A Sparkling Remodel Revitalizes a 1974 Home That Twists Like a Corkscrew

A Sparkling Remodel Revitalizes a 1974 Home That Twists Like a Corkscrew

By Mandi Keighran
A quirky multilevel home in Chicago’s Old Town by pioneering architect Walter Netsch has been sympathetically restored by its new owners.

In 1974, architect Walter Netsch, a design partner at Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), completed his own home on a corner in Chicago’s Old Town. The simple exterior form—a brick box with a triangular protrusion—conceals a complex, multilevel interior informed by an approach Netsch called "field theory."

The mostly blank brick-clad exterior belies the complex geometries that inform the multilevel plan inside. The windows are arranged to frame specific views—including the steeple of the nearby St. Michael’s Church—while retaining privacy from the street.

The exterior of the home shortly after it was completed in 1974.

Netsch and his wife, Northwestern law professor and Illinois state politician Dawn Clark Netsch, amassed an impressive art collection and lived in the home until their deaths in 2008 and 2013.

Mark Smithe, the co-owner of leading Chicago furniture retailer Walter E Smithe Furniture, had been fascinated by the building for many years, as it was on his jogging route. Shortly after Dawn passed away, Smithe reached out to her estate to enquire about purchasing it as a home for himself and his partner of 18 years, Will Forrest, a senior partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Netsch and his wife had a large art collection, including works by Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Motherwell. 

Mark and Will chose to keep the walls largely bare, celebrating the house itself as a piece of art. They furnished the interior by reusing some of their favorite existing pieces—including the Eames Aluminum Group and Florence Knoll lounge chairs—augmented with similar classics and a few special pieces for character.

"It took eight months, but they finally got into the house," says Brian Lee, Consulting Partner at SOM, who Mark and Will engaged as design consultants for the restoration. "One short visit was enough to convince Mark and Will that this was a truly special house, and that they wanted to secure its future as their home."

The interior is arranged over several levels across two floors, and it spirals upward from the front door. Dawn Clark Netsch once said it’s "designed like a corkscrew."

The house was designed by Netsch as a simple, economical box with a concrete block structure and interior, a brick exterior and exposed wood ceilings. Carefully placed windows and skylights frame specific views and create a luminous interior. The interior volume essentially consists of two floors—however it contains multiple levels that revolve around a central core comprising the kitchen, bathrooms, and storage.

The original home had very few handrails along the open edges of each floor. As part of the renovation, SOM added simple handrails that would not compete with the architecture. On stairs without railings, cushions offer a gentle resistance to people standing near the edge.

The half bath next to the kitchen was renewed with new counters, lighting, and a cleverly concealed water closet.

From the entry, a half flight of stairs leads to the living space, which opens to a dining platform and a sitting space, each a half level up. Those two spaces connect to the kitchen and entertainment room, completing the loop. 

A ramp leading down from the entry descends half a level to a bedroom and study, which connects back up to the living room via a dramatic angled stair. All of the spaces were originally completely open, with no doors.

A half flight of stairs leads from the entrance to the living area. The multiple levels—connected by open-riser timber stairs and ramps—give the illusion of a much larger space.

Skylights define the ridge of the hipped roof and create a dramatic play of light across the interior walls that illuminates specific parts of the home at certain times of the day and year.

The materials used in the house—concrete blocks and oak floors—are modest, and the detailing is very simple and often workmanlike. The white concrete block walls were repainted in Benjamin Moore’s Chantilly Lace during the renovation.

"These two simple loops around the core provide fascinating visual connections between rooms and a wonderful sense of light and openness," says Lee. "Netsch was interested in geometry and how rotation could generate complexity and interrelated spaces. I also suspect that he wanted a house that was a sophisticated architectural diagram, but also a container to complement their very personal lifestyle that was filled with people, art, books, and artifacts."

Netsch had arranged pot plants and various objets d’art along the side of the stairs and various levels in lieu of railings.

