Connecting to the backyard makes a big difference

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Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

So many Oak Park homes have great basics but need a little tweaking to make them suit the way people live today as opposed to the lifestyles of people in the early 20th century. One brick four-square on Marion Street embodied all that was great and not so great about older homes. The homeowners were drawn in by the home's beautiful woodwork and historic details but hated the way the interior was closed off from the outdoors.

So they set out to keep all of the original charm while making the home more pleasant for themselves and their son. Working with Tom Sundling of Thomas Patrick Homes, they embarked on a two-stage makeover to gain useable living space, more light and more access to their backyard.

The plan

The wife of the couple (they prefer to remain anonymous) notes that she and her husband lived in this home for 10 years before embarking on the renovation, and points out that there was much to love about the home as it was.

"We started out with a small, beautiful, classic Oak Park four-square home," she said. "We had gorgeous woodwork throughout the home. The problem was that the interior was closed off to the backyard, and we love the outdoors, so we wanted to change that."

With plenty of time to think about what they really wanted, her husband sketched out a plan and they hired architect Michael Newman of Shed Studio in Chicago to finalize the renovation plans for them.

Newman agrees that the house had "great bones" but wasn't taking advantage of its lot. "The big thing was they have a really nice, big backyard, but there was zero connection of the house to the backyard. It was a huge, gaping opportunity."

Newman and the homeowners came up with an addition that enlarged the dining room and added a family room and screened porch on the first floor, while creating a master suite and a larger bedroom for the owners' son upstairs.

According to Newman, "the basic design was to create a more fluid transition from the front to the back of the house, to open it up. I think we were successful in doing that on the first floor with the wall of windows in the family room, and also on the second floor where the master bedroom windows look out onto the backyard. Trying to make it work with the tricky geometry of an older home was a bit of a challenge, but it all worked out."

Putting plans into practice

The homeowners hired local contractor Tom Sundling of Thomas Patrick Homes to do the work on the house. Sundling, who is also a neighbor, came in with an intimate knowledge of working with older homes, and was able to retain historic features while complementing them with new conveniences.

In the dining room, a built-in hutch featuring art glass was original to the home and was one of the homeowners' favorite parts of the house. Its placement on an east-facing rear wall had precluded any thought of taking down the wall, but Sundling worked around it, moving the complete built-in to a newly constructed wall on the south side of the expanded room. Serendipitously, the corresponding space above the built-in on the second story perfectly fit the twin bed of the owners' son.

Because the dining room more than doubled in size, the original coffered ceiling could not be saved, but Sundling took pains to replicate it and created a new coffered ceiling for the room, keeping the historic charm alive.

A new family room opens to the dining room and the kitchen, and it floods the first floor with light, while the screened-in porch connects to both the dining room and the backyard.

The addition is visible from the street only in the form of a slightly protruding brick wall that extends a few feet from the home's original boundary, but the changes to the home are hard to miss from the rear. A wall of windows and doors opens the family room to a back deck, and above that, the peaked, cathedral ceiling of the master bedroom allowed for another large array of windows. Sundling notes that the changes to the roofline make the exterior view something special.

"What's kind of neat about this is that the overall style of the houses on the block is a hipped roof. We kept that style in most of the addition, but on the first floor, we went with a flat roof, which kept the window wall from being too much."

Room to spread out

Sundling points out that the second floor originally had four bedrooms and still has four bedrooms, but two of the four became much bigger. The master bedroom now has a cathedral ceiling and a wall of windows facing the backyard. A new master bathroom rounds out the space and the owners plan to incorporate a built-in system for clothes storage.

The peak of the cathedral ceiling provides another opportunity, says Sundling. "One of the neat elements is the loft space we built in. It's something you don't typically see in Oak Park. The owners plan to put books up there and use it as a place to relax and retreat."

The young son's room now has plenty of storage for toys and games, and a new window out to the backyard. Around the corner from the new master bedroom, the upstairs hallway still sports its original built-in linen cabinet. Proving that people from across the ages always want more storage, part of the overall plan to renovate the house includes new touches just like this.

The homeowner notes that she and her husband are very pleased with the results of what they call stage one of the renovation of their home.

"We started in mid-August, and it's been a long haul, but we're so happy with how it turned out. Stage one was the addition and stage two will incorporate custom cabinetry throughout the home."

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