Before & After: An Atrium-Like Staircase Fills This Minimalist Chicago Duplex With Light

Before & After: An Atrium-Like Staircase Fills This Minimalist Chicago Duplex With Light

By Melissa Dalton
Carefully placed windows steep this crisp Chicago apartment in the texture of the city.

When architect Vladimir Radutny first saw this early 1900s, two-flat building in the Southport Corridor of Chicago, it wasn’t just worn out—there was hardly a straight plane in the place, and it suffered from a lack of natural light and a compressed scale.

"The floor plates were very compartmentalized, so any natural light that could come through between the property lines, or in between the buildings, was absorbed," says Radutny. "And the ceilings appeared to be extremely low, primarily because the spaces were so subdivided and chopped up."

Radutny and colleague Fanny Hothan worked with the DiCosola Group to convert the two-unit building into a single-family home. The team preserved the brick shell and the street-facing facade, capped the building with a third-story addition, and joined all the floors together with a light-filled staircase.

During Construction:

During: "The outcome of age showed throughout the entire building," says Radutny. "Floors, ceilings, doorways, stairs, and most interior openings were all parallelogram-like."

During: Three exterior load-bearing walls were left intact, while the rear was completely blown out. The design team installed new interior framing.

During: Radutny created a new window plan, patching up old openings that were no longer needed, and creating larger apertures to achieve more light and privacy.

From the start, the clients—a developer and an arts professional—knew they wanted a minimalist interior, including floor-to-ceiling windows, no trim or casework, and precise detailing. The new plan emphasizes "openness and connectivity between not just rooms, but also between floors—and a sense of scale that’s a bit more grand," says Radutny.

The existing structure was not up to the streamlined design the clients sought. "There’s no way we could achieve such precision and accuracy within the existing conditions, due to the sagging 100-year-old floors and walls, and the interior framing needed to be almost perfect," says Radutny. Minimalist detailing is "not forgiving," adds Radutny. "You can't hide unevenness, or poor craftsmanship. It only gets amplified when it’s not executed well."

After: Entry Staircase

At the entry, the staircase takes on a sculptural quality and integrates a built-in bench. On the right, the home’s preserved brick is revealed. On the left, a window captures the exterior brick of a neighbor. "We created these moments where the inside and the outside start to blend together," says Radutny.

"We tried to open up views to the the side yard as much as possible, while placing windows in areas where you don’t necessarily need to draw your blinds," says Radutny. This collection of irons belonged to the client’s father, who was an industrial designer.

The main floor powder room is behind the wall. 

Every window was placed strategically, in order to bring in natural light and capture the city’s grit and texture while providing privacy. The home is located just 75 feet away from elevated train tracks—close enough to hear the next stop called—and the homeowners didn’t want the setting screened out.

"It’s constantly porous," says Radutny. "Corridors are always met with an aperture, so whenever you make a turn into a space or through a space, there’s always something that you can look out through—into something else that is beyond."

Before: Living Room

Before: The previous floor plan was fairly standard, with compartmentalized living areas. 


After: Living Room

Custom metal shelves display books. The flooring throughout is white oak, and its color syncs nicely with the tones in the brick—inside and out.


Before: Kitchen

Before: The kitchen was disconnected from the rest of the home.

After: Kitchen

The living spaces flow together, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the backyard and elevated train tracks.

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As one ascends to the second and third floors, the staircase takes on an atrium-like quality thanks to windows and a skylight. At the top floor, floor-to-ceiling windows put the train tracks at eye level, creating a moment of surprise and discovery.

After: Upper floors

The skylight allows glimpses of sky from multiple points below. The second level is dedicated to bedroom suites.

A metal support beam is left uncovered, bringing textural contrast to the crisp surroundings.

A designated work space overlooks the train tracks.


Before: Rear Facade

Before: The backs of buildings are a common sight from the train. "A lot of times those are left as is—nobody really cares about putting thought or value into them," says Radutny.

During: Rear Facade

During: The basement was "underpinned" to gain more head height and make the level functional as a self-sufficient suite.

After: Rear Facade

While the historic qualities of the front facade were kept, the back was given a more modern treatment. The window scheme hints at the layout within—the long windows denote where the stairs are, and the sill heights rise in accordance with the need for additional privacy on the upper floors.

The team installed narrow strips of Hardie cement board in a shiplap application, to give the rear facade depth.

At the garage, "the material is the same cladding as the addition and the back of the house— Hardie Boards were applied in a totally random pattern, with the intent to paint the surface," says Radutny. "When it was done, I was pleasantly surprised with the accidental outcome and suggested for it to be left as is. The result was rather beautiful, echoing a sense of movement as the foreground to the Elevated Train above. So, they left it, as another art wall."

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