An Uncompromising, Spectacular Retreat: Dennis Blair’s Schell House
When Mr. & Mrs. Bert Schell commissioned architect Dennis Blair to design and build a house for them in the late 1950s, Blair was at the peak of his career, having been named as an “Architect to Watch” by Architectural Record magazine a few years earlier. And certainly, “extraordinary” is just one of the many superlatives that comes mind when discussing Blair’s Schell house.
On Prairie Wind Road, just outside the quaint town of Long Grove, Blair – a Taliesin Fellow who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Guggenheim Museum project – would design and build a total of six homes between 1950 and 1970, starting with a small, flat-roofed modern home at the head of the street that would serve the dual purpose of a house for his own family, and studio to use while building the other homes he would design for the neighborhood.
Even before turning onto the driveway to approach the house at 3338 Prairie Wind Road, keen observers will notice that the landscaping is made up of carefully selected plants in keeping with the Midwest’s native prairie and woodland flora. The property is adjacent to the Reed-Turner Woodland Preserve, a 50-acre section of the original grove of ancient oak and hickory trees that Long Grove was named after. Just as Blair sited the home to be at one with the glacier-carved landscape, the current owners have meticulously crafted a setting for the home that’s completely congruous with the Reed-Turner lands.
Mr. Schell was equally meticulous, and essentially instructed his architect how to build the house Blair designed for the Schells. First and foremost: There would be no compromises. The walls are comprised of glass, stone or cedar, with glass being the primary material, in large swaths, to take in the natural scenery. Massive stone walls are used in numerous places, made up of split-face granite boulders that offer a beautiful contrast in both tone and texture to the cedar used for the remaining walls. Expertly designed by Blair, these three materials used in conjunction make the roof, with its generous overhangs, appear to float above the structure.
The geometry of the house is far from random, instead following the landscape, and creating opportunities for vistas and privacy in all the right places, with sections cantilevered out over gently descending terrain to The Indian Creek to create a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
All of which was very attractive to the home’s current owners, John and Dave. “We were in the process of meeting with architects to design a renovation of our Riverwoods home, We decided to see what was available as an existing home” says John. “We were very particular that the house had a strong, modern design, abundant use of natural materials, floor to ceiling windows, be set on a property in tune with nature, and updated. This house met and exceeded those criteria, and without the risk, expense and headache of an extensive renovation. We could see the finished product – It was done for us!”
And how did the home’s owners react upon seeing it for the first time? “It was ‘Wow!’, but in an understated way,” adds Dave. “Other modern houses we looked at were perhaps more elaborate or showier. This house is subtle, using a limited material and muted color palette and letting the exquisite design and craftsmanship show through along with the spectacular setting.”
When you approach the home, you’re immediately put at ease as you traverse the aggregate walkway through a zen-like entry court on your way to the oversize, bronze clad door, past an antique stone Japanese lantern, acquired by the Schells during a far east vacation. Here you get your first hint as to what lies beyond, as you notice that you can see through the entryway to a stone garden on the far side, complete with moss covered boulders.
The boulders, and the bluestone chips they rest upon, form a rock garden between the entry foyer and one of the home’s outdoor spaces, and represent one of several changes the owners made since purchasing the house. But they were careful not to do too much, too quickly.
“It’s our nature to live in a house before embarking on any remodeling work,” says John. “Luckily, the house was in immaculate condition through the Schell’s work.”
That wasn’t the only good luck that John and Dave experienced. “While unpacking during our move in, we heard a ‘Hello, hello’ from the foyer,” recalls Dave. “We came down to be greeted by a dapper, suited older gentleman in a beret. He said to us ‘This is my…my favorite house.’ It was Dennis Blair.”
Blair had always regarded this as his greatest residential work, and one that he would never surpass, despite designing and building many homes after the Schell house. While the Schells gave Blair the opportunity to design and build such a spectacular home, they were also very private people. Once the home was finished, the Schells dismissed several requests that Blair had made to show off the house to other prospective clients, essentially forbidding Blair from visiting his most cherished creation.
That would change a number of years later. In 1999, the Schells decided to bring the home up to date, not merely aesthetically, but structurally. As was typical for the late ‘50s, the roof was originally built by laying “decking material” – think of them as 4×4, double tongue-and-groove posts – across the beams. The decking formed both the ceiling of the home and the roof, which would’ve typically been covered with tar and gravel at that time.
The home was also originally constructed with single-pane glass, which was, in the late ‘90s, 40 years old. So, between 1999 and 2000, the Schells invited Dennis Blair back to the home to assist in the updating project. The roof was taken off, and the original windows were taken out, replaced with modern, insulated glass. Some of the panels are as large as 8’ x 12’, creating magnificent, open vistas out to the landscape.
