In second unions, the transition from his and hers to ours can prove quite challenging—especially when it comes to blending abodes. And for a newly married Chicago couple with demanding careers, six children and differing aesthetic orientations, the potential for complications increased exponentially. They beat the odds by resorting to the simplest strategy of all: Well in advance of the wedding and its related changes, the couple assembled a team of trusted pros they knew from previous jobs. “We started talking about what they had in mind for the new house before they even began looking for it,” says designer Alexandra Kaehler. “The owners trusted us to jump in and do what they needed when the right place was found,” adds architect Mark Weber.
Not surprisingly, they had substantial requisites and a tight timeline. “Both were coming from large houses at opposite edges of the metropolitan area and wanted a spacious residence that would be conducive to family living,” says Kaehler. So they decided to settle in the historic Gold Coast district near both of their jobs, even though space is at a premium in the dense neighborhood and “four of their six children would need dedicated sleeping spaces at the new residence,” explains Kaehler.
Despite a timely start, it took six months to find the right house. The couple agreed on an 1891 greystone with great bones, significant potential and just enough bedrooms: three on the two upper levels and the potential for two in the basement. “It was beautifully detailed, in decent shape, and gave them sufficient space without going overboard,” says Kaehler. “They wanted to make sure nothing went unused as the younger kids went off to college.”
But “its deficits were equally significant,” notes Weber—starting with an astonishingly narrow 16.5-foot lot width. “Vintage row houses tend to grow longer thanks to additions and lose light over time, and this one was no exception.” It also lacked a gracious master suite; the infrastructure and mechanicals were outdated; and the basement was riddled with years of awkward improvements to the home’s systems, which made the space unlivable.
“The scope changed from some work on the second floor and the basement to almost a total gut job,” says Tom Ollenburger, who helmed the build along with construction supervisor Chuck Landis and who had worked with the husband and Weber on a prior renovation project. “They were hoping to move in when they got married in July, but they didn’t close until May, and we didn’t get the permits until mid-July. Instead, we aimed for Thanksgiving and moved quickly.”
Weber cleverly reconfigured the basement and second story, adding apertures and clerestory windows wherever possible to grab more interior light. The former became a hyper-efficient but bona fide man cave with its own den, two berth-like bedrooms, bathroom and entrance to the outdoors. The latter underwent a stunning transformation from a warren of rooms into an elegant master suite. Weber accomplished this by turning a small sitting room edged with a charming deck into the bedroom and then reconfiguring the former sleeping space into a storage-laden closet and master bathroom.
Furnishing the new home “was a breeze thanks, in large part, to the couple’s commitment to meet in the middle,” says Kaehler, though her superb listening skills, creativity and efficiency made it possible for such expedience and ease. “They both have great taste, but she’s drawn to very subtle monochromatic palettes, and he’s passionate about color. So we strived to reach a happy medium.”
Starting mostly anew with just a few pieces each from their former homes, Kaehler guided the couple to clean-lined upholstered pieces and case goods punctuated with strategically measured hits of graphic pattern and vivid color via textiles, wallcoverings and art. The tactic upped the glamour quotient of the sophisticated but subdued de´cor and satisfied both homeowners’ preferences.
Today, the couple are enamored with life in their new home, made possible by the dream team they assembled. And they’ve grown equally fond of their blended lifestyle, which is more colorful in every way. “This couple’s new home is a total collaboration,” says Kaehler. “We balanced both of their needs and wants to create a home that they both love, and it reflects them each perfectly.”