Whether you think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s appreciation for Japanese architecture and design, and his incorporation of some of its core principles into his work, or you consider the similarities between the modernism of the early Bauhaus architects and Japanese architecture, it’s impossible to dismiss the influence of Japanese design on modernism in the U.S.
So it’s no surprise that its influence can be found in buildings by numerous architects and homes they designed in the Chicago suburbs.
The house at 330 Thornmeadow Road in Riverwoods is one such house. Built in 1961, the home was designed by I.W. “Ike” Colburn, a protégé of Paul Schweikher. Colburn was most well-known for bridging the gap between traditional classicism and modernism.
Colburn worked mainly in two camps: One that was sometimes referred to as “new formalism”, which incorporated simple geometry, such as arches and rectangular columns set in repetition, along with towers that gave his homes even more presence. And the second was architecture that was clearly inspired by the architecture of Japan.
Even in Colburn’s first major commission after going out on his own, a home in Lake Forest for Stacy & Kay Hill, you can see some Japanese influence, particularly in the lines of the home’s roof. Several years later, Colburn designed a similar, but even more Japanese-inspired home for Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Reed, also in the same part of Lake Forest.
But it was his design for the Kittermaster family in Riverwoods that was the most thoroughly Japanese of Colburn’s works.
John Kittermaster owned a general contracting business in the mid-1960s, and lived with his family in an Edward Humrich-designed house on Thornmeadow Rd when he purchased a piece of property further down, towards where the road ended at a home owned by modernist architect Robert Hausner and his wife Ann.
Kittermaster had seen Colburn’s Reed residence in Lake Forest, and asked Colburn to design something similar for them on their new lot in Riverwoods.
The house that Colburn would design used similar lines, especially for the roof, and was thematically similar to the Hill house in that the “common” spaces were separate from the sleeping spaces, with the two primary wings of the home connected by a perpendicular section that included the entry foyer and kitchen.
Set apart from the house was another structure with a three car garage and Kittermaster’s office. This building ran perpendicular to the home’s primary two wings, and had garage doors on both sides to allow for entering on one side and leaving on the other.
Between the home’s two primary wings, in front of the entryway, was a Japanese-style garden.
That Japanese garden was just one element that tied the house to its site: A 4.5 acre strip of land populated by mature trees running across a dead-end offshoot of the Des Plaines river. Colburn sited the house on a raised terrace behind a retaining wall, and the common spaces, notably the living room and dining room, are in a pavilion with glass on three sides, overlooking an expansive Merrimac gravel terrace with a Japanese-style bench “railing” along the perimeter.
This purposeful placement of the home affords magnificent views out across the property, which hosts all manner of wildlife. And it’s this connection to the natural world around the home that most resonates with the kids who lived in the house when it was first built.
“This is what growing up as a kid should be like,” says John Kittermaster Jr. “Canoeing, swimming, ice skating.”
His sister Kari agrees. “I, too, have so many wonderful memories of a magical place where we were free to play outdoor and explore the woods and surrounding areas. A favorite memory in particular is during the winter months when Dad would clear an area on the frozen ‘pond’ for an ice skating rink. When I have occasion to see a childhood friend who lived in town, they will often comment that they remember playing at the Riverwoods house.”
And it wasn’t just the natural setting that the Kittermaster’s kids remember fondly.
“There were so many cool things about the house that, to me, made it ahead of its time,” says John. “It had a commercial washer / dryer built in with the cabinets under the counter tops in the kitchen. The large built-in side-by-side refrigerator & freezer that I remember frozen martini glasses being pulled from. The built-in warming trays. The mechanicals were under the kitchen in a utility crawlspace that I called the ‘bomb shelter’ and any time my Dad would access it through the panel in the floor, I was ready to go down!
“Our family room had a box built into the wall for the TV which made it flush with the wall,” continues John, “almost like a flat screen TV these days. Our parents’ bedroom had his and hers vanity stations, there was a telephone in the toilet area and the walk-in shower had independent spray heads at three levels – by your head, your torso and your feet.”