And the roof was completely rebuilt with insulation and recessed lighting, with all new cedar planks forming the ceiling, skylights, and a new roof surface on the outside. More than 40 years after it was built, the Schell house was even better than when new. These changes, along with the addition of hybrid heat-pumps/gas furnaces added by the current owners, have further added to the energy efficiency of this home.
The layout of the house is an easy split level: From the entry foyer, you head left into the common spaces, with the Living Room and Media Lounge a couple steps down from the Kitchen and Dining spaces, separated by a double fireplace. Or, from the foyer, walk up a few steps to the bedroom wing where you’ll find a full bathroom, followed by two spacious bedrooms looking out into a courtyard formed by the space between the bedroom wing, the entry walk, and the garage.
The bedrooms, and even the garage, are perfect examples of the attention to quality of materials and detail that’s found throughout the home: One entire wall of the garage is comprised of the same split-face granite boulders found elsewhere, and the same is true again inside one of the bedroom closets. Everywhere you look, you’re amazed by this dedication to quality and consistency of materials, not only because of its beauty, but because it’s so far beyond the way most houses are built.
The choice of materials creates a feeling when you’re in the house that’s also extra special. “We have come to fully appreciate the setting,” says John, “the play of sun and moonlight, the change of seasons, sunrise and sunsets. The house, because of its material choices, always seems new, fresh, modern…yet still warm, comfortable and livable.”
Speaking of livable, at the end of the bedroom wing, double doors lead into a fantastic Master Suite, cantilevered out over the terrain, offering its occupants stunning 270-degree views, as well as a spa-like private bathroom, multiple closets, and a spacious dressing area with vanity. You almost can’t believe how beautiful the environment is surrounding the master suite. “Although we’ve lived here for years,” says Dave, “I never get tired of waking up here and seeing everything around us. The surrounding landscape is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color and texture throughout the year.”
Those colors and textures are evident throughout the house, but perhaps nowhere more than the sunken Living Room and Media Lounge. Here, all the best aspects of the home are on display for owners and guests alike, with walls alternating between stone, glass and cedar to create endlessly entertaining views along with amazing plays of light and shadow. Every aspect of the home, from its materials, to the colors and textures, is in harmony with every other part. And the spaces themselves are generously-sized, and well-suited for entertaining or more intimate gatherings, with each area flowing easily to the next, while offering enough separation to serve its intended purpose.
Plus, the spaces are so beautifully decorated, with a mixture of both classic MCM and more recent modern furniture, art and décor. “Over the years we’ve been visited by members of the Schell family,” continues Dave. “One of their children was taken with how original the house still looked and that much of the furniture that we had chosen were designs that his parents had chosen for the house when they lived here originally.”
While they were pleased that the Schell family appreciated how much they’d maintained the design integrity and condition of their family home, there was one area that John & Dave felt they could improve upon – The kitchen.
“With Dennis Blair’s advice and help,” says John, “we found an appropriate modern-designed kitchen that met his critical design aesthetic and incorporated the cantilever design elements used in other parts of the house like the Master Bedroom and outside decks from the German kitchen company Poggenpohl at the Merchandise Mart. Like the rest of the house it had to be subtle , understated and of the highest quality.”
The Poggenpohl +MODO kitchen, designed by Argentinian born Spanish designer/architect Jorge Pensi, features an island with a massive, thick, cantilevered floating countertop in honed granite, with lighter elm and teak elements playing against darker, matte-finished lacquered cabinetry. The kitchen also incorporates high-end fully integrated appliances. All of it rests on natural black clefted slate floors – the same floors that continue into these spaces from where you first enter the home. Integrated lighting within the back wall of cabinets creates subtle yet dramatic effects on the stone wall that ties the Kitchen and Dining Room to one of the two outdoor living spaces. And the square, tray-like tops of the cabinets under the countertops have a vaguely Asian feel to them, connecting back to the Zen-like feel of the rock gardens set against the carefully curated prairie landscape.
“Much of the work and time we’ve spent on the home has been working on restoring the native woodland,” says Dave. “Invasive species were cut and pulled, and new native trees, shrubs, grasses and plants were planted and seeded. The goal was to marry our property with the surrounding native woodland and prairie.”
“We’ve always been drawn to nature,” adds John. “Being perched above the Indian Creek is truly entertaining – wildlife, local birds, migrating birds, the list of what we’ve spotted and enjoyed seeing is endless. The adjoining Reed-Turner Woodland Preserve offers rare and unusual plant and animal life.”
