Spectacular Dennis Blair-Designed “Lake House in the Forest” in North Barrington


471 East Oxford Road, North Barrington

Harry and Jim may not be the first owners of 471 East Oxford Road in North Barrington, but they have possibly enjoyed it more than any previous residents.

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Dennis Blair and built in 1966 for photographer Sandra Ullmann and her husband, the house is sited on a double lot of nearly 2 acres. The home features stunning, unique architecture offering privacy from the street, and maximizing the amount of nature to be enjoyed while indoors, blurring the lines between inside and out, as is typical of the best examples of modern architecture.

“We were always drawn to modern / mid-century style architecture,” says Jim, “and I’d heard of Dennis Blair from modern architecture magazines. But we were specifically interested in finding a home on a larger lot on a lake. After seeing the uniqueness of the home, we knew it was the one for us.”

As far as home siting goes, especially for a beautiful modern house taking advantage of passive solar, you couldn’t really do much better than to face south out over Honey Lake. The land slopes gently away from the house toward the lake, offering tremendous views year-round, not only of Honey Lake, but of all the natural beauty on and surrounding the property.

“When we first drove up to the home,” continues Jim, “we were impressed with the architecture and the front windows that let you see right through the house. It was so beautiful. And then we walked in and it was as if you were walking into a private forest on the lake. We looked around to see all of the amazing angles, the bridges, the materials, and that was it for us. We knew we wanted to make it our home.”

Indeed, the home’s architecture is uncommon, even for modern homes in the Chicago area. The front of the house features walls that are angled out toward the ground. The roofline then angles down from the top, so that the relationship between the front walls and the roof is nearly 90 degrees – but everything is pitched, so the roof sections are sheathed with normal shingles.

“We started to walk around the home,” says Harry, “and the uniqueness of the architecture and the amazing views from every window were breathtaking. The other thing that surprised us was the amount of space in the home. Looking at it from the front, you’d never guess how much space the house has.”

Listed as having just over 4,600sf, the home feels even larger still, thanks to Dennis Blair’s clever architecture that makes such efficient use of space. Plus, many of the rooms feel larger than they are due to the angles of the front walls and rooflines, which carry over into the upper volumes. Using a loft-style arrangement of vertical spaces, and bridges that connect different areas also makes the house feel open and airy, eliminating the dark, narrow hallways found in so many homes.

“The house was in pretty good condition,” continues Harry, “but it definitely needed some TLC in a number of places. The kitchen was very small and a bit dark. It was just a little galley kitchen. It seemed odd that such a spacious home had such a tiny kitchen.”

“We knew we needed to improve the kitchen area,” says Jim, “and there were other things that needed to be done, too. The acreage is gorgeous, and there was the fantastic screened in porch and the deck, which is also a good size, but outside, on the ground itself, there wasn’t really anything that would let you enjoy the property a little further out away from the house.”

So they began to make improvements to the house and the property. “The driveway was gravel, which looked ok, but we didn’t want to deal with a gravel driveway in the winter. We paved the driveway so that it could be plowed or cleared with snow blowers,” says Harry.

“The other thing that really struck us,” says Jim, “is that there was this cool little bridge that you’d cross to get from the driveway to the entryway. But there was nothing under it except grasses and dirt. We knew that we wanted to put a water feature there. It just made so much sense.”

Now when you approach the home, you still cross the same bridge, but you pass over a koi pond crafted from stone with a waterfall at the west end. It’s a beautiful, welcoming addition that further emphasizes how special this home is.

Inside, the kitchen was set to receive the biggest overhaul. The small, galley kitchen that Harry mentioned had a TV-watching area between it and the screened-in porch. With both a family room and a recreation room already in the house, Harry and Jim felt another TV space wasn’t needed, and knew just how to combine and re-purpose the kitchen and TV room to vastly improve the flow and usefulness of those areas.

“We kept the galley area where it was,” says Jim, “but we opened it up into the old TV room, and expanded the kitchen into that space. What we have now is much more appropriate and useful for a home of this size. There’s a big, beautiful island, lots of counter space, and the kitchen workspace itself makes a lot of sense. We kept the cooktop in the former galley area, which is great, because it keeps the heat and cooking away from the entertaining spaces in the eat-in area and dining room, but it’s very open and bright.”

The back portion of the kitchen has plenty of cabinet and counter space, with acid-washed granite topping the cabinets that go along the wall back into the old galley kitchen area. At the far back of the kitchen, the original front wall of the home, with it’s tall, narrow windows, is still there and still features the same cedar cladding as exists throughout the rest of the house. Astute fans of Dennis Blair’s architecture will note that, as in many of his homes, the original galley kitchen was at the front of the home – one of Blair’s trademarks.

Opposite the cooktop area is a wall of cabinets with two ovens, a built-in fridge / freezer, and pantry cabinets. All of which is finished in doors of quarter-sawn oak to match some original cabinetry in the dining room and powder room. “It was important to us that all the changes we made were usable and high quality by today’s standards,” says Harry, “but we also wanted to stay true to the home’s original character. Jim put so much work into making sure all the details were right. Not only the type of materials we used for the cabinets, but everything. He had the cabinets done in a way that makes it look like they were all taken from the same giant piece of wood. There’s a linearity to the whole kitchen design. Sometimes people don’t notice it at first, but that horizontal, linear element is part of the whole kitchen design.”

At the center of it all is the island: Topped with a gorgeous piece of marble from Brazil called Verde Bamboo, it features natural veining that runs in parallel, horizontal lines, finishing off the theme of linearity with striking beauty. Even the cabinet pulls throughout the kitchen were chosen for their uniqueness and character, being crafted from stainless steel and leather, adding both brightness and yet another natural material that fits so well.

