SOLD! A Stunning, Architect Owned Glass & Cedar House by Donald F. Wrobleski in Bannockburn
At 89, Don Wrobleski is still as enthusiastic as anybody about architecture. Many of the conversations we’ve had about architecture – and about his house specifically – have taken place in the screened porch at the west end of the house he designed initially for his mother at 2200 Stirling Road in Bannockburn. And yet when I asked him about his favorite places in the house to spend time, his first answer was the Dining Room.
“I don’t know why,” he says. “Well, I read the paper there, and I eat there, so I spend some amount of time there. The openness of the dining room is certainly a factor of why I spend so much time there. And it’s the only place where the glass comes to a corner, which is far more open than just a wall of glass.”
Walls of glass may not be as open when compared to glass that goes around a corner, but as Don designed them into his house, they certainly are spectacular.
Featured in Gary Gand’s Julius Schulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism (Rizzoli, 2010) and Modern in the Middle, by Susan E. Benjamin and Michaelangelo Sabatino (The Monacelli Press, 2020), the house is sited on a beautiful, private lot of 1.75 acres at the end of a cul-de-sac. A long structure with its front facing generally south, the home is bookended at the east and west ends by courtyards of oil bleached cedar that frame the expansive wall of glass on the front of the residence.
Even before heading up the steps to the front door, your eyes will be drawn up and down the length of the home, with the simple line of the roof guiding you from one courtyard to the other. And then you may shift your focus to the low wall of Wisconsin fieldstone that defines the front edge of the terrace that runs down the length of the home between those two courtyards.
It’s inevitable, though, that the walls of glass come into play, because you can’t help but notice that you’re looking through the house to see the landscape beyond the home in the back yard. In fact, you may not even realize that you’re looking through the grand Living Room, except that at one end, you’re also sure to notice the massive Wisconsin fieldstone chimney stack that ties in with the stone in front of the home.
Don studied at IIT at a time when Mies van der Rohe was still a presence. Studying architecture under A. James Speyer and Alfred Caldwell, who was his construction professor, Don says that Caldwell thought the “architecture boys” were lazy and that they needed something to do, so he had them design and build houses in the real world.
One of these was a home that some of Don’s classmates built in Deerfield, about two miles from the house on Stirling. It still stands today, in a relatively unfortunate location near an overpass. Another house was designed and built by Don and some other students in Northbrook, and while that home is no longer around (“It was on too nice of a lot,” quips Don), that home had some features that he liked, and wanted to incorporate into the house for his mother.
“You start doing something and you keep at it,” he says, when I asked him what his goals were for the house. “I wanted the house to flow better than those other two houses. I wanted the private wing to be separate, but otherwise, you’d be able to work through the public part. I didn’t want the kitchen to be enclosed. I wanted it open, but not too open. It’s screened by the higher cabinets. That came from Philip Johnson’s house, where he did that very well.”
Johnson was one of the “Harvard Five”, a group of five architects who settled in New Canaan, Connecticut, and who were influenced by Walter Gropius, who headed up the Harvard architecture program.
Don then explained how the New Canaan homes, influenced by Gropius’ teachings, are typically softer than the Mies-influenced homes in this area, which he describes as more authoritative. The use of stone, such as on that low wall and in the chimney stack, is one of the ways that the New Canaan homes achieve that softer presence.
And presence was very important to Don. It’s one of the reasons he elevated the home on its site. “Some homes, especially if they’re low and just sitting there on their lot, don’t really have any presence,” Don explains. “Elevating the home up like this gives it a nice presence. And, well, I really wanted 10-foot ceilings in the Living Room, too,” he says with a smile.
Before you get inside the house, there are plenty of beautiful materials to take in. And they’re all repeated elsewhere in the home. First is the oil bleached cedar that makes up the courtyard walls. It’s used again right inside the front door in the foyer (and in several other places). Then there’s the stone that makes up the low wall, that I mentioned being used again in the chimney stack & fireplace. There’s the brick that makes up the floor of the front terrace, used again in the terraced patio behind the living room.
And of course, there’s glass, which is used everywhere in the house.
Walk in the front door and you’re in a small entry foyer with that bleached cedar wall straight ahead, and a colorfully painted wall to your right. Underfoot, Vermont slate that Don laid himself extends to the left, along the walkway between the front wall of glass and the sunken Living Room and continues beyond, to a part of the house you can’t yet see.
