Whenever I wonder why it’s rare to see new homes being built in the same style as the mid-century modern homes we all love, I think about a quote from Burton Frank, of the architecture firm Schiller and Frank. Frank once said, regarding the middle of the 20th century, “It was the best time to be an architect. Modernism was simply the design of the times.”
Frank’s partner, Don Schiller, was less quoted by the press. I’m assuming this is because Frank was the more public face of the company. As a result, it’s been a bit challenging to find more information on Schiller. I did find that he was a decorated World War II bomber pilot, was an avid bridge player and golfer, and served on the Highland Park Plan Commission for a time.
In their time together, Schiller and Frank designed a number of large projects, such as the CAI factory in Barrington that made spy cameras for the military, and some modern condo developments in Rolling Meadows and a few other towns.
Several years back, I had a home listed by James Dresser that had an addition designed by Schiller and Frank. They also designed a number of private homes in Olympia Fields and Highland Park.
One of these was Don Schiller’s own personal residence, built in 1954 at 195 Elder Lane in Highland Park.
Schiller’s architectural education was at IIT’s Institute of Design, which was the home of the Bauhaus school. Several years after IIT, Schiller attended Yale Architecture School, and was a draftsman for Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett before becoming a partner in Fitch & Schiller, which later transformed into Fitch & Schiller & Frank before ultimately settling to Schiller and Frank.
At 195 Elder Lane, Schiller had quite a challenge. Close to Sheridan Road, and overlooking one of Highland Park’s many beautiful ravines, the lot Schiller purchased for his family home is very long and narrow, with only 55 feet of frontage. But the lot is more than 250 feet deep.
Schiller cleverly designed the home with a bend in it toward the street, so that from Elder Lane, the house is afforded nearly absolute privacy. All of the home’s windows are on the sides or the back of the house, where they overlook the ravine, or clerestory windows facing south that afford tons of sunlight and views of big, beautiful, old trees.
A long walk along the east side of the home, with some integral planter boxes, leads from the garage (which was originally a carport) to the front entrance. Even here, Schiller’s design hides the view of the ravine so that it’s saved for once you enter the home.
The longest part of the home features four bedrooms on the main level, with the Master Suite being closest to the street, but sheltered by the garage. Designed with three separate closet areas and non-right angles in several places (due to the Master being where the bend is in the house), the Master is both spacious and has plenty of storage in addition to its private bath.
A wall of large windows overlooks what was originally an aggregate paver walk along the side of the house – one that has since seen the maturing of a number of old trees and is a bit more wild than when the home was first built.
A single floor to ceiling window also looks toward a private patio created on the west side of the house, in a space formed between the family room and the side boundary of the lot on the west side. A Progress SoundGuard intercom control panel is still incorporated into a wood-clad wall near this window.
The three additional bedrooms on the main level are all similar in layout, with a 10×10 area and a closet near the door to the hallway.
A 2nd full bath was shared by the three additional bedrooms and serves as the public bathroom for guests.
With the ravine at the north end of the lot, that’s also where Schiller located all of the common or public areas of the home, with the eat-in kitchen off of the entry foyer, a stairway leading to the lower walkout area, the family room on the west side, and the north-most parts of the house being occupied by the living and dining rooms, both of which lead to an irregularly-shaped deck that covers the pea gravel terrace off of the lower level below.
The kitchen features beautiful cabinets that were hand-built on site and that feature wonderful mid-century hardware. The oven and cooktop are original to the home, and the kitchen’s walls end at 8 feet high, leaving them open above that to the gallery area that runs parallel to the stairway leading to the lower level, as well as to the dining room.
The living room features a stone fireplace with asymmetrically placed firebox and is open above the south wall to the family room, with clerestory windows facing south above that, letting in light and providing views of the beautiful canopy of old trees around the house.
Views out from the living and dining rooms toward the ravine are just gorgeous, with an ever-changing palette of natural beauty – and wildlife – as the seasons change. Original details such as a valance with built-in lighting along the south side of the living room, and original drapes, still feature in the home, offering a soft contrast to the redwood ceiling boards and beams holding up the roof.
Based on some archival plans that the city of Highland Park had on record, it seems as though the family room may have originally been designed as a screened porch, but that Schiller later decided to enclose it as part of the home for additional living space. It’s unclear if that was done before or after he and his family moved into the home, though, as the old plans have a few elements, such as the size of the stone chimney stack, that don’t match the house the way it is today.
The family room is a fantastic space, with built-in shelving, a wall of windows that look into the house past the stairway, and sliders leading to the sheltered patio that I mentioned earlier.
The lower level features the laundry, utilities, a rec room which was used as a kids’ play area, a wet bar and a maid’s room with an adjacent full bath.
Redwood was used extensively by Schiller throughout the house, with a beautiful horizontal board and batten design on most of the exterior, and redwood used extensively on the interior as well.
Fabric covered drop panels that seem to float just below the ceiling in the family room and master suite are some of the many nice details in the home, as well as some interesting geometry used in the Master bathroom cabinetry and light fixtures that look as fantastic now as they did back then.
When Schiller sold the home in 1957, it was to a magazine publisher & advertising executive and his wife. I first met with Mark, the owners’ son, early last year to discuss listing the home for sale. Mark’s father had lived in Chicago when he was younger, but was living in Westchester County, NY before moving back to Chicago and purchasing the Schiller residence.
“My father was the publisher of various trade magazines in New York and decided to move back to Chicago to start his own business in media/advertising sales,” Mark says. “At one point, he owned Chicago Magazine as well as North Shore Magazine, and he started National Textbook Company, which I later ran, and which was eventually acquired by Tribune.”
Although Mark clearly had a vast appreciation for Schiller’s architecture after growing up in the house, he assumes that his parents bought the home simply because of the location and that it met their needs in terms of space. But they, too, quickly learned to appreciate the home and its location greatly.
“They loved the heavily wooded ravine and the large deck overlooking it,” Mark says. “The windows, the openness to the outside, the ‘glass room’ [the family room] and the living room were the heart of the home.”
Mark also loved the openness and the views of the nature outside, as well as how close the house was to a couple of locations that were important to him: “I liked how close it was to our school, Braeside, and to Ravinia, where we constantly went during the summer and where I worked while I was in high school. In fact, we’re so close to the school that our collie, Cookie, would just show up there when the day was over and wait for me to come out.”
Even though Mark’s parents hadn’t been searching for a modern home when they moved to Chicago in the late ‘50s, he thinks their appreciation of modern architecture grew from living there. “My parents later bought a beautiful mid-century modern house in Rancho Mirage in California,” says Mark, “so I feel as though living in such a beautiful modern home here rubbed off on them.”
When it came time to list the house for sale, we worked out a comprehensive marketing strategy, I had written this storey, created CAD drawings of the layout based on some old microfiche from the local government, created official floor plans, taken some drone photography and we were all set to stage the house with beautiful mid-century modern furniture. As part of preparing to go live with the listing, we learned that a neighbor who had been renting had been searching for a ranch in the same neighborhood and we ended up working out a deal with the neighbor and sold the house before ever going to market officially. That’s why no record of this home being for sale exists on our MLS or in other real estate listing sites like Realtor.com, etc. I was, however, able to take a few photos of the home before the transaction closed so that I could share them with you here.
And if you live in a modern home in the Chicago suburbs and you’re thinking of selling, I’d love to help you by putting my expertise and experience to work for you, just as I have many other happy clients over the years. You can find my contact info here.