Excerpt from “On Second Thought” | Chicago Home & Garden | Spring 2006
With its stucco and stone walls and clean, modern profile, the house on the double corner lot just east of Damen Avenue stands out from the neighboring brick three-flats and traditional single-family homes in this part of Bucktown. Designed to hug a garden, the L-shaped home provides an escape from urban bustle for owners Jody Simons and her husband, Doug O’Donahue, and their ten-year-old son, Gavin. “I wanted my home to be soothing-somewhere to go to melt away the stresses of the day,” says Simons.
But creating that sanctuary was anything but soothing. When Simons and O’Donahue bought the 15-year-old house, it was a concrete block eyesore that had been badly neglected. “It was basically a teardown when they purchased it,” says Joel Huffman, principal of the architecture firm Vertu, Inc., who masterminded the redo. “It was built on a concrete slab and had no basement.”
But the new owners liked the footprint of the house and decided against a teardown. Removing the slab and deepening the foundation, a major undertaking, was the first order of business. Trucks hauled more than 60 loads of dirt out of the ground to make room for a basement with nine-foot ceilings.
“We went through a lot of effort to get the first floor to be a free, open plan,” says Huffman. “We ended up putting most of the functional space-the powder room, the coat closet, and the bulk of the kitchen-along two walls, which allowed the floor plan to flow more naturally into the garden space.” Says Simons, “This house is about the garden.” Huffman envisioned it as an exterior room and included many floor-to-ceiling windows in his design so the outdoor space would seamlessly connect with the indoor. The couple frequently entertain, and when the weather permits they love to open the double glass doors in the dining area and invite guests to enjoy both spaces. In the middle of the house, a painted steel staircase with white-stained maple treads floats up through the building’s three floors like a piece of sleek sculpture. Indoors, espresso-stained walnut cabinetry in the kitchen and shelving in the dining area, all designed by Huffman, add a sophisticated note. Burled walnut provides visual interest on the kitchen’s island, on closet doors, and above the buffet.
The exterior of the house needed a major facelift, as well. To bring it in synch with the back-to-nature feel of the rest of the home, the concrete block was covered in a soft beige stucco. Brown brick accents were overlaid with natural ledge-stone veneer to provide texture and contrast with the stucco. “The natural feel of the stone ties into the garden concept,” Huffman says. “This project was really about finding that fine line between the modern interior and natural garden,” Huffman says. “We tried to tie things together and, at the same time, add some contrasts.”
“This house fits us perfectly,” Simons says. “We wanted a place to unwind, entertain, and escape the city. We love it.”