That wildlife and native flora can be observed and enjoyed both inside and out, with two large outdoor spaces set just above the landscape: Off the kitchen, you’ll notice that the slate floors seamlessly transition to the outside where they’re shaded by a wood slat overhang before continuing onto the Kitchen Deck. Sitting out here offers views of the towering oak and hickory trees, a private pond, the Reed-Turner, and even lets you welcome inbound guests via one of a series of pathways through the wooded prairie scape.
On the other side of the house, the Media Lounge deck extends out perpendicular to the bedroom wing, past the stone garden that you noticed when you first investigated the house from the entryway. From here, you can relax while watching wildlife in and around Indian Creek or, looking back toward the bedroom wing, appreciate how Blair cantilevered the Master Bedroom out over the sloping terrain per Mr. Schell’s direction.
In the lower part of the split, you’re that much closer to nature, as you’re able to walk out from the Family Room/guest room to the side of the house under a long balcony that runs the length of the bedroom wing above. From here you have excellent views of the same attention to quality and use of materials as everywhere else, as you note that the long retaining wall that the Media Lounge deck is cantilevered over is made up of the same split-face granite boulders used throughout the home. Cleverly, the retaining wall draws your eyes toward The Indian Creek and The Reed-Turner Woodland.
The fourth bedroom and third full bathroom on this level act as a guest suite. Like the other two bathrooms, this third bath has been updated by the current owners. It’s amazing to walk through the house, experiencing all it has to offer in terms of views, these incredible spaces, and to notice that everything works so well together. You must wonder how different things might be in the house if the Schells hadn’t been so meticulous in their demands. Even the second owners, who purchased the home from the Schells, maintained the integrity of the home during their time there. “They were good stewards of this very special house,” says Dave.
Which, in my opinion, makes John and Dave excellent stewards.
The first time I was in the house, we sat down at the Dining Room table to share some pizza, and I stopped in the middle of what I was talking about as I noticed the TV mounted against the stone wall. Much like the roof over the whole house, the TV appears to just float there. “We like to watch TV sometimes when we’re in here,” says John. But when you want to mount a TV against a 25-foot-long stone wall, what you DON’T want is to see a bunch of wires and cables and ugliness. Almost surprised that I noticed, Dave tells me the story of how they had some of the mortar removed so that they could channel the cabling between the stones that make up the wall, and then re-mortared it to match.
From one owner to the next, the Schell house has enjoyed a spectacular existence, made better over the years than when it was new, and offering endless opportunities for its occupants to appreciate the natural world around the home. And it’s close to so much.
“Long Grove is truly a sleepy small town surrounded by everything you need or want for modern living,” says Dave. “We run into friends and neighbors at local events and meetings. Our proximity to downtown still allows easy access to the amenities of Chicago. Being avid bikers, hikers and runners, we make regular use of the paths in the Reed-Turner and the 240-acre Heron Creek Forest Preserve’s hiking and biking paths.”
Heron Creek is on the far side of the Reed-Turner and is just one of many other local amenities – including the highly-rated Stevenson High School, which not only serves the house, and all Long Grove, but the original part of which was also designed by Dennis Blair.
John and Dave feel very fortunate that they got to meet and know Blair before his passing a few years ago. “We didn’t know Mr. Blair or his work before we bought the house,” admits John. “But we were lucky enough to know him and his wife and children over the years with frequent visits – sometimes unannounced, but always welcome – and parties.”
Former residents of Colorado, John and Dave have decided to return there, as much as they’ll miss the home and the Long Grove and Chicago areas. “We’ll really miss this place,” says John, who describes his favorite part of the house: “On a snowy winter day, I love to have a fire going in the raised dining room fireplace while cooking in the kitchen. Seeing the warmth of the fire with the view of falling snow from both sides of the house is both dramatic and subtle at the same time.”
Another favorite space in the home is perhaps a bit more unexpected. “It’s the lower level utility room,” says Dave. The space he’s referring to is half a flight down from the lower part of the split and houses one of the home’s two laundry centers (the other being in the bedroom wing) and utilities. “It functions like the engine room of a ship, housing the twin furnaces, on demand tankless water heater and the second washer & dryer. It was meticulously designed, just like the rest of the house, and built into the available space, much like a ship cabin.”
As somebody who has been in many modern homes, it’s no exaggeration when I say that this is one of the most spectacular I’ve spent time in. There are surprises and beauty everywhere. It’s both sophisticated and comfortable, being easily adaptable to suit the needs of its owners. It’s simultaneously private and extremely capable when it comes to entertaining, and will offer its next owners endless opportunities to appreciate the natural world and create wonderful memories in a gorgeous setting.
UPDATE: This amazing home went under contract in 1 day and closed in late October, 2018.
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