A Don Tosi Stunner in North Barrington on Seven Acres
Well this one has been a long time coming. Seriously! I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve driven past this home while making my way through the wonderful Biltmore subdivision in North Barrington.
You may have seen some other homes I’ve sold in the area, such as this Dennis Blair hillside ranch or this massive Dennis Blair home with angled walls. Both of these homes are within a minute of the house at 212 Kimberly Road, and I often wondered who designed it and what was the story behind it.
The house is mostly obscured from Kimberly Road by a line of trees and shrubs, open only where the two ends of the semi-circle driveway meet the street. What you can see from the road is intriguing: A cedar-clad home with up-angled fascia bordering a roof that’s mostly flat, except for a raised section with a square hip roof topped with cedar shingles.
Finally, a couple years ago, I would begin to learn about this beautiful home.
The first thing you need to know is that the house was designed by Don Tosi and built in 1949. Tosi had studied under renowned architect Bruce Goff, who chaired the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma between 1947 and 1955.
In 1949, when this house was originally built, Tosi was building another home: Bruce Goff’s Ford house in Aurora. Famed for its round design, walls made of coal and steel ribs (among many other interesting features), Goff’s Ford house is one of the most iconic modern homes in Illinois.
Tosi was the 2nd contractor attached to the Ford house. The first couldn’t seem to get the project moving. Tosi was based out of Maywood at the time, and having studied under Goff, it must have seemed like a perfect fit.
“Unfortunately, my father never got certified as an architect,” says Cody Tosi, one of Don Tosi’s sons. “He always had to have other architects sign off on his work.”
In this case, the architect named on the plans for the house at 212 Kimberly Road is none other than Bruce Goff himself. As the story goes, Goff thought Tosi had genuinely good design instincts and encouraged him to continue designing and to build homes of his own design.
What’s still a bit mysterious about 212 Kimberly is how Tosi became involved in the first place. Most of his design work can be found in the Naperville area, which is quite a hike from North Barrington. And while I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Tosi’s portfolio of modern designs, what I have seen of it leads me to believe that this is one of the most purely modern and most dynamic of his designs.
“It’s definitely one of the most modern homes I’ve seen that he built,” says Cody. “I would imagine it is in fact one of his earliest designs.”
Tosi was just 25 years old in 1949 when he designed this house and built the Ford house for Goff. As Tosi wouldn’t have started school until after he returned from World War II, it’s even conceivable that this could be his very first design.
The plans show that the home was originally built for Mr. and Mrs. O.K. Meyer, but I haven’t been able to find out much about them. It wasn’t until 9 years after the house was built, in 1958, that the home’s current owners came into the picture.
Earl and Anne Johnson were living in Rockford for about 5 years prior to purchasing the house at 212 Kimberly. Earl was an financial consultant, and when he got a job in Chicago, they were specifically looking for a modern home.
“Before the house in Rockford, my parents owned a house in Madison, Wisconsin that had been designed by James Dresser,” says Ginger Pillman, the eldest of Earl and Anne’s three children. “I’m not sure what originally drove their love of modernism and modern architecture. Maybe it was living in the house in Madison. But they both loved the style. When we moved to this area, they were specifically looking for a modern home. I remember there was another one in the area, off of Kelsey Road, I think. They used to point them out.”
(incidentally, there’s a house designed by James Dresser in the Biltmore subdivision as well)
Clearly, Earl and Anne recognized the special nature of Tosi’s design. Which was, by the way, a bit different back then than it is today. But more on that later. While you can tell that the house is modern by the mostly flat roof and angled fascia, you can’t tell much more from the road.
Pull into the driveway, however, and more details start to emerge. At the corners are small stone winglets protruding from the cedar and glass exterior. Each stone winglet angles up from the bottom and then gently tapers back in toward the top. This is a consistent detail repeated around the house.
Most of the front of the house, other than the garage, is obscured by a series of junipers, cut in a Japanese style, that probably were just a fraction of their current size decades ago – perhaps thought to be the type that would remain dwarf or miniature, but have decided to keep going.
Walk between them and through the front door and the drama really begins.
In classic mid-century modern fashion, you enter under a fairly low ceiling into a hallway framed on one side by a floor to ceiling stone wall made of the same stone that makes up the corner winglets. Underfoot, elongated hexagonal terra cotta tile draws your eyes to the far end of the foyer, where a small, integrated planter sits, cut out of the floor in a vague kidney shape. It’s the only place you’ll find any curves in the home’s geometry, perhaps designed specifically to soften all of the home’s angles not only with some gentle curves, but also with the plants growing there in the ground under the house.
