covered ottoman. Dark floors and crisp, white walls make for a contemporary backdrop in the kitchen and throughout the public spaces.
Photography By Tony Soluri
Despite its dressy demeanor, this house is home to three active boys under the age of 14, so making it kid-friendly was certainly part of the program. Wohlner used sturdy, textured fabrics that stand up to heavy use. Even the coffee table in the family room is textured to camouflage handprints. But there’s nothing childish about the bedrooms she fashioned for them. Handsomely upholstered headboards and striped wallpaper make for a masculine mood that will stand them in good stead as they grow. “That was a great idea on Stephanie’s part,” says the homeowner. “I didn’t want something childish that I’d have to redo into a big boy’s room in five years.” The kids cut loose in the basement, where their parents commissioned artist John Hennessey to execute a sports-themed mural to encompass the expansive play space. The dynamically composed artwork—a kinetic combination of team logos and venues interspersed with iconic Chicago buildings—is a uniquely magnetic embellishment.
As for mom and dad, their master suite is an enviable cocoon. Because the homeowners preferred something cozy, the bedroom is relatively contained. There’s a sitting area next to the window, and a pocket door on the husband’s side of the bed so that he can slip out to the bathroom in the morning and get ready for work without disturbing his better half. As elsewhere in the home, the color palette of blue and green echoes the hues of nature, but here, Wohlner introduced a bit of black when she repainted the owners’ bedside tables. “Black is like leopard print,” she states, “it goes with everything.”
The house is rich in details that invest it with an engaging individuality and true sense of home. The screened-in sun porch sports a wood burning hearth with a mantel taken from the Italianate house that once occupied the site. Also salvaged is the arched door with frosted glass that leads to the kitchen pantry. Wohlner papered the walls and ceiling of the front hall closet, an understated touch that adds a layer of richness to an often-overlooked space. Landscape paintings the homeowners acquired on their travels adorn one wall of the living room. A collection of china rests atop the wainscot in the dining room.
Walking from the dining room to the center hall, with sunlight streaming through the arched windows of the family room at the back of the house, Wohlner muses, “There’s something about this house, a peace, quietness, a calm, soothing sensibility. I don’t know what it is.” Equally ineffable is the effect Wohlner has achieved in this new old house. Like all expert designers, she has managed to manipulate scale and proportion, color and texture, material and light in such a way that passing through these rooms, one knows they are just right, without quite knowing why