I don’t typically cover Prairie style homes on the Modern Illinois site, but anybody who follows modern architecture would be hard pressed not to link a substantial portion of modernism in the U.S. to Frank Lloyd Wright, whether directly or through his many talented students and apprentices.
So what do you do when you love the aesthetics of Prairie style architecture, but want things just the way you want them, with modern conveniences, and suited to current living patterns? For George and Gregory, the answer was simple: Build a new Prairie style home.
“We knew we wanted a Prairie style home, as our first house in the Graceland West neighborhood of Chicago had many of its signature architectural elements,” says George. “We restored that property and were granted landmark status. However, we wanted to design and construct a modern interpretation of the Prairie style home with the conveniences of the 21st century. We wanted to make it our own. We were drawn to the prominent lot across the street from the forest preserve and the North Shore location.”
The site in Northfield was previously home to a Hemphill ranch that had fallen into disrepair. They wanted to use the existing footprint of the house as much as possible, finishing off the crawl space with concrete to be used for storage, and then adding patios and the garage to end up with a house that’s much larger than the one it replaced. But before they could build the house, they had to design it.
“Jalal Mizani of Mizani and Associates in Hinsdale was the architect,” continues George. “He passed away last June. He told us he wanted to end his career on a high note, and he chose our home as the last one he designed. We’d seen a Chicago Magazine article about a similar non-descript Hinsdale ranch he’d been hired to renovate, and loved his Prairie school aesthetic. We knew we had to talk to him if we ever decided to build.”
Building a custom home, especially one that falls outside of the norm when it comes to aesthetics, can be a challenge. Before the architect puts pen to paper (or mouse to pad), it’s best to have a pretty clear idea of what you want out of the house.
“We initially wanted a smaller home with only three bedrooms,” says George. “Mr. Mizani asked us ‘You do know where you’re building?’ He stated that a small house on 1+ acres would never stand the test of time and would eventually meet the wrecking ball. He took into account the commanding topography of the lot and positioned the home to take advantage of it. We met with Mr. Mizani for our initial consultation where we discussed our vision and priorities for the house. We wanted it to feel warm and inviting with no wasted spaces or rooms just for the purpose of having them. We wanted it to be functional to our lifestyle and able to accommodate both intimate and large gatherings. On our second meeting, when Mr. Mizani presented his first draft of the architectural plans, he nailed it; 95% of that initial plan never changed. He was a great listener and friend.”
While Prairie style architecture is known for its strong horizontal lines, integration with the natural surroundings, and rows of windows, it does feature more ornamentation, often in the form of interesting, geometric woodwork, when compared with homes that fall more squarely into the “modern” category.
“The woodwork in the house took 9 months to complete,” explains George, “but when it was finished, the wood trim aligned on each side of the house (E-W, N-S) creating a level, streamlined effect. Guests are amazed at the craftsmanship and attention to detail. They’ve also remarked that even though the house is almost 6,000 square feet, it still feels like a ‘small’ house, due to the scale of the rooms and their flow.”
Creating a humanized scale and beautiful woodwork wasn’t the only challenge. As with much of the Northfield area, the property is in a designated flood plain due to its proximity to the Skokie River. George and Gregory wanted to make sure their investment was protected, so they planned for it in advance.
“We had to raise the foundation 17 inches,” says George. “In retrospect, although doing so increased our costs substantially, it was well worth it. Our higher elevation and water retention areas have protected us from flooding. We always joke that if OUR house floods, other people better be in an ark!”
Because Prairie style homes are often well integrated with their natural surroundings, George and Gregory wanted to take that to another level, by having the “prairie” be both incorporated into the home and its surroundings.
“We decided that our landscaping should be congruent with the architecture,” explains George. “Since the forest preserve is across the street, we opted to create our own prairie, filled solely with plants native to Illinois, to complement our home’s architecture and the organic elements of the forest preserve. When one installs a prairie, the first few years ‘the garden sleeps before it leaps’, meaning it’s sparse and slowly developing its root systems. We had people saying that we had run out of money and couldn’t afford landscaping as there were ‘weeds’ growing on the property. Believe me, this is not an inexpensive undertaking. As the green movement and the benefits of rain gardens has gained momentum (our landscaping requires no watering), people came to understand what we envisioned. The prairie explodes with color and foliage every year, garnering both local and national recognition for its diverse micro-environments and over 500 species of native Illinois plants. The Chicago Botanic Garden has arranged tours, and even has had rare native plants cultivated on our property for seed collection. New Trier High School brings their environmental science classes to learn from our prairie. It even inspired the ‘living classroom’ of the interior courtyard of Highcrest Middle School. Every couple of years, we have a controlled burn done to the plantings, to replicate lightning strikes that happen in nature. These burns kill off any surface nuisance weeds, while protecting the 12- to 18-foot deep root systems of the native specimens. Because of these deep root systems, the landscape doesn’t require manual watering, and is drought-tolerant.”
Of course, when you spend so much time and energy into creating such a thoughtfully designed home and exterior environment, it can be tough to leave. I asked George and Gregory, who are moving out of state for personal reasons, what they’ll miss the most.
“Our family room!” says George, without hesitation. “We’re avid cinema buffs. We spend most of our time there watching films. Its open concept to the kitchen makes access to food (and drink!) easy. Despite its towering nature, with a massive Fond du Lac stone fireplace, it feels cozy and comfortable.”
A big thanks to George and Gregory for taking the time to talk with me about their fantastic home, which is now on the market. If you’d like to schedule a private showing, please call me at 312.907.4085, or contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.