A Contemporary Lake Geneva Retreat with Reclaimed Materials


For three decades, the suburban Chicago family had spent nearly every weekend at an old cottage on Lake Geneva that they had grown to love despite its many quirks. But with an ever-expanding family and mounting repairs, it became apparent that it made more sense to build rather than fix. So the homeowners hired architects Michael M. Culligan and Michael J. Abraham, principals of Michael Abraham Architecture in Clarendon Hills, to create a spacious, contemporary retreat that incorporated the charm of the original structure. “We wanted the house to feel as if it had been there for a very long time, but thoroughly refitted and modernized,” explains Abraham.

The firm’s design takes full advantage of the home’s proximity to the lake, which is visible from the major common areas and from the three upstairs suites—one for each adult child. “Each room has its own walk- in closet, bathroom, TV and telephone,” the wife explains. “The house works because it allows us to have our time together as a family, yet still affords us privacy.”

Private time might mean hitting the treadmill in the third floor gym, catching a movie in the adjacent theater, or taking a walk through a series of gardens designed by Maria Smithburg of Artemisia Landscape Architecture in Chicago. “Everywhere you look, there’s something interesting to see, even in the winter,” Smithburg says. “Because they spend so much time there they wanted to have color and structure year-round.”

Smithburg’s work includes a greenhouse, a thicket of trees with a clearing for outdoor furniture and her pièce de résistance, a courtyard with limestone pavers and crushed granite gravel located just outside the combined living-dining area, which balances the view of the lake through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall. At the owners’ request, the crew salvaged as much as possible from the cottage they replaced, including an old bell tower that now stands in the courtyard and the original weathered slate roof, which was used on the gables. “If we’ve done our job then the house will get better over time just sitting there,” Culligan says. “The weather will give it a nice patina.”

In the evening, flickering gas lamps illuminate the grounds, which lends an Old World feel, especially when coupled with the thin layer of stucco that was applied deliberately imperfectly to the stone walls. “It looks as if the walls are 200 years old,” says James E. Scherrer, president and CEO of Scherrer Construction in Burlington, Wisconsin.

In the main house, reclaimed wood beams, exposed stone walls, fireplaces and wide thresholds separating the hardwood floors give the impression that the home was cobbled together over the years, one addition at a time. In truth, it was built assembly-line style in three stages. “After the foundation was poured there were multiple trades onsite at all times, moving left to right,” Abraham says.

The owners tapped Chicago-based designer Glen Lusby, of Glen Lusby Interiors, to serve as the unofficial liaison between the various craftspeople. “We’ve been working with Glen for years and years; he’s a gifted gentleman,” the wife explains. Inspired by the view, Lusby blanketed the interiors in a palette of ivories and gray-blues, which repeat throughout the house. “The major theme is comfort and softness,” Lusby explains. “There’s nothing stark about this house, and no hard edges.”

In fact, the cottopesto countertop between the butler’s pantry and the family room is so soft that the homeowners were able to have family sayings engraved into its smooth surface. “We work with an artist in Italy who creates these durable works of art out of clay and limestone,” explains Kathy Manzella, of de Giulio Kitchen Design in Chicago, who designed a French Country kitchen with discreet areas for prep, snacks and storage to accommodate everyone in this very full house. “It’s a fun spot to be,” the wife says. “We feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven every time we’re here.”

—Tate Gunnerson