A Parisian-Inspired Chicago Pied-à-Terre

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“I thought we’d never get out of the suburbs,” says the wife of the couple who live in this Chicago pied-a`-terre, clearly indicating that the out-of-towner experience had worn thin. Owners of a frozen food company, they had left urban life to raise a family. But when their two daughters went to college and her husband sold the business, she says, “He promised me we were going to move back to the city.”

Honoring that vow, they began searching for a rental apartment. Then an ad irrevocably transformed their plans into something far more ambitious. One of the city’s most prestigious landmarks, the Palmolive Building, was being converted into residences by Chicago developer Draper and Kramer in conjunction with the architectural firm Booth Hansen and builder firm Pepper Construction Group.

Renovation was just starting on the 37-story building that had been completed in 1929. When the couple first saw their future residence, the raw space was “in such disarray, you can’t imagine,” the wife recalls. “I thought my husband was insane. But he got a good feeling from it. And he was right.”

Unlike other units with 9-foot ceilings, the 17th-floor apartment had ceilings that measured a lofty 12 feet. Entranced by the ample light and volume, the couple bought the residence. However, they wanted a highly customized space completely atypical of the developer’s other units. Though they were unaware of it at the time, their devotion to exceptional bespoke interiors would launch them on a four-year odyssey.

“If the owners were going to spend this money and go to all the trouble, they didn’t want to compromise or settle for half-solutions,” says Steve Kadlec, who was brought in to handle the interior architecture and de´cor. Taking his cue from the building’s Art Deco origins and the owners’ desire to keep the space as open as possible, Kadlec created an updated French 1920s aesthetic and a floor plan where rooms opened onto others in a constant progression, thus eliminating the need for light-deprived hallways.

Concept, it turned out, was the easiest part. “The clients were tenacious about getting the level of finish and quality of construction they wanted,” remembers Kadlec.

For instance, odd soffits and structural beams dropped below ceiling level to accommodate electrical wiring, plumbing and ductwork. In other apartments, the developer hid them in coffers or the perimeters of cove ceilings. “But that’s not indicative of Deco,” explains the wife. “We wanted flat ceilings,” which required complete reengineering.

“We labored to find veneers long enough for the living room,” adds Kadlec. For authenticity’s sake, they also took great pains to unearth flooring that was 13⁄4 inches wide, rather than the standard 21⁄2 inches. The size of the windows could not be altered, but in order to give them the tall profiles of Parisian apartments of the era, Kadlec used silvered eglomise mirror panels above them to create faux transoms. “This gives the illusion that the windows continue up, and accentuates the verticality of the space,” he says.

Even though the stylistic touchstone was Art Deco, Kadlec contem- porized the look for today with modern detailing: frameless doors, for example, and paneling that was flush rather than traditionally recessed. Custom furniture profiles evoke the period theme, but they are stripped to their modern essence. The couple also worked with art consultant Suzy Locke of Oakland, California, to choose smart contemporary works to punctuate the rooms. The results are highly sophisticated.

And adult, says the wife, who now toggles with her husband between their two homes. “It’s a very grown-up apartment,” she says. “When I take care of my grandson, I take him to the suburbs. I love him to death, but this is not an apartment for him.”

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