Once you get beyond the low foyer ceiling, though, things are very different. While most of the ceilings in the home are a bit higher than 8 feet, the ceilings in the living room soar to nearly 13 feet, looking out to the acres of land that make up the property. It’s a truly breathtaking space, with clerestory windows all around above the 9-foot mark.
Open to the dining room, which is at the front of the house, the living room’s other three walls are cedar on the left, glass at the back – looking out across the vast property – and stone on the right, from floor to ceiling, with a large fireplace featured prominently. The hearth is also ledge stone, and the end of the stone chimney stack nearest to the planter features the same angled geometry as the stone winglets at the corners of the house.
The ceiling is also clad in cedar here, as it is in the low foyer, and an angled fascia wraps around the foyer’s ceiling and continues along the stone wall separating the foyer from the dining room, where it continues above the dining room windows to hide valance lighting.
That valance lighting is repeated in most rooms in the house, including the kitchen, all four bedrooms and the den. It’s another one of the beautiful and consistent details, like the stone winglets at the corners of the home outside, that Tosi incorporated in to the design.
At the north end of the house, if you head right out of the entry foyer, are two bedrooms and a full bathroom with both a tub and a shower. In the bedrooms, you’ll notice another consistent feature: Each bedroom has a wall of windows (actually a combination of fixed and sliding doors) and they’re set at an angle. The idea is that in the triangle outside, in the space formed by the angled wall, there should be a flowerbed. You can still see remnants of what may have been those original flowerbeds around the house, as stones are partially buried in the ground acting as sort of a “frame” to the intended area.
You’ll notice, too, that the bedrooms are quite spacious, especially for a house built in 1949. And in both of these bedrooms, you’ll also notice the continuation of the cedar walls, built-in bookshelves (another feature reused throughout the home), and stone accents in various places, creating that continuity of materials from inside to outside.
On the opposite side of the living room / dining room area, just past the living room, is the den. Originally this room could be open to the living room via some large accordion doors. This is something that Ginger remembers distinctly from her childhood.
“The accordion doors separating the living room and the den were ok,” says Ginger,” because we used to open the ends and then run in circles through those rooms. But originally, all the doors in the house were accordion doors. Even in the bathrooms! That was a little weird. Later, all the doors were replaced with real doors.”
The den features more built-in bookshelves and a built-in L-shaped sofa with a corner table.
Next to the den is the third bedroom, which was originally Earl and Anne’s bedroom. It’s the only one of the bedrooms that doesn’t have any stone accents that continue to the outside, and there’s a reason for that.
On April 21st, 1967, three tornados flew through three different Chicago-area suburbs. 212 Kimberly Road was hit by the one that would be referred to as the Lake Zurich tornado (the other two went through Belvidere and Oak Lawn).
“The tornado warnings ended at 5:00pm,” says Ginger. “The tornado hit at 5:05pm. Mom and a friend were sitting in the living room and Mom saw a giant cloud coming across the lake with ‘stuff in it’. We had no basement at that time, so she yelled to us to get to my brother’s room.”
This was the room that had been Earl and Anne’s room, but which they had later swapped with Ginger’s younger brother Thomas, who everybody knows as Biff.
“There were six of us in the closet behind his bunk bed and the house felt like it exploded out,” she continues. “There was glass and stone everywhere. Amazingly, none of us were hurt! My Dad was coming home on the train because his car was in the shop. My Mom was supposed to pick him up at the station, and when she didn’t show up, Dad went to a local store and people told him about the tornado and that ambulances were going back and forth through the area. Somebody at the store drove him home where he saw the devastation the tornado had left behind, but his family all alive and not too much worse for the wear.”
If there was a silver lining to the house being partially knocked down by the Lake Zurich tornado, it was that Don Tosi was still around, and was able to help them rebuild and expand the house.
“Mom and Dad contacted Don and he was so excited to rebuild the house and ‘fix’ some things he didn’t like,” says Ginger. “The roof in the living room was a big one. Originally it was flat, and not as tall as it is now. Don added two feet of height and the pitched roof above that part of the house. My parents had him add another bedroom and a basement underneath it. The kitchen used to be really small, so they moved the laundry to a different area which allowed them to more than double the size of the kitchen. And Mom always wanted a screened porch, so that was added, too.”
Another thing that changed was one of the core materials used in the house.
“The house today is pretty similar to what it was like originally,” says Mardi, Ginger’s younger sister, “but originally the house had all redwood walls inside. When the house was rebuilt, they used cedar instead of redwood. I was especially excited that my parents added a new bedroom because that meant that I finally got my own room, so I thought that was great.”
