Styrofoam. Who’d have thought that I’d ever start off a story about a modern home with that particular one-word sentence? Not me, that’s for sure. But there’s a connection between the lightweight, extruded material and this beautiful home.
Swedish inventor Carl Georg Munters is known historically as having created a method of making foamed plastic – one of over a thousand patents he had to his name over the course of his life. And in 1947, a team of scientists at Dow Chemical, led by Ray McIntire, rediscovered Munters’ method, bought the exclusive rights to it, and some time later, Styrofoam was born.
Dow Chemical was founded in 1897 by Herbert Henry Dow, whose son, Alden B. Dow is renown for his contributions to the Michigan Modern aesthetic. His own home and studio, in Midland, Michigan, where Dow Chemical was also headquartered, is a masterpiece of organic modern architecture.
While Dow studied under Frank Lloyd Wright only briefly (for several months in 1933), Dow’s philosophy of architecture very closely matched that of Wright’s. And like Wright, Dow took a number of apprentices under his wing, including a 30 year old architect from Pennsylvania named Francis E. Warner.
Warner, who went by the nickname “Red”, designed more than 30 commercial buildings and more than 50 residences during his architectural career. Another Dow Chemical employee, named James Schorr who, as I understand it, either worked on the Styrofoam project or with some of the team members from that project, had lived in a home in Midland that Red Warner had designed, and so when Schorr relocated in the ’80s to the Chicago area, he asked Warner to design a house for his family on a rolling, multi-acre lot in suburban Barrington Hills.
Some of you may now be scratching your head for the second time already. Yes, I said “in the ’80s”. Not even the early ’80s! In fact, it was the mid ’80s when Red Warner designed this very 1960s-style sprawling brick ranch.
And whereas Warner had people he was used to working with to build his homes in Midland, he didn’t know anybody in the Chicago suburbs, and couldn’t find a builder who he was comfortable could build the house the way he wanted it built. So he hired one of his trusted craftsmen, Rick Owen, to build the house. Owen then stayed on site in a trailer for the better part of a year while the house was built.
Shaped generally like an “L”, one of the primary characteristics of 15 Barrington Hills Road is the Great Room at the corner of the L that soars upward, coming to a point at the southeast corner of the home. A matching, but truncated volume projects in the opposite direction, where the front entry is. From above, the home vaguely resembles a bird in flight, wings stretched back and to the sides.
Smartly designed with passive solar in mind, the common areas of the home run through the east-west leg of the L, with large amounts of glass along the south elevation. The private areas are thus in the north-south leg.
When you first enter the house, the first thing you see in front of you is the zigzag facade of the back side of the great room’s 2-sided corner fireplace. Built with one of the last original shipments of Chicago common brick, the chimney stack joins the two vaulted ceiling areas at their lowest point, and you have the option of going right, toward the dining room, or left toward the bedroom hallway.
Go left, or go right? It was a choice I had to make back in 2015, when I first saw the house. I walked in, and immediately knew that this was one of my favorite modern homes I’d seen in the area that year. Not just because of the chimney stack and the way Warner cleverly combined higher and lower ceilings to create a sense of both comfort and drama, but also because of the plethora of built-ins featured in the home.
In every space on the main level, built-in furniture and storage was incorporated in a consistent, elegant manner. And that extends beyond the common areas. The Master Suite has a separate room that can be used as a Sitting Room or an Office, complete with its own spacious walk-in closet. The other three bedrooms each share the same type of built-ins as each other: A double wardrobe, a set of drawers, and a built-in desk. The same style of cabinetry is used in the bathrooms as well, resulting in a level of consistency throughout the house that’s rarely seen in modern homes that come to market in this area.
Even the Laundry Room, smartly placed by Warner in the bedroom wing, has built-in counters and big windows, making for true one-level living and loads of bright, cheery spaces.
With all of these thoughtfully designed rooms, the star is still the great room, with its soaring ceilings clad in wood over the structural beams, and it’s massive walls of glass that come to a point where the ceiling reaches its highest point. There’s so much light, and beautiful views of the acres of rolling lawn, mature trees and flowers that pepper the grounds closest to the house.For all the windows in the home, Warner still managed to incorporate wall space so that placing furniture and art would be easy and sensible. The combination of painted walls and exposed Chicago common brick, playing off the wood of the built-ins and the Great Room ceiling & beams results in such a comfortable and beautiful combination of tones and textures.
