July 31, 2006
When it comes to architecture and interior design, modern can often conjure images of bare white walls, cold steel, and small, uncomfortable furniture. Take a closer look -- imagine airy, open spaces, natural light streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, and intelligent design that allows you to function better in your home.
When Jim and Molly Perry hired modernist architect John Ronan to renovate their Chicago carriage house, modern wasn't necessarily what they envisioned - or even sure they wanted. But like any addict, they soon found that they just couldn't get enough of the modern touch.
Photos by Michelle Litvin for The New York Times
WHEN Jim and Molly Perry hired a modernist architect to renovate the old carriage house behind their graystone Edwardian town house here, they were, as she said, “nervous.”
After all, they lived with antiques, many from a Washington shop owned by Ms. Perry’s father. “I never imagined myself wanting modern architecture,” said Ms. Perry, who grew up among the Federal-style town houses of Georgetown.
But they were in an experimental mood and, anyway, the carriage house was out back. And when the renovation, designed by John Ronan, 43, was completed, they could not help but contrast it with the small, dark rooms of their Lakeview home. The old coachman’s quarters had become a spacious light-filled loft with a playroom, a guest room and an office for Mr. Perry, 46, a managing director of a private equity investment firm in downtown Chicago.
They liked the clean lines and pared-down feeling of Mr. Ronan’s design, finding it, Ms. Perry said, “simple and fresh.” In fact, they liked their first taste of modernism so much that they eventually threw over the old graystone and hired Mr. Ronan to design a bigger house with outdoor space where their three children, aged 7 to 11, could run free.
But not without a touch of their original hesitation. “We knew modern was his forte, but we weren’t sure that’s what we wanted,” said Ms. Perry, 41.
Then Mr. Ronan showed them a house he had designed for an art collector in Northbrook, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. The house, which overlooks a forest preserve, had glass walls. It was simple and functional, but not too severe. “As soon as we saw the house, I knew we could do it,” Ms. Perry said.
The Perry's didn’t want “a white box with a stone floor,” Mr. Ronan said. “They wanted openness and lightness, nothing too formal or too cold. They wanted to know how we could make the house modern but still comfortable and warm.”
To make room to build this house, they bought a Victorian on North Burling, a leafy street eight blocks away in Lincoln Park, and tore it down. The house was handsome, but it was cheaper to tear down than to renovate, even if they had wanted to. They didn’t. “We wanted to start fresh,” Ms. Perry said.
The property’s best feature, as far as the Perry's were concerned, was the size of the lot: 32 feet wide instead of the 20 feet of a typical graystone, Chicago’s version of a brownstone.
The 7,200-square-foot house Mr. Ronan designed for the family, who moved in in December 2004, is a far cry from the one it replaced. It is a no-nonsense box with an aluminum-framed grid of windows in three kinds of glass: clear, sandblasted and ribbed. There is a front yard with enough room for a game of stickball, a walled-in courtyard at the rear, and a terrace atop a freestanding garage.
To achieve the warmth the Perry's sought, Mr. Ronan used walnut for floors and cabinets, a blue-gray limestone from France for indoor floors, a warm gray Indiana limestone for outdoors and poured concrete walls that reveal the irregular textures of the wooden forms used in their construction. “That warms up what could be a cold material,” Mr. Ronan said.
Ms. Perry wanted the rooms to be filled with natural light. Mr. Ronan obliged with 11-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling windows along the street, 9-foot-tall windows on the upper floors and 8½-foot sliding doors in back.
“Every space has natural light, which is unusual for Chicago,” Mr. Ronan said.
There is not an antique in sight. The Perry's sent their furniture, except for a pair of candlesticks, back to Ms. Perry’s father.
“I wanted to keep some pieces I loved, like an old chest, but they just didn’t work in the new space,” Ms. Perry said. She went shopping with a Chicago interior designer, Leslie Jones, selecting clean-lined furniture. Mr. Ronan designed many built-ins, including walnut cabinets in the living room. A custom aluminum screen that takes the place of a balustrade along the main staircase gave the clients pause. “I didn’t want it to look too industrial, or like a jail,” Ms. Perry said. To avoid the effect of a cage, Mr. Ronan varied the spacing of the metal bars.
The price tag? The Perry's won’t say, and Mr. Ronan would allow only that it cost about what any house using similar materials and finishes would per square foot, plus the price of the lot.
Mr. Ronan, whose office occupies a full-floor loft in the River North neighborhood, is emerging as an influential modernist in a city famous for its legacy of modern architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright established his reputation here, and the city has a large collection of buildings by Mies van der Rohe.
Mr. Ronan has designed a youth center on the South Side, a master plan for the redesign of South Chicago Avenue and numerous stores, offices and houses throughout the city. “Modernism took root here, but when the inevitable pendulum swung, it swung all the way back,” said Mr. Ronan, referring to postmodern architecture’s grip on the city in the 1980’s and 90’s.
As architecturally progressive as the city was, “it’s a very conservative place,” Mr. Ronan said. “There aren’t the kinds of industries like fashion, film and art that drive the demand for forward-thinking design in cities like New York, Los Angeles or Miami.” Still, he allowed: “It’s taken a while, but things are definitely changing. You can see it everywhere.”
Indeed, signs of Chicago’s enthusiasm for new modern architecture abound, even in historic neighborhoods like Lincoln Park. There are two other modernist homes on the Perrys’ street, which is a hodgepodge of architectural styles: a few Victorians, a 1970’s Brutalist bully and a chateaulike McMansion.
“There wasn’t a row of identical graystones that this house deviated from, so we felt more comfortable,” Mr. Perry said of adding the Ronan design to the mix.
The family is still buying furniture but has otherwise settled in. Their church and the children’s school are around the corner. Lincoln Park, with its soccer fields, bike paths and dog runs, is three blocks east; Lake Michigan is just beyond that. Mr. Perry’s office in the downtown Chicago Loop is a 10- to 15-minute drive, or a 20-minute ride on the El train.
Just six years after a renovated carriage house changed their lives, the Perry's no longer worry about “modern”; they are sPerry'simply at home.
“It’s a very adult-looking place, but the kids have their own floor and space to run around in,” Mr. Perry said. “It really works for the family.”
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