The new kitchen that resulted from the rebuild is interesting. It’s got large windows and a set of sliding doors looking out the front of the house, and while it looks like a galley kitchen from some angles, it’s actually quite open. The addition of Earl & Anne’s new bedroom required Tosi to come up with a clever solution to how to get to the bedroom without having to go through the kitchen, so one “wall” of the kitchen is actually a long counter with open shelves above it. This not only offers tons of storage or display area, but keeps the kitchen feeling much more open and bright than a galley kitchen.
Between the third bedroom and the new owner’s bedroom is the home’s 2nd full bathroom. It still has its original terrazzo floors from when the house was first built, and can be accessed both from the primary bedroom and the hallway that goes to bedroom 3 and the den.
And the new primary bedroom is quite something indeed. Rather than just have the stone winglets continue into the house for a foot or two, the entire south wall of the bedroom is the same stone. It’s a beautiful feature wall in a house full of wonderful, natural materials.
As with the other bedrooms, the entire back wall is glass, looking out into the home’s 7 acres. Much of the acreage is open, grassy space, bordered on the north and south sides in different parts by many mature trees and other foliage. A dense forest of trees sits further west on the property, and beyond that is a pond that’s half on the property, sitting just north of Biltmore’s 55-acre Honey Lake.
“My Mom was an organic gardener,” says Ginger, “and we had a giant garden that was around 20 feet deep and extended the width of the property. She never used any pesticides ever…she took on the spray truck and won!”
“We really used all of the land,” adds Mardi. “We were outside a lot, so we were everywhere on the property. I was athletic, and I remember throwing a tennis ball against the stone wall for hours, letting the non-smooth wall send the ball in all different directions to practice my fielding skills. We had a tether ball pole, and neighbors often came over to play some sort of baseball or other games. We fished, too. The things to do outside were endless.”
“For kids, the backyard and the woods were magical. We had paths down to the pond and there were even paths that created a shortcut to get across the lake to the beach. In addition to the tether ball pole, we had big swing sets and jungle gyms. Kids were in and out of everyone’s yards, and there were a lot of us.”
Even as young kids, they appreciated not just the natural wonderland that was, literally, in their back yard, but the house itself.
“The living room at Christmas was magical!” says Ginger. “The ceiling is so tall and we’d get a giant tree. The house was always a welcome place for many. Rarely did we have a holiday without some extra people. It was home and will always feel like home to me. I just loved the house. It was different from a lot of houses in that it didn’t have any stairs.”
“I knew we lived in a cool house,” adds Mardi. “Of course, as a kid, you take things for granted a bit, but we got some history and appreciation when the tornado hit and our parents found Mr. Tosi to do the rebuild. How could you not love the home, its beautiful views and the variety of landscape?”
The house has a very easy floor plan, too. This was something I noticed even the first time I went through the house. Even though there’s separation of space where you want it, the rest feels very open. The flow is fantastic, and all of the main spaces in the house have such expansive windows and a method of getting outside.
I’m always curious about which parts of a home were the favorite spaces for the people who lived there, and I could tell both Ginger and Mardi were having a tough time choosing.
“I loved my room of course,” says Ginger. “And again, the living room at Christmas was wonderful. Dad loved to sit in his chair in the rec room and watch TV. Mom loved her screened porch and she loved to sit in the living room, but really they loved it all.”
“Everyone that came to our home commented on its beauty and uniqueness,” adds Mardi. “Our parents loved to have friends over to enjoy the living room and dining room that overlooked the lake and woods. Every room was special because most had sliding glass doors, and the living room has such beautiful views. It was just such a warm home to grow up in. It’s comfortable, with great landscape to explore and play in.”
Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to know Ginger a little bit through numerous visits to the house and many, many emails about this or that aspect of the home. Her earlier comment about it still feeling like home after all these years is something that was easy to pick up on in all of our visits and communication.
As anybody who I’ve talked to about modern homes in the area will know, it’s rare to find an architect-designed modern home around here that hasn’t been completely remodeled out of character, or otherwise messed with over the years. Often, these homes were purchased by people who found the home to be in the right place at the right time, and either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the architecture. That’s one of the things that makes 212 Kimberly Road so special: It’s still very much the same house that it was when the Johnsons hired Tosi to rebuild it in 1967. It’s got all the warmth, charm and character now as it did back then.
For the first time since 1958, the house at 212 Kimberly Road is for sale.
“It’s such a wonderful neighborhood,” says Ginger. “You’re close to great shopping and yet the area is so peaceful. My wedding reception was in a tent at the back of the property. It’s such an amazing place to celebrate a wedding. It is very, very hard to let this house and property go. We pray that someone buys it and loves it as much as we did…and do. It is a special place.”
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