Some of those features that John remembers fondly have been re-done since, but Colburn’s architectural details remain.
Throughout the house, you’ll notice that the baseboards are recessed to be flush with the walls themselves. The doors are full-height, and are trimmed in an elegant manner with flush, narrow-width trim pieces that give the home a consistent look throughout.
One of the most striking architectural details, however, is a series of copper-wrapped columns surrounding that “glass pavilion” that the living room and dining room make up. The copper cylinders have acquired a beautiful patina over the years, and add a special element of color and texture to the home that can be appreciated both inside and out.
The Kittermaster family only lived in the house for around four years. A subsequent owner added a large indoor pool by enclosing the space between the living room and the garage building, which is now attached to the house as a result. In doing so, they removed the garage doors facing the home so that the garage is a more typical “one-sided” garage now.
It was the addition of that indoor pool that caught the eye of David and Maxine Unger in the mid-1980s.
“Our father used to make a hobby of looking at houses with indoor swimming pools,” says Judith Golden, David & Maxine’s daughter. “He wasn’t necessarily intending to buy a new house, but liked to see what was out there. This house grabbed him and they made a quick decision to buy it.”
“Much of the negotiation to buy the house happened while our mother was out of town,” adds Rebecca Unger, David & Maxine’s other daughter. “It was the right home at the right time for our parents.”
The pool wasn’t the only thing that attracted the Ungers to the house. The natural setting, and the comfortable spaces played a huge part in convincing them that this should be their next home.
“They loved the design of the house,” continues Judith, “with beautiful views all around and so many wonderful places to sit and enjoy the interior space and outdoor views year round. When they came home from work to this house, they always felt like they were entering a special space that felt like a vacation.”
As you walk into the home from the courtyard, through the red front door, you’ll be standing in a bright foyer that gives you the option to go toward the living room or the bedroom wing. Behind flush, painted doors are hidden the coat closet and a powder room.
Head into the living room and the space opens up dramatically, with high, pickled pine coffered ceilings and a feature fireplace that also acts as a room divider between the living room and dining room. Instantly you’ll feel a sense of calm with all of the natural beauty outside the floor to ceiling windows on the far side of the living room that continue around to the back of the dining room space, with Merrimac aggregate floors under foot.
On the other side of the fireplace, the dining room feels equally bright and at one with nature, but more intimate in scale.
“Our parents considered each room a savoring experience,” adds Michael, David and Maxine’s son. “The living room was great for both entertaining or just sitting quietly and reading a book. The dining room, with tables designed by my father to be two tables holding 4-8 people or one table holding 6-12 people, were a perfect place for a dinner party or an intimate dinner.”
Of course around the perimeter of both the living room and dining room, the floor to ceiling windows also include large sliding glass doors so that access to the outside is easy from either space.
Head into the kitchen and you’ll find the first of several spaces that David and Maxine modified somewhat after they purchased the home in 1984.
“Our parents added the powder room in the front hall, and they remodeled the kitchen,” says Rebecca, “changing the flow of the house a bit to create a nice, welcoming entrance area and a kitchen that made sense for the way they cooked and entertained at the time.”
Head on through and out the other side of the kitchen and you’re faced with two shoji screens that separate the library from the bedroom hallway. The desks and shelving in the Library were also added by the Ungers. And as you continue through the library, you’ll find yourself at the sunroom.
“The sunroom was a delightful place to sit and read, have a less formal meal, watch TV, hang out and talk with friends and family, or just enjoy each other’s company,” says Michael.
“Our parents loved that space!” adds Judith. “Especially after they replaced all of the windows and had a separate heating system installed in it, turning it into a beautiful space that could be enjoyed year round.”
At the east end of the bedroom hallway is the first of three bedrooms. When the house was first built, the intention of this room is that it would be shared by two children.