The steps to the kitchen were designed by Netsch to the proportions of the Parthenon, necessitating half steps in between. Will and Mark regularly entertain large groups, and removable cushions provide miscellaneous seating for guests.

When Mark and Will moved in, they lived in the home for several months, learning to understand its idiosyncrasies and how it would need to be adapted to fit their lifestyle. "They were enthralled by the unique qualities of the space, movement, and light in the house," says Lee. "While committed to maintaining the purity and originality of the concept, they needed someone to help make it livable for them."

The home has two bedrooms. The original master bedroom was located toward the top of the home, on the same level as the dining area. During the renovation, it was swapped with the guest room.

Smithe and Forrest were open to purchasing and retaining some original pieces from the home, including a large green and blue artwork by Jack Youngerman by the bedroom.

 Shop the Look
Eames Aluminum Group Lounge Chair
The Eames Aluminum Group Lounge Chair has a high back, relaxed pitch, and padded headrest. Pair it with an optional matching ottoman for even more laid-back comfort. Its clean, graceful lines look as fresh today as they did when this Eames classic was first introduced.
Florence Knoll Lounge Chair
Designed in 1954 as what Florence Knoll modestly referred to as one of the fill-in pieces that no one else wants to do, the Florence Knoll Sofa Collection now stands as a defining example of modern design.
FLOS Arco Floor Lamp
The Flos Arco Floor Lamp is a modern design classic that is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The large dome-shaped spun aluminum shade dangles at the end of a curved stainless steel stem, which arches out of a heavy block of white marble.

They were happy with the general layout and agreed a light touch was the best approach to expose the essence of Netsch’s design. They did, however, want to update the kitchen and bathrooms, and the master bedroom was swapped with a guest bedroom on a lower level to accommodate a larger built-in wardrobe that connects to the laundry.

The kitchen retains its original plan, but it’s been updated with new counters, cabinets, appliances, and lighting. A new wood counter, sink, cantilevered shelf, and cabinets were added opposite the original kitchen counter to create a convenient space for food and drink prep.

The master bathroom was refreshed with new tiles and counters. Sliding doors were also added to the master bathroom and the study space for privacy.

The master bathroom retains its original configuration, including a sunken shower.

The design team repaired and repainted the windows, added new wood treads to the stairs, and a removed a personal lift introduced to the home for accessibility in the later years of the Netsch’s life. "The home was in good original condition," says Lee. "In all cases, we tried to match the spirit of the material use and detailing, but with a discerning eye, as we are sure Walter would do so today."

The SOM interiors group designed a bespoke sofa for the living room, as well as several other pieces in the home. The sofa is 18 feet in length, providing a substantial presence in the high-ceilinged open living area. It also defines the unprotected edge between the living space and the hall below.

A small nook in the triangular projection of the floor plan is utilized as a home office with a custom-built desk.

"Retaining the spirit of Netsch’s design while updating the house for the new owners was so rewarding," says Lee. "Will and Mark are very happy clients and consider themselves stewards of a SOM legacy."

This bright blue ladder is a playful nod to one of the original features of the home. Two small nooks were accessible only by ladder, and they were intended as viewpoints overlooking the collection of artwork.

As an homage to the original owners and their art collection, Will and Mark commissioned a digital work by Chicago-based artist duo Luftwerk that can be projected onto the large wall in the living area.

The monumental artwork by Luftwork is site specific, with a number of different visualizations that respond to the space and recall Netsch’s love of art integrated with architecture.

"We were thrilled with the sensitivity and creativity of SOM’s work, and with the attention to detail that mirrored Netsch’s own," say the owners. "Our delight has only grown over time, and we are extremely grateful to the SOM team for their energy, passion, and commitment to preserving and enhancing this unique home."

Level-one floor plan of the Netsch House restoration by SOM.

Level-two floor plan of the Netsch House restoration by SOM.

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Project Credits:

Design Consultants: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)

Cabinetry: KWI Custom Cabinetry, (847) 588-7500 

Bespoke Artwork: Luftwerk

Photographer (renovation): Dave Burk

Photographer (original): William Lukes 

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