A couple steps down into the living room and you’re standing on a herringbone oak floor, stained in a rich dark brown that coordinates well with the dark brown of the massive beams overhead. At the far end of the Living Room is that beautiful stone chimney, made to look even more impressive thanks to the size of the firebox. At the near end of the room, a series of bookshelves and other built-ins are painted in colors that tie in with others in the home – accents peering between stacks and rows of books on architecture, philosophy and more.
Stepping down into this space makes you instantly feel calm and relaxed.
Don sits on the sofa in the Living Room, soon joined by his Jack Russell Terrier, Albert, and talks about how he enjoys sitting in that spot because of the views out the back of the house and out the front. The position of plantings in the front and the orientation of the house to the street make it extremely private and offer views of nature in all directions. Above all else, this was his goal when designing the home: “A house to live in that was open to the site and the outdoors, but still quite private, enclosed by low growth and trees.”
It’s in the Living Room that the other primary goal of the house is most visible: “I wanted the house to be structurally apparent – that it display its structure – that it would be the organizing theme of it, organized by its beams and so on.”
Sitting in this part of the Living Room also gives you a good view of the fireplace across the room, and you notice the Vermont slate hearth that’s cantilevered at one corner, creating a continuous, seamless surface with the slate floor, that wraps around the chimney. It’s one of many beautiful details in the home.
Another, smaller set of steps leads back up to the Kitchen and Dining Area, where Don integrated a lot of functionality without needing a tremendous amount of space. The kitchen is laid out galley style, but it’s open on one side to the Dining Room, utilizing high cabinets in an L-shape around one of the main workspaces to create that separation from the Dining Room that Don mentioned earlier.
At the west end of the Kitchen, another wall of glass looks into the west courtyard, with a door leading to a path through the courtyard to a gate that itself leads to a walkway to the garage.
The Kitchen’s primary workspaces, incorporating quarter-sawn elm cabinets, are surfaced with butcher block, which Don preferred because it’s warm to the touch, even in winter. For the high cabinets, he chose travertine – yet another material that is used in several places throughout the home, including a small built-in desk around the corner from the kitchen, a floating shelf in the Dining Room and for the counter in a bathroom at the other end of the house.
The work surface that faces the Dining Room has an integrated knife block at one end, right next to the painted floor-to-ceiling cabinet that houses the Revco refrigerator in the Kitchen, and a small wet bar on the Dining Room side.
The opposite workspace has a built-in cooktop at one end, with venting hidden inside the upper cabinets, and hides the controls for the oven behind the upper cabinet doors.
These types of details, and many others throughout the home, are what Don is perhaps most proud of. “The detailing is rather careful,” he explains. “The recessed bases, no moldings around the glass – it’s part of the structure and not separate from it – allows you to not get lost in the details. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the details so that they don’t stand out. I wanted you to see it as a complete space, not focusing on one thing. And I had six months to do the drawings, which is pretty long. I wasn’t going to start the house until I had everything worked out.”
One thing he did change his mind about later was the Dining Room. Originally, the back wall of the space followed that of the Living Room, and his table was oriented east to west. But he felt that it would be more comfortable to open up the space, so he bumped out the window area four feet, adding windows on the two sides of the bump-out to create the “glass around the corner” effect he mentioned earlier. It’s almost hard to imagine the space as it was originally, but I have to believe the change was almost profound when he first made it, because this space – like the house as a whole – lives much larger than its actual dimensions, feeling open and extremely comfortable.
At the east end of the Kitchen, tucked into the back side of the chimney stack, Don incorporated a bank of cabinets with an integrated indoor grill, under a custom hood in black, with a matching black countertop. Open shelving fills the space between the hood and the other side of the chimney. The whole arrangement is almost mind-boggling in its elegance and cleverness.
Around the corner from the Kitchen, the laundry room hides stairs down to the utility basement, and a small powder room is tucked into one end. The wall between the Kitchen and laundry room incorporates a translucent panel, allowing borrowed south light from the laundry room’s high windows into the Kitchen. A door on the floor leads to the stairs that go down to the utility basement – a nice way to not have to dedicate square footage to a stairway.
Back into the Kitchen, then through the Dining Room, past the wet bar, is the screened porch. Originally Don drew it a bit smaller but decided ultimately to build it (several years after the house was completed) larger, and oriented more east-west than originally planned. Built on posts that give it a floating appearance from outside, the floor of the porch is flush with the floor of the house, making it a continuation of the space rather than feeling like a separate entity.
