I have a lot of clients who contact me specifically because they’re looking for a mid-century modern or other modern architectural property. For many other people, trying to sell them on a modern home can be a challenge, simply because it’s not something they’re used to or have thought about.
In the case of Penny and Richard, they weren’t looking for any type of house in particular, other than that they wanted something with some land in a location that offered peace and quiet. When they found the house at 459 E Oakwood in Barrington’s Timberlake Estates, however, Penny fell in love.
“It really was love at first sight,” says Penny, who taught dance & movement to seniors and adults with disabilities. “There was something primordial about the way the design spiraled upward, like a sea shell. I loved the way every room beckoned to an amazing view. The culmination was the master bedroom at the highest part of the house, overlooking the living room, with its striking views on 3 sides. It took my breath away. I saw genius in the design – it resonated with something deep inside.”
Built in 1970 on a 1.67 acre sloping lot high above the street, the home was designed by noted area architect Dennis Blair, and was featured in a 1972 issue of Better Homes & Gardens’ Home Building Ideas magazine, in which the author proclaimed “By orienting the structure to take advantage of the slope, the architect maintained the private feeling without resorting to artificial devices such as fences.”
Richard appreciated the architecture and the setting for sure, but had some additional thoughts. “I thought the house was interesting,” says Richard, “but I also thought ‘Wow, this house needs a LOT of work.’ I saw great potential, but the house was stuck in the ’70s, with shag carpeting, rough hewn wood paneling and fixtures you’d expect from a house of that era.”
Penny laughs as she recalls Richard’s initial reaction to the house. “I think he only saw the great amount of work ahead of us. Well, that and that I was in love with it! But I was also awed by the silence and the sense of peace that descended on me when we were in the home. All of those tall trees – the old evergreens and dense vegetation. It’s very serene here.”
So the space, peace and quiet boxes were solidly checked. But what about the rest of the house?
“I knew everything needed redoing,” says Richard. “My intent was to improve the home in a manner sensitive to Dennis Blair’s vision. We were actually a bit confused about the history of the home, because the listing said the house was designed by Ed Dart. To be honest, neither Dart’s or Blair’s names were familiar to us before we bought the house, but once I started researching both architects, the house definitely seemed to be more in line with Blair’s style. Then we saw the Home Building Ideas magazine and they had Dennis Blair listed as the architect in the piece they did on the home.”
Embarking on a whole-house remodel and renovation, especially when talking about a modern home, can be a daunting task. Modern fixtures and finishes are harder to find, and they can be expensive. I asked Richard and Penny what was the most challenging aspect of the rehab project.
“You mean, besides writing all the checks?” quipped Richard. “The biggest challenge was finding good people to do the work. After a few disheartening missteps, we found Ben: A licensed electrician and talented carpenter. He’d built his own home. Plus, he knew competent people in the other trades who were as creative and professional as he was.”
Their project included every aspect of the home. There were the more utilitarian aspects of the home that were done of course, such as a new roof, all new zoned HVAC systems, a new driveway and new paint for the exterior. But the fun parts were things like the flooring, kitchen and bathrooms.
For the main level, Richard and Penny decided to continue the use of hardwood that was already in the kitchen, dining room and foyer throughout most of the main level, which originally had quite a bit of carpeting. They also opened up a space to add a separate dinette area, using a patterned concrete tile for that space, which is a step down from the kitchen.
As for the kitchen itself, they chose custom walnut cabinets with quartz counters, adding a tremendous amount of storage vs. the original kitchen by adding pantry cabinets to a wall that was previously under-utilized. Above the cabinets are back splashes of blue tiles with handmade flair to them that lend a cool counterbalance against the warmth of the walnut.
“I love the kitchen,” says Penny, “with its walnut pantry, shimmering blue tiles, and adjoining breakfast room. It was exciting to see this space transformed and opened up!”
Another one of Penny’s favorite spaces is the master bathroom. “It’s amazing!” she exclaims. “We took advantage of the peaked roof to add skylights. The space is so airy, light and sleek.”
One of the most notable features in the master bathroom is the Danish modern credenza that now serves as the vanity, complete with double sinks and triple mirrors above. The original piece of furniture was designed by Victor Wilkins for G-Plan’s “Fresco” line, and adds a beautiful mid-century touch to the space with its rich teak finish.
For Richard, his favorite space continues to be the living room. “I love being in here at night in the winter, with a fire in the fireplace and exterior lights reflecting on the fallen snow and all the branches. I also like the spacious screened-in porch,” he continues, “with its cool breezes and protection from direct sun and bugs.”
In typical Dennis Blair fashion, the screened porch also features a dramatic, sloping ceiling to mirror the indoor spaces.
As for all of the windows in the home, they represent one of the biggest improvements to the house, and not just because they were replaced with high-end Marvin windows: The original design featured a number of sliding glass doors – another trademark Dennis Blair feature, especially when designing in large expanses of glass. But of course a sliding glass door has a vertical barrier right in the middle of your view. So Penny and Richard decided to improve those views even more.
“Replacing sliding doors that had vertical lines midway through with solid panes of glass has expanded the horizon,” Penny says. “It’s as if I’m looking through a magnifying glass. From the master bedroom, I can see the lake. I love the changing light from so many windows revealing nature in all its glory. In a single day, you can see the first light of the morning, an amazing sunset and a midnight moon. It’s all so magical!”
Richard and Penny made many other improvements as well, such as replacing all the carpeting upstairs with cork flooring, remodeling the two additional bathrooms, including the full bath on the main level just down the foyer from the main level bedroom that Richard, a Fine Art / Documentary photographer, has been using as an office. They also added a huge new laundry room to the walkout lower level, with ample cabinet space and a long counter for folding clothes and other duties.
And while Richard clearly knew what he was getting into with a project of this scale, there were still a few surprises.
“We took down the old paneling in the den,” says Richard, “and found that the homeowners literally left their mark on the walls: Childrens’ crayon drawings and notes of love from the husband to his wife. I cut out a chunk of drywall and sent it to the wife, who greatly appreciated it as her husband had since passed away.”
Now it’s time for Penny and Richard to move onto their next house project, and they’ve just listed their beautifully remodeled home for sale. If you’ve been looking for a modern home with space, land, privacy, tranquility and natural beauty to spare, and you’ve been frustrated by the fact that so many homes either need a tremendous amount of work or have been poorly remodeled out of character by past owners, this may be the dream home you’ve been looking for.
And if you’re so inclined, the wonderful Timberlake Estates community offers year-round activities and events, and owners have rights to use the lake as well, all for a low yearly association fee.
UPDATE: This wonderful house went under contract after 51 days and closed in September, 2018.