You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when the owners of a provocatively revamped horse stable in Chicago stroll you around their quirky neighborhood. Take that yellow house across the street—legend has it that the owner’s father won it in a card game. The rest of the block is a crazy quilt of turn-of-the-century worker’s cottages, bastardized Italianate three-flats, and clumsily composed yuppie townhouses known (not affectionately) as "Polish contractor specials."
Now this crazy quilt has a new patch: the Brick Weave House, so named by its architect, Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects. Designed for advertising executives David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt, the house is in gentrifying West Town, about two miles northwest of the muscular skyline of Chicago’s Loop. The house’s name comes from its most distinctive feature, a tall, two-sided, technically adventurous brick screen that shelters a walled garden and gives the owners the privacy they crave while letting honeycomb patterns of natural light pour inside. At night, the brick screen becomes a dazzling light box.
The house’s interior is, in its own way, equally unconventional. There is no kitchen island, no flat-screen TV, no basement, no attic. What really sets the house apart, though, is the playful theatricality with which Gang spotlights Hernandez and Surratt’s collection of cars and motorcycles. They’re displayed like sculptures, on view from the dining room through a curtain-framed opening that leads directly into the garage. The detail is emblematic of how Gang embraced her clients’ individuality, making art out of idiosyncrasy.
In the 1880s the house was a wood-frame stable; over the years it grew haphazardly, slowly encrusting with brick additions, a lean-to structure, and some god-awful postwar siding. "During construction, we found large mammal bones—we assumed they were horses’, not humans’," says Hernandez, 42, managing director and executive creative director of the Chicago office of Tribal DDB Worldwide. He bought the property in 1999, attracted by its convenient, close-in location; its extrawide lot (40 feet as opposed to the 25-foot Chicago standard); and the high-ceilinged stable space, a perfect spot to store cars and "wrench on projects." Yet the place was so ugly that when Surratt drove Hernandez home on one of their first dates, he had her drop him off a block away so she wouldn’t see it.
Phase one of its transformation occurred in 2003 with a made-for-TV makeover by Nate Berkus, Oprah Winfrey’s interior designer, who redid the back of the house as a sexy bachelor pad. Berkus punched a big window in the back wall, splashed the floor with orange paint, and threw in Barcelona chairs and other hip furniture—enough, in other words, to look good on TV. Yet Hernandez wanted more. He pondered a restoration that would celebrate the weathered barn doors and other historic details.
But excavation revealed that too much of the original structure was gone to make authentic the rehab he had sketched on tracing paper. "It was too Disneyland," he says. "It was a facade for something that was false."
Instead, he and Surratt, 37, a creative director at Ogilvy Chicago, opted for a complete remake. On the recommendation of a friend, they hired Gang, who had won plaudits for innovative civic designs and will soon complete an 82-story mixed-use Chicago skyscraper, believed to be the tallest building designed by a woman. Her decision to redo the stable—her first completed house—inverted the usual order of architects working their way up from houses to larger commissions. But she was attracted by the prospect of collaborating with two visual types who were passionate about design and promised not to get in her way. "Our carrot is that we’ll be the best clients you ever have," Surratt recalls telling her. "Now here’s the $5 budget." Actually, it was $140 a square foot, which comes out to about $450,000 for what is now a 3,200-square-foot house.
Gang’s first big move subtracted an 800-square-foot chunk of the house’s front, making room for the brick screen and walled garden. The screen, which consists of Norman brick with custom-made hardware in the joints, is supported by steel columns and beams that extend outward from the roof as well as horizontal trusses embedded in mortar. It is the latest in Gang’s experiments with materials, making what is usually heavy and solid seem light, almost porous. Though the result may not convince those who insist that a house’s windows and doors should suggest a human face, it is not anti-urban. "It’s not a wall; people come and stare through," Gang says. The house is more social than it seems on account of its street-facing garage, which lets the couple visit with neighbors who park their cars on the street or slide up their own garage doors and tinker with their cars.
Call it "gearhead urbanism."In the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright, the route to the front door is adventurous, forcing you to make a couple of turns and pass through the walled garden’s soaring space. Once inside, you quickly grasp how Gang met and exceeded her clients’ brief: flowing spaces suitable for big parties, integrated storage that compensates for the absence of an attic or basement, a small kitchen, and upstairs rooms that can convert to bedrooms.
To accomplish all this, Gang reversed the previous floor plan, converting the high-ceilinged stable to two floors of living space while placing the new garage on the house’s flanks, where before there had been living space. The key is that the vehicle storage and the house are integrated, not separated. From the sleekly furnished dining room, you peer straight into the garage through an opening accented by orange velvet curtains. You’ll see a yellow 1968 Camaro Rally Sport or a mauve and black 1966 Dodge Monaco 500. "One of my first boyfriends had this car—same color," Gang says of the Dodge. The concrete floor in the dining room has tire tracks from Surratt’s Ducati Monster Dark 750 motorcycle, which is occasionally invited in.
Gang lined the west side of the house’s first floor with inexpensive Ikea aluminum-and-frosted-glass wardrobes, even tucking a fridge and other kitchen appliances behind them. The narrow, low-ceilinged galley kitchen, which has no upper-level cabinets (they would have been claustrophobic, the clients say) sets up for a classic architectural game of "compress and release." Pass through it and you enter a living room that extends the full width of the house, with 20-foot ceilings and no big TV; a projector displays video on the wall instead. Wood stairs cascade down from the second floor. Concrete steps separate the living room from an adjoining library. These details create a strong sense of internal topography. There’s more spatial excitement upstairs in the master bedroom, where floor-to-ceiling glass offers views out onto the walled garden. Despite its tight lot the place feels expansive and serene. Even as her clients gave her free aesthetic reign, Gang gave them something in return: a house whose architecture is at once assertive and responsive.
It accommodates all aspects of their lifestyle, from their cars to their choices about deemphasizing what is celebrated in other homes to their collections of furniture and other items purchased from flea markets and yard sales. It works in part because Surratt and Hernandez display all their things so well, but also because Gang didn’t insist on total visual control. This is a livable modernism, one that accepts—and makes a virtue of—the quirks of its clients rather than ruthlessly editing them out.
Blair Kamin is the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic and the co-owner of a suburban home that, despite waves of renovation, will never make the pages of Dwell. Kamin typically writes about large-scale projects and was delighted to turn his focus to a small-scale home rehab for a couple whose lifestyle is anything but conventional. "It was great to observe the direct connection between their quirks and the completed house."