A Mostly Original MCM Home in a Fantastic Location Near Lake Michigan in Highland Park
Well folks, we’ve got another mystery on our hands here! When my clients, David & Denni, bought this super cool MCM 2-story house in 1984, just a couple of doors away from the lake, there were no plans or any other info revealing the home’s architect. I tried with the City of Highland Park but wasn’t able to discover who had designed it.
There are aspects of it that remind me of some of the homes along the North Shore built by Greta Lederer, but alas, there’s no way to tell if she was involved with this house. And then again, there are aspects of the home that remind me of other architects, too, but for now at least, it remains a mystery.
So, here’s what I do know: The house, which was built in 1954, is in an absolutely fantastic east Highland Park location, as I mentioned, just a couple of doors from the lake. For half the year, the house has lovely views of the lake to the east, and peekaboo views the rest of the year.
I also know that I really like the home’s materials. The exterior is a combination of brick, stone and glass. Inside…well, I’ll get to that later, but there’s a lot of greatness going on inside as relates to materials, too.
Sitting on a bit under 1/2 an acre, the house has ravines behind it to the north, but they’re outside the property line so the whole lot is essentially usable table land, which isn’t always the case for homes that back to ravines in the area.
Another beautiful detail is the way the various sections of the roof (there are a few of them) are all pitched ever so slightly to one side or the other, creating an elegant system of rooflines with a nice “fanned” detail created by the fascia boards at the front & back of each roof area.
And while I often greatly appreciate the details in the modern homes I list for sale, you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) how often people buy modern homes just because they’re in a great location or because the price was right.
However, in the case of David & Denni, it was David’s appreciation for modernism that led them to the house in the first place.
“I grew up with more traditional architecture and was interested in a fairly broad range of styles,” says Denni. “David grew up with a much larger dose of modern architecture. When we were looking for a house here, we told our agent at the time that we both liked the same things in a house. After looking and looking, she thought we were completely out of our minds…until we found this house.”
“I first saw the house from the outside a couple months before we bought it,” adds David. “However, it went under contract before Denni could get to town to see it. Much later our agent learned that it was coming back on the market. We saw it and bought it!
“My modern indoctrination started young. I’m the son of a graphic and product designer. When my father was in his 20’s he designed modern homes with a friend who was a structural engineer. A number of those homes were built in north suburban St. Louis. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many or which ones.
“The first house I remember living in was a modern home in Florissant, Mo, built in 1957. We moved in in 1958 when I was 3. My oldest memories of the house were of the radiant heating in the floors. In Florissant, most of my friends lived in modern homes. I just thought they were normal houses.
“My father was an early partner in Obata Design in St. Louis. The firm was named after another partner, Kimio (Kim) Obata, whose brother was Gyo Obata who later was part of the architecture firm HOK, Hellmuth Obata and Kassabaum. My father, Russell Hughes, and his partners, built Obata Design into one of the largest design firms at the time with about 60 people.
“I grew up with modern furniture…Saarinen, Eames, Mies Van der Roh, Breuer, Bertoia, plus some furniture my father built and some he designed and had built.
“A bit of trivia – my great uncle, Harold Diepenbrock, went to school with Charles Eames in St. Louis.”
Like me, David and Denni tried to find out who designed their home, but all they were able to find from the City of Highland Park was some information on the original landscaping plans, but nothing in the way of building plans or an architect’s name.
Inside the home, things get even more interesting. While it’s a 2-story home, the main level lives almost like a mini split-level. On the entry level, in addition to the foyer, is the Den, which shares a wonderful 2-sided fireplace with the living room, as well as a main level bedroom, and one of the home’s 2 original bathrooms, and lastly, but certainly not least, is the studio.
The studio is an amazing space, with what practically amounts to a “greatest hits” of MCM features and materials. Consider this: It’s a 2-story room with floor-to-ceiling sectioned windows facing north. Underfoot is original poured terrazzo. Then, on the west wall you have exposed brick, with an open-riser stairway leading up to a loft, and adorned with a hairpin-style railing that’s also original to the house. Overhead you’ve got a plank and beam wood ceiling, and a couple of fantastic, original light fixtures that make all of those beautiful materials glow so warmly at night.
“Mrs. Paul Wright had the house built,” says David. “She was a ceramist. That’s why the house has a two-story artist’s studio with terrazzo floor and electricity for her kiln. There’s a ceramic panel she made that’s inset in the stone surrounding the fireplace in the living room.
“We were told that she was tough on contractors and went through three contractors in building the house. She also had the plans changed after the foundation was poured. She had much of the north wall moved 5 feet further out making the living room noticeably bigger and the studio and den slightly bigger.
“We’ve both really appreciated the studio, not only for the wall of glass and all the wonderful daylight it affords, but also for the sense of height, space and openness.”
Back in the den there’s still more to love, with parquet floors, light wood panels on the walls, some of which conceal built-ins to the left of the fireplace, and then the fireplace itself, with its integrated wood storage area below the firebox.