Jim Schorr ended up selling the house four years ago, and the new owners knew that as much as they loved the house, they wanted to make the house even better, making significant improvements since they purchased the home.
“My husband loved to produce things,” says Laura, the current owner of 15 Barrington Hills Road. “He’s a producer at heart. So the idea of getting in here and making this wonderful house even better was so exciting for him. He just loved it. He picked out most of what’s in here. I picked out a few things, but it’s mostly him.”
First, the home as-built had all of the living spaces and bedrooms carpeted, so the first big change was to take out all of the carpeting on the main level and replace it with hardwood, creating a seamless flooring throughout most of the spaces and making them feel more open.
And speaking of open, the one aspect of the home that the new owners felt could be improved while staying true to one of the most desirable elements of modern homes was to open up the Kitchen and dining spaces.
The home’s original Kitchen was a long, narrow galley. To create the kind of entertaining spaces they wanted to have, they opened up the Dining Room and what was a cozy den, and created an open Kitchen and Dining Room with beautiful custom walnut cabinetry and quartz counters, set against an existing wall of exposed brick.
“We struggled a bit with removing the built-in between the Dining Room and the Den,” says Laura. “But we really wanted to take advantage of all the huge windows on the South side of the house. We decided finally to remove that built-in and it was one of those big ‘Ahh!’ moments. As soon as you walked in from the entryway, now you could see all that light.”
Opening up the Kitching and Dining Room also has the benefit of gaining all of the light from the Sun Room off the kitchen, which before was sort of hidden away to one side of the former den.
“I love that Sun Room!” continues Laura. “At first, we kind of didn’t know what we were going to do with that space, but it’s been my favorite space to spend time in the whole house. We spend so much time in the kitchen, especially if we have people over. Unless we have a bigger group, we almost always end up sitting in that Sun Room.”
The original Kitchen was turned into two separate rooms: A fantastic Butler’s Pantry (complete with its own wall of cabinets and counters, plus open shelving and additional built-in appliances) and a private office space.
“I’m so glad that my husband decided to make that office for me,” says Laura. “At first I thought ‘Oh, you don’t have to do that’ but I’m so glad we did it. I love that space! It’s so bright and it’s so convenient to be able to be in there and then just step into the kitchen and the main part of the house.”
Next, they turned their attention to lighting, adding many new fixtures and replacing others with those such as the sputnik-style fixture you see in the entry foyer, and the cascading globe fixture in the stairwell leading to the English-style lower level.
The exposed brick in the stairwell continues fully into the lower level as you make your way to the Family Room, with the home’s second fireplace and numerous windows offering so much natural light and beautiful views out into the yard, surrounded by mature trees.
“Most people don’t get too excited about their basements,” jokes Laura, “but when I walked down there for the first time and saw all those big windows looking out into the yard, I thought ‘This is such a cool house!'”
Across from the fourth bedroom is the home’s third full bath, both rooms with the same built-ins featured in the rest of the home.
Outside is simply gorgeous. The combination of open lawn areas, planted beds and a perimeter of mature trees gives the outside the same feeling as the inside, alternating between flowing, open spaces and more sheltered, intimate ones. And because of how Warner sited the home on the lot, it truly feels like it’s a part of the landscape rather than towering above it.
“Living basically on one story all the time has been so great,” says Laura. “I think our dog actually got a second wind when we moved here. She had been pretty tired at our old house which had a lot of up and down in it, but when we moved here she was so happy because everything was on one floor.”
“I’m really going to miss this Kitchen,” says Laura. “We spend 80% of our time in the Kitchen and the spaces right around it. It’s so open and bright. We entertain a lot with small groups and it’s perfect, but the few times we’ve had really big gatherings, I just couldn’t believe how comfortable it’s been. We’ve had 150 people in here a few times and it’s just so easy because of the flow and the openness. And I’ll miss people coming in and saying ‘Wow!’. They’re so relaxed. It’s like being on a retreat, but every day.”
As much as I loved the home when I first saw it five years ago, it’s even more amazing now. It feels even more connected to the 1960s-style ranch homes that clearly were the inspiration for it. Oh, and by the way…one of the things that Jim Schorr and Red Warner made sure to do when the house was first built was to insulate it with none other than Styrofoam.
UPDATE: This home sold on July 24th, 2020.