The location of the porch was extremely important to Don, because, as he explains, “Often, people put a porch off the kitchen, dining room or family room, and then that room becomes quite dark, because it’s blocked by the porch. I didn’t want the porch to be in the way of any of the other rooms in the house.”
On one side, the porch looks into the west courtyard, with the west wall of cedar actually entering into the porch toward the west end – yet another clever detail. On the other two sides, you get fresh air views of the landscape around the house without having to worry about bugs. The ceiling generally matches that of the rest of the house, and the floor is stained, narrow-plank wood.
As with the Living Room, the overall feeling out here in the porch is one of calm, as the sound of a breeze through the trees surrounding the house makes me feel like I could easily fall asleep in the hammock Don has strung up in the far corner, slowly drifting off as I look across the berms and up at the blue sky.
But there’s more of the house to explore, at the opposite end, where the bedroom spaces – the private part of the house – have their own unique details and features.
“I didn’t want a typical hallway to the bedrooms,” says Don. Instead, there’s a sort of “bedroom lobby”, with a large skylight overhead, leading to the three bedrooms and the hall bath.
The secondary bedrooms face north, into the back yard. The larger of the two continues the slate floor from the entry foyer and bedroom lobby, and has an enormous window that is the whole back wall of the room.
The smaller bedroom, where Don watches TV occasionally, has a built-in bookshelf on the back wall next to a series of doors and windows, and features a staggered parquet floor.
“I like watching TV in here,” says Don. “Of course, when the house was built, at most you had a 12-inch screen. You didn’t need a room dedicated to an 85-inch TV set, and that has changed. That really dominates a room and I never had a need for that.”
Both bedrooms feature a wall of closets, revealed by sliding doors that also close off the bigger bedroom when it’s time for privacy. Another set of painted sliding doors in the bedroom lobby closes off the lobby from the public part of the house, closes off the bedroom, and reveals the coat closet. It’s all so ingenious.
The hall bath and the Primary bedroom’s en suite bathroom look into the east courtyard. There is literally not a single room in the house without a view of nature, whether outside, or into a courtyard. Again, you’ll find travertine used as the counter surface here, under an Alvar Aalto “hand grenade” light fixture hanging next to a walk-in shower.
The Primary suite is quite a large space, especially given the overall size of the home, with a spacious sitting area on the main level that has dark parquet floors, and then a sunken, carpeted sleeping area that rests a step down at the far end. Expansive windows in the sitting area look into the east courtyard (but of course there’s a privacy wall and gate between this part of the courtyard and the part that the bathrooms look into).
Large windows on the north side of the sitting area, and a smaller one facing east, tucked around the corner from a wing wall, keep the space bright, with the wing wall offering additional privacy to the sleeping area. Both levels of the Primary suite have closets on the north wall, and another closet is just inside the door to the suite, across from the en suite bathroom.
In this bathroom, a sunken tub is nestled against the courtyard windows, and a small panel on the east wall opens to reveal a screened & louvered vent for fresh air. Here, the countertop is marble, giving the Primary en suite a bit of special treatment for the owner.
Outside, it’s clear to see why Don chose this lot for the house. An acre and three quarters, at the end of a cul-de-sac is nice enough, but the home is virtually hidden from the street, thanks to the plantings out front, beyond the Merrimac driveway. The garage, which was built about 10 years after the house, compliments it perfectly: Its roofline leads to one of the walls that extends to be the west wall of the courtyard at that end of the house. And it features a generous, 7′ x 21′ storage area behind a wall of wood lattice. No detail went without consideration.
Behind the home are a series of berms, and a couple of small ponds tied together by a stream. A wooden foot bridge offers passage across to the pergola at the back of the property, just inside the tree line.
Between the pond and the home is a terraced brick patio, tying into the brick terrace along the front of the home. All these exterior elements work together to create outdoor spaces and views that feel much more special than in a typical yard, even in an area like Bannockburn.
It’s bittersweet now for Don, as he’s realized that he doesn’t have the energy he’s had in the past to continue to care for the home, and it’s time for new owners to take the reins. Before we finish our chat about his house, I ask Don what he’d change or do differently today compared with when he first built the house.
“I often have thought ‘Well, what would I build now?'” he answers, “and I get stumped. I don’t mean that this is so great, but I don’t have anything else that I could think of to do with a house on this same lot.”
Don is of course being overly modest. Anybody who visits the house instantly recognizes that it’s far beyond great. It’s a truly special design, full of clever, thoughtful details that make for a home that can transform the way you live – and what you get out of living there.
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UPDATE: This house sold on April 29th, 2021.
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