“We both really enjoy sitting in the den with a fire in the fireplace,” says Denni. “It’s a great space to look out at the fall colors or snow on the ground in the winter.”
One of my favorite things about the den is that when there isn’t a fire in it, you can actually look through it, through the living room and see the lake from there. How many homes have a fireplace you can look through to see Lake Michigan?!
The main level bathroom is so much fun! Situated between the foyer and the main level bedroom, it retains its original classic 1950s pastel colors, as well as a fantastic sink and faucet that anybody who’s a fan of MCM architecture and design will be sure to love. Above the mirror on the south wall are some frosted windows for natural light and fresh air.
And these spaces I’ve mentioned so far make up only half of the main level! Go up a couple of steps from the entry foyer and you’ll find the stairs to the 2nd floor, and then a large L-shaped open area that includes the dining room to the right and the living room straight ahead.
“The living room is another favorite space,” says David, “for its views of the changing elevations down the ravine.
On the west wall of the living room is the stone fireplace shared with the den on the other side. Along the back of the room are four large windows facing north towards the ravines. And then on the east side is a vast, original slider with divided panel glass. It’s a very comfortable space in terms of its scale, which speaks to Mrs. Wright’s insistence on making it larger than it would’ve been originally.
Filling in the L created by the open living room and dining room is the kitchen. The previous owners remodeled the kitchen, so there’s no way to tell what the original looked like. But, of course, here you’ll notice the brick wall that houses the original stainless steel Thermador oven and, where there’s currently a small TV, an indoor grill (no longer used as a grill for a number of reasons).
On the back wall next to the brick area is what looks like it may be some original tile, in the same pale yellow as in the bathroom on this level.
Over the sink is a large horizontal window that provides loads of natural light and really nice views out the front of the house, underneath the generous roof overhang.
In the dining room, large windows face out the front of the house, again adding lots of natural light, and a floating cabinet (a later addition) hovers on the west wall.
Head up the staircase and upstairs you’ll find two more bedrooms, another original bath and the loft that’s at the top of the studio.
The Primary bedroom faces out the front of the house for wonderful south light through the large windows, and there’s a door into the bathroom. Like the bathroom on the main level, this one features original tile and the same original sinks and faucets. In addition, this bathroom still has its original corner tub / shower, with more tile overhead and an etched glass surround with a very mid-century feeling fish theme.
The third bedroom has windows facing both north and east, so from this space you get views of Lake Michigan as well. David has a particular penchant for this bedroom: “I like being on the roof, which is easy to get to through the windows in this room,” he says. “There are great views out over the lake, and storms are invigorating!”
And in the loft, you can easily appreciate the scale and openness of the studio as David mentioned earlier. A long desk and open shelves, as well as some original built-ins in the loft make a truly usable space, as well.
Outside, there are a couple of nice spaces to enjoy the weather on nice days, including a large aggregate concrete patio behind the living room, and the covered bluestone patio on the east side of the house.
Both the front and back yards have plenty of usable lawn space for relaxing or playing, and there’s even a cold frame in the back yard, original to when Mrs. Wright lived in the house.
“She was an avid gardener,” says Denni. “Our next-door neighbor told us Mrs. Wright yelled at her to do something about ‘your leaves that are blowing into my clean yard!’ The cold frame probably had a glass or plastic cover, and it was used to plant seeds in the early spring so that they’d be big enough to plant outside a little bit later when it was warmer out.”
Along the back of the property is a fence with a gate that can be used to access the ravines and walk down to the beach on the left, which is publicly owned land in that area, making this location even that much more special.
Being near the ravines and the lake also means that there’s a fair amount of wildlife in the area.
“We see deer constantly,” says David. “Sometimes up to 5 at a time along the ravine path, in the ravine, sometimes even in our yard.”
“We also see foxes, rabbits and the occasional opossum,” adds Denni. “We often hear owls and, every once in a while, are lucky enough to actually see one.”
After 38 years, David and Denni are finally selling the home.
“We’re relocating to Colorado Springs,” says David. “We probably should’ve done this years ago, as I’ve been working in Colorado since 2012 and commuting back and forth this whole time. But our daughter and her husband are there, and that’s where Denni and met in college and we still have friends there, too.”
“Being close to the lake is one of our favorite things about living here,” continues David. “We love being able to hear it. The breezes are terrific. The area along the lake has its own micro-climate. It’s about 6-8 degrees warmer in the winter and the same amount cooler in the summer than areas just a mile or two away. There’s also an eclectic collection of architecture around here, with multiple styles from Victorian to very contemporary. And, of course, it’s a very convenient place to live, with a thriving downtown area, an interesting mix of people and excellent schools.”
“We’ll miss this home so much,” adds Denni. “There’s just so much we love about this house and its location. It’s one of the reasons we put off selling it for so long, even though David’s been commuting for a whole decade now! Just the other day I said to David ‘You know, if we were looking to buy a house in this area, I’d still buy this one.'”
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