Architectural details, such as the perpendicular wood wall segments on the back counter, island and wine cooler / ice maker area fit in nicely with the home’s thoughtful architecture and design. Since Harry and Jim were making such vast improvements to the kitchen area, they wanted to spruce up the dining room as well. It was in decent shape, but the original built-in cabinetry in that room, and in the nearby powder room, needed attention. Both of those spaces were restored and updated, as were the two full baths upstairs.

“The layout of this house is interesting,” says Jim. “For the most part, it’s a 2-story house. But the east end feels like three stories because it’s offset, vertically, from the rest of the house. The Rec Room, under the living room, is sort of like a walkout basement level. It goes right outside, so there’s a lot of light. And then upstairs, above the living room, is the master suite.”

To get to the master suite, you walk up the stairs from the glass entryway, and then go up another few steps to a bridge that overhangs the entryway to the bedroom. The bedroom is arranged loft-style looking south onto the property, over the living room. There’s a fireplace in the living room below, and the exposed brick from the chimney forms a sort of natural “headboard” for the bed in the master bedroom, flanked on either side by windows.

“The arrangement of the master bedroom is one of our favorite things about the house!” says Harry.

The master bathroom was dated when Harry and Jim bought the house, as was the second bathroom shared by the other three bedrooms on the 2nd floor. As with the kitchen, when it came time to remodel the two full bathrooms, they wanted to make sure they fit the remodeling to the house. As such, both bathrooms feature cabinetry that angles into the front walls of the house. The striking zebra wood cabinets play nicely against the existing cedar in both spaces, again, continuing the practice of updating and improving in character with the home’s original architecture.

“We’re the third owners,” says Jim. “The house was originally built for a photographer, who had an addition put on. But you’d never know it wasn’t original to the house, because it fits so well.”

The addition Jim speaks of is at the west end of the home, and features a two-story layout very similar to the relationship between the living room and the Master Bedroom at the opposite end of the house. On the main level is the Family Room, and above is the Office. At the back of the Family Room is what used to be the original owner’s darkroom.

“We’re not photographers,” says Harry, “but we wanted to make good use of the space, so we converted it into a dry bar with wine storage. The plumbing from Ullmann’s dark room sink is still under the bar, and we thought about adding a sink for ourselves to use it as a wet bar, but it’s there in case somebody wants to do it.”

The Ullmann’s addition was only the first of two. The second addition is all about entertainment and recreation. “Eventually, the Ullmanns sold the home to James and Patricia Kemper [of Kemper Lakes and Kemper Insurance], says Jim, “and the Kempers put on another addition. It was also in character with the home’s original architecture, following the same lines and using the same materials. If the additions hadn’t been done correctly, the home wouldn’t be the same and I’m sure we wouldn’t have fallen in love with it the way we did.”

The Kempers’ addition sits on the north side of the home, at the west end. It repeats the lower / upper loft-style arrangement with a ground floor space that includes an endless pool that creates a current to swim against, and a hot tub. Above is an exercise room with plenty of gym equipment. From the exercise room, you pass through a short hallway with a large walk-in closet on the left and a full bath with steam shower on the right, through to the Game Room that Harry and Jim have stocked with all manner of collectibles, games and the like. Large windows on the south side give occupants a beautiful view – from another perspective – of the front of the house.

Most of the property, however, is behind the house, and that’s where Harry and Jim turned much of their attention once they were finished with the inside of the home.

“Again, the screened-in porch and the deck were fantastic. We really loved them right from the beginning,” says Jim, “but we felt that there was something missing outside. We wanted more space to enjoy the outdoors, because the lot and the setting are so beautiful.”

After shoring up much of the landscaping in the back and side yards that included clearing out quite a bit of brush and minor plants, and adding a river rock “creek” for drainage and visual interest, Harry and Jim had a large stone patio created off the rec room below the living room. The spacious, 39’ by 24’ patio features several seating areas, and includes a stone fire pit designed to echo some of the home’s angles and architecture. Stone stairs follow the natural slope of the land down to a secondary level.

“We have a very large family,” continues Harry. “They love the house and the outdoor spaces. The home is great for entertaining, where everyone can spread about, especially with the lower level walkout onto the huge, two-level stone patio with the fire pit. People move between all the outdoor spaces…the patio, the big deck outside the dining room, the screened-in porch…it makes it so easy and comfortable to enjoy the house, inside and out. And all the kids in the family love the pool, workout room and game room. It keeps them busy for hours.”

As for Harry and Jim, it’s tough for them to choose a favorite part of the house.

“Our home gives you the feeling of being on vacation at your own secluded lake house, but still having all the modern conveniences needed, both in the house and within a mile or so in terms of shopping and restaurants,” adds Harry. “Since we work in the city, having the Barrington Metra station so close has made our 9 to 5 life more accessible.”

At this stage of their lives, Harry and Jim have decided it’s time for them to down-size. Thinking about what’s made the house so enjoyable for them, Harry, too, has a tough time deciding what he’s enjoyed the most.

“We enjoy and love every aspect of the house,” says Jim. “However, the living room is spectacular, with its 12-foot ceiling and the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the property and the lake. And the master bedroom above that. Having that view to wake up to every morning has been incredible.”

All the love they have for the house, and all of the care they’ve put into it while being the home’s stewards, is apparent in every space – both indoors and out. They’ve made an impressive home and property even better and more enjoyable, which is something that’s neither common or easy. And now this amazing property overlooking Honey Lake in one of North Barrington’s most desirable areas is available for just the third time in its 50+ year history.

UPDATE: This property sold on January 23rd, 2018

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