“That bedroom was divided into two spaces with shoji screens,” says Michael. “They were on tracks right down the middle, like the ones dividing the hallway outside the kitchen from the library. My father removed them and, with his customary ingenuity, turned them into the ‘shades’ for the two windows in that bedroom.”
Head down toward the far end of the hallway, past the library, and you’ll be back to where you can circle back into the entry foyer, with the door to the primary suite just beyond that.
“When our parents bought the house, there were only two bedrooms,” says Rebecca. “The primary and the bedroom next to it were one huge room, and had two completely separate bathrooms. Our parents immediately made this into two bedrooms, each with their own en-suite bathroom, and worked in a desk area for our mother in the primary suite.”
The Primary Suite still features the same large en-suite bathroom that John mentioned earlier. A large “island” features a face-to-face vanity, tons of built-in storage, plus an area with a tub and shower and a separate water closet with bidet.
Interestingly, when the house was first built, there were three bedrooms and an office, in addition to the library. What is now the third bedroom, at the west end of the hall, was a smaller bedroom and similarly-scaled office, with a couple of closets nearby and a common bathroom hidden away at the end of another hall.
The third bedroom now occupies the entire width of the bedroom wing, just as the bedroom at the other end does. And it now has its own en-suite bath as well, thanks to the changes the Ungers made after they purchased the home.
As it exists today, one of the home’s most unique features is, of course, the large indoor pool – something that’s still relatively uncommon in the area, despite our unreliable weather. Having an indoor pool was a dream for the Ungers, because it meant they could enjoy it any time of year.
“Our mother was exquisite at planning family events and gatherings,” says Judith, “whether large or small, from weddings to dinners.”
“Many of these well-coordinated and planned events were it he comfort of the family home,” adds Rebecca. “Of course, many of these events included inviting family and friends to enjoy the beautiful outdoor spaces, frolic in the indoor pool, and sip root beer floats, or black cows as we used to call them, in the hot tub.”
Beyond the pool is the garage, and through the garage, what was originally John Kittermaster’s office, which the Ungers used as a studio.
“There’s so much space to do so many varied activities without infringing on the other spaces,” says Michael. “Obviously living space, entertaining space, but also the studio for all sorts of things. I’ve been involved with theater for most of my life and I had rehearsals in there, we did art projects, music, and so much more.”
And while the pool and hot tub have always offered plenty of opportunity for fun indoors, the outside spaces and natural elements surrounding the home have an equally special place in the hearts of the Ungers’ kids, as they did for their parents.
“When their grandchildren were born, the house got nicknamed ‘Camp Riverwoods’,” says Judith, “and much fun was had by all swimming, hiking, canoeing, bike riding and enjoying family fun, both inside and out. We would eat lunch outside on the terrace and enjoy the breezes and the trees rustling and the sound of the birds and fish jumping – we could never look fast enough to see them!”
“It’s kind of amazing that this area feels so beautifully remote and secluded, but is also close to the Tri-State and major roads,” adds Rebecca, “making it easy to get into Chicago or head for Wisconsin, or wherever you want to go. And it’s easy to get to the train station, too, if you don’t feel like driving.”
Michael agrees about the beauty of the area: “Whenever I turn into the warm embrace of the wooded enclave off of Deerfield or Portwine Roads, there’s a sudden magical hush that descends and surrounds me. I’ve entered the place where our parents – and where we – spent so many wonderful, important years. A place where the environment was a year-round vacation spot. My children grew to love the house as one of the most special places in the world, much of that due to the people in it. There was always adventure awaiting every minute of every day they spent there.”
For the first time in nearly 40 years, 330 Thornmeadow Rd is available. Whoever purchases the home next will be treated to a truly beautiful and unique home and property. One that offers space not only for daily living, but for entertaining and enjoying the natural world around the home.
Thanks as always to Phil Hegel for his beautiful photography of my listings!