New Life Behind Old Walls
A growing family turns a dramatic 19th-century townhouse into a contemporary home filled with natural light.
Synopsis: Susan and Ian Schwartz searched for a family home in their favorite Chicago neighborhood. What they found was a house that was “old on the outside and new on the inside.” Architects Elissa Morgante and Fred Wilson were hired by the previous owners to redesign the home. They gutted the 19th-century townhouse and shaped a fresh interior using steel beams and columns as well as a dynamic, light-filled atrium/stairwell. The Schwartzes bought the house and set about making it their own. Using a neutral color palette and bright accents, they brought harmony to the old and new elements.
A third child was on the way, but Susan and Ian Schwartz had no intention of leaving their eclectic neighborhood in Chicago’s Lincoln Park to live in the suburbs. They needed more space for their growing family, but they loved the Victorian townhouses that lined the streets and they were comfortable in the urban setting with its proximity to parks and shopping.
Harmonizing old and new
“Ian and I wanted a house that was old on the outside and new on the inside,” says Susan Schwartz.
While the typical Chicago row house sits on a narrow lot about 25 feet wide by 125 deep and has small, dark rooms, the house they finally bought was an exception. Built in the 1880s as two apartments and later converted to three, the building, with its classic red brick façade and pink sandstone lintels, gave no indication of modernity. Inside, however, asymmetrical spaces and a light-saturated atrium circulating through its core told a far more contemporary story. This row house, formerly owned by another family with children, had been strikingly remodeled by Morgante-Wilson Architects.
The townhouse had been gutted and then reshaped with a fresh interior. Steel beams and columns meant fewer walls were needed; a skylight and open stairwell filled the house with light. “The funky architecture and the exposed beams and columns are something I never would have envisioned,” says Susan. “Yet it’s very successful in its drama.”
The firm completed the renovation by adding a three-story addition to the back of the house. This allowed for a family room with cathedral ceiling off the kitchen, a good-size master bedroom suite on the second floor, and a library and a fourth bedroom at the top. Before moving into the townhouse, the Schwartzes enlisted Morgante-Wilson to renovate the garden level to include an apartment suite, a children’s playroom, and an exercise room.
“That the reconstruction has worked so well for two families is very fulfilling,” says architect Elissa Morgante.
Small changes make a big difference
With so much going on architecturally, Susan, who worked part-time as an interior designer until the birth of their third child, found herself in a quandary. Many of the structural elements that intrigued her, such as the columns and stairway, simultaneously presented her with a furnishing challenge. She admits that it took some patience to get the living room to feel right. She flip-flopped the couch one way, then another, regrouping it with upholstered chairs around an area rug, and finally came up with an arrangement that suited her.
Susan found that her decorating tastes differed significantly from the previous owners’. In the master bathroom, she replaced the pink marble vanity tops with white. She also chose white for the first-floor steel I-beams, which had been painted green. “I didn’t want to call attention to the beams. I wanted them to blend,” she says. By choosing a neutral backdrop, she gained the flexibility to change colors with accents: “I knew if I didn’t like a color I wouldn’t have to repaint the whole house.”
For more photos and details on this Chicago remodel, click the View PDF button below.