Burma-built for the 21st century

The brothers Burma were responsible for an early 20th-century building boom in River Forest

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By Lacey Sikora

The tree-lined streets of River Forest are dotted with homes designed by the Burma family in the first decades of the 1900s. Lambertus and Hilbrand Burma were carpenters from Holland who came to America in 1906 and formed Burma Brothers Construction Company around 1917.

The next generation, Everett and Herman Burma, continued their work in the area. Burma homes span a variety of styles, from Tudor to Mediterranean, and many of the distinctive homes are considered mansions today, occupying large lots in the estate section of River Forest.

The phrase "Burma-built" is a point of pride among homeowners and in local real estate listings — and with good reason. The quality materials and construction techniques that attracted successful businessmen in the last century have stood the test of time, garnering Burma homes a placement in the River Forest Architectural Guide. One Burma home, recently listed for sale, epitomizes the best of the era. The house at 1138 Franklin Ave. was built in 1928, and though the home retains many of its original features, it transitions seamlessly into a more contemporary living space.

Hard to pin down

Kathy and Tony Iwersen of Prudential Rubloff are listing the home for $1,553,000 and they admit its architectural provenance isn't limited to one style.

"We're calling it a Mediterranean," Kathy notes, "but it's not really a Mediterranean." Tony chimes in, "It's got a lot of Art Deco and Spanish influences as well."

The home's pale brick exterior and red-tiled roof do speak to Mediterranean influence, but a turret and distinctive front chimney reflect other architectural styles. Within the home, many original interior finishes defy classification.

Marble entry floors, pale stucco walls and a curved fireplace in the living room reflect a simplified, Art Deco era. Throughout the home, wrought-iron pieces are in evidence, a material frequently used in Art Deco homes, but here the iron is used in a highly decorative manner more indicative of the Spanish style.

Though it may be the architectural equivalent of a mutt, no one viewing the original fixtures would consider this home anything but purebred. Hand-wrought iron radiator covers grace each room, and in the sunroom, original wrought-iron light fixtures sport floral motifs. The original iron stair rail complements the entryway light fixture, a finely detailed piece featuring flowers, vines and half-man, half-goat mythical figurines playing instruments. In the formal dining room, original decorative gates bear a similar floral pattern.

Gracious meets spacious

The home's original features conserve the feeling of a grand past, but it is well-suited to a more modern lifestyle. Unlike many vintage homes, this house boasts large rooms, and the current owner's updates make it a home ready for another century of life. The gourmet kitchen was designed by famed kitchen designer Mick DeGiulio, who designed House Beautiful's 2012 kitchen of the year in New York's Rockefeller Plaza.

The room's simplified, modern design complements the Art Deco features of the home, making this a contemporary kitchen that will stand the test of time, historically speaking. An eat-in banquette includes niches for displaying art or kitchen supplies. Professional appliances by Traulson, Viking and Miele make this a hard-working kitchen. An adjacent butler's pantry was redesigned to match the kitchen, making the perfect spot for party preparations.

With a family room, sunroom, and den, as well as a formal living room and dining room, the home's first floor includes plenty of space for a family to spread out or for hosting gatherings, both intimate and large. The finished lower level of the home adds to the usable space.

The basement is set up for year-round entertainment, with a fireplace and full bathroom, not to mention a full bar. Tony Iwersen says of the bar, "There's a place for a keg, and wrought-iron gates that reference those upstairs in the dining room. This is a great set up."

On the second floor, the owner created a master suite, using high-end finishes. The bedroom boasts one of the home's three fireplaces as well as a custom-made armoire. A fourth bedroom was converted into the master suite's spacious walk-in closet, which includes built-in storage galore. The private bathroom's intricate tile work reflects more Art Deco influence. The remaining bedrooms on this floor share a Jack and Jill bathroom.

Art & entertainment

The current owner of the three-bedroom, four-and-a-half bathroom home has utilized the home's interior to highlight his extensive interest in the arts. The home's public and private spaces lend themselves to display. Upon entering the home, the foyer offers a large wall, perfect for a display. The den off the formal living room includes original wall niches, perfect for showing off artwork or collections. In the public spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows fill the rooms with light, accentuating the gallery feel.

The generous light and wall space make the home ideal for showcasing art and other collections, and the home's placement on a spacious lot makes it ideal for entertaining. Tony Iwersen notes that the 100-foot lot is typical for homes in the estate section of River Forest, but the lot itself is something special.

"The yard is killer," he says. "It's really private. It's like being out in the country." Kathy points out that the 30-by-20-foot terrace lends itself to the biggest party of all.

"You could have a beautiful wedding here."

Reader Comments

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Ed McDevitt from River Forest  

Posted: August 9th, 2013 10:31 PM

Nice article, but the Lacey Sikora and your editor fell into a trap that caused me no end of trouble when I wanted to find historical information on "Burma" houses. The reason I had difficulty is that the Dutch brothers who built the houses spelled their name "Buurma." Once I figured that out, I was able to find an excellent architectural history done for the Village of River Forest by the Lakota Group, "River Forest Architectural and Historical Survey." I recommend it.

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