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."
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.
"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 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.
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.
"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."
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."
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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 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."
"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."
"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."