A Prairie home companion

Martin Hackl has kept his Van Bergen home

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On Sunday afternoons some people watch football, some people nap, and some people tour open houses. Martin Hackl toured houses, with such regularity that he was known by the local Realtors.

"I did what a lot of people do," explains Hackl. "I went to open houses for fun, and I had in mind that if something nice ever came up, I would move. I liked Frank Lloyd Wright, but I also recognized that if I could afford to buy it, I probably couldn't afford to fix it, much less to restore it. The day I walked into this house I knew this was where we should live."

Martin and Eva Hackl moved into the Oak Park house with son Tristan, daughter Rosina, and small dog Schatz in 1994. They were instantly struck by its spacious feel, even though it was smaller than the bungalow they'd left.

Known as Flori Blondeel No. 3, the Hackls' house was designed by architect John Van Bergen in 1914. It inspired Hackl to research Van Bergen and his work. The resulting book, The Work of John S. Van Bergen, Architect is in its third edition. Hackl, now considered a leading expert on Van Bergen, also maintains a website, www.re-building.com, dealing with Van Bergen buildings and their conservation.

Three in a row

In 1914, Flori Blondeel, an Oak Park florist, decided to build three houses on spec, and commissioned Van Bergen to do the designs. At this point in his career, Van Bergen, an Oak Park native, designed Prairie-style homes. The Prairie School of architecture emphasizes horizontal proportionsâ€"roof lines, trim work, basic house shapesâ€"and these houses are no exception.

Constructed on North Elmwood Avenue, they were intended to complement each other. Numbers one and three are mirror images of each other, looking out from their living rooms onto the lawn of number two, which is a square design and has a larger setback. Van Bergen worked out the sightlines so the windows would have views instead of facing each other.

Hackl's house is at the north end of the trio.

Van Bergen tied all the rooms to a central core of entrance and staircase, and so no room is a passage to another. It makes the house "very livable," says Hackl. "We had a bungalow before this. You entered the living room, then the dining room, with a bedroom off the dining room, then the kitchen with a bedroom off it. In this house everything is off a core, and as a result you can put the dining room table in the middle of the room, because the room doesn't have to function as a hallway."

In designing a house, Van Bergen moved rooms around until the arrangement and the traffic pattern suited. For Hackl's house, the resulting footprint is a modified 'T' shape. By contrast, many buildings start with a fixed exterior size and shape, square or rectangle, and walls are moved within the shape to make the rooms.

"Van Bergen had a real knack for opening up the house. You go into his homes, and they're very bright and flow well. He had a really good sense of proportion," notes Hackl.

The term Van Bergen used to describe his work was "organic architecture," by which he meant that the house was designed around its function. He separated public and private spaces: public spaces on the first floor, bedrooms on the second. The stairs, wide for a small home, add to the sense of openness.

He came from a family of builders. Van Bergen not only drew up the plans for his houses, but also oversaw construction and hired contractors and subcontractors. He also used new materials and methodsâ€"in Hackl's house, for example, original lights were electric in conduit, not gas.

This house, like many Van Bergen built, was intended for working class folk. Total area is only 2,000 square feet. No client with money would have ordered such a small home, finished with such ordinary materials, suggests Hackl. Van Bergen also had a surprising number of clients who were single women, widows, or artists. He made a point of finishing the projects on time, and within budget.

"Conserving" the house

When Hackl talks about refurbishing his house, he makes a great distinction between the practice of conservation and what's commonly understood to be restoration. His aim, when dealing with historic buildingsâ€"his own home or projects he takes on in his work as a contractorâ€"is to preserve as much of the original fabric of the building as possible.

Tearing out walls, replacing plaster with drywall and adding electrical outlets, bumping out a small kitchen are not things Hackl has in mind. He bought a small, Prairie-style house and kept it that way.

The entrance to Blondeel No. 3, up one step and tucked into a corner formed by the irregular footprint of the house, is not imposing. Inside, a small entryway leads to five steps that in turn lead to the main living level.

The first floor includes the living room, dining room and kitchen. The living room, a spacious 22-by-15 feet, contains a Roman brick fireplace with horizontal lines. "The long narrow bricks, with a salt glaze finish and laid with very thin mortar joints, is an almost universal feature in Prairie School buildings of this era," explains Hackl.

Adding to the horizontal emphasis, Van Bergen added wide baseboards and natural wood banding that runs horizontally around both dining room and living room, a foot below the ceiling.

Ceilings are 8 feet tall, and the dining room, stairwell and living room are open to each other through wide arches. Two-by-12 inch structural beams make these openings possible, and are boxed in and trimmed with molding.

All the trim in the house is red oak. Hackl was pleased when he moved in that it was in decent shape and just in need of a good cleaning. In the living room, trim frames all the columns, serving to define the room as well as provide a very practical protection for the plaster wall corners.

Walls and ceiling here originally had a sand finish. Known also as brown plaster, it's the slightly rough finish plaster has before the last skim coat. Touch-up attention included redoing the ceilings, since years of paint had smoothed the surface.

Rather than recreate the sand finish on what looked like miles of wall, Hackl chose to apply a vinyl covering that resembles grass cloth. It's sturdy, era appropriate, and can be removed in about 20 minutes.

Even the windows have horizontal mullions, and all are casement style, another hallmark of the Prairie School. Hackl comments that these windows are very functional as long as they swing out (as these do), but pose problems in regard to screens and storms. He made interior storm/screen panels for all the windows in the house, and made seasonal changeovers easier by making all of the panels the same size.

The living room is surrounded by windows on three sides, and the lines in the windows strengthen the horizontal feel. At the end of the living room is a veranda, or screened porch, entered through French doors, which also use horizontal mullions. Hackl notes that in some Prairie homes the screened porch has been closed in, thwarting the original design by turning the living room into a passageway.

Hackl, a skilled designer and craftsman, designed the many stained glass panels in the house, the sideboard and chairs in the dining room, and many of the wall sconces and table lamps. He does note, however, that the light fixtures in the living and dining rooms are original to the house. Very rare, Van Bergen called them "wooden chandeliers."

In the kitchen, Hackl changed the existing layout, but later realized his design matched the original. Now the refrigerator sits in the corner where the icebox once stood, though the slot for blocks of ice is no longer needed. The stove is under the original ceiling grate, with the original passive ventilation enhanced by a fan.

Private spaces

Upstairs are three bedrooms and the bath. The master bedroom is huge, easily accommodating a king-sized bed, and looks out over the living room roof onto the side street. A small balcony overlooks the front door.

The second and third bedrooms are smaller, but both have light from two sides. One faces the backyard. The other, facing south, is Hackl's study. His favorite room, the study has windows on two sides that let in a lot of light. The view of the yard next door is fantastic.

Hackl proudly shows off his "new old bathroom." It's "very much as it would have been in the period," he says, even though bringing it back to its former self required running new plumbing down to the basement, and new framing for the walls.

The tub was a find. A claw foot with its original porcelain intact, Hackl found it at a remodeling project in Highland Park. "They opened up a wall, and there it was. In 1940, when they redid the bathroom, they hadn't bothered carrying it down, just put a wall up," he says.

The tile work is plain: white hexes on the floor, white tile laid in a brick pattern halfway up the wall. "I love tiling, but we wanted to do a period bath, and during this time, the bath, like the kitchen, is a work space," Hackl explains.

With this house lovingly tended, Hackl and his family have decided to move on (although they plan to stay in the area). They hope that the next owners, whoever they may be, will treasure the 90-year-old house as they have.

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