Story and photos by Lee Bey
Jennifer Nickerson spent much of her childhood playing in the mid-century modern houses of her classmates in Riverwoods, Illinois, an affluent suburb 30 miles north of downtown Chicago that harbors 40 residences designed by architect Edward Humrich. Two of her best friends lived in Humrich homes. “I didn’t know who Humrich was at the time—I was in 1st and 2nd grade—but I remember walking the long hallways in their houses thinking ‘When I grow up, I want to live in a house like this.’”
And now she does. Jennifer and her husband Adam—a design student and devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work—bought a Humrich-designed house in the village of Olympia Fields, just south of Chicago. And though the couple say they are fortunate to have the house, the house is equally lucky to have the Nickersons. Built in 1956, it belongs to one of the most endangered ranks of architecture: residential postwar modernism. Teardowns have claimed scores of significant modernist homes around Chicago over the past 15 years.
Modernist house appreciation is a niche, explains Jennifer Nickerson. “Many people see my house and exclaim, ‘Look at that land. You could do so much more.’ That’s because everybody’s got McMansion on the brain.” But these houses are the new landmarks—almost as old as Queen Annes and other Victorians were during the heady days of preservation in the 1960s and 1970s.
A Modern Enclave
Chicago’s bounty of houses by Humrich and other modernists provide an interesting back-story to the tale of the city’s architecture and American modernism in general. While mid-century skyscrapers by architectural powerhouses like Mies van der Rohe were being built to international acclaim downtown, away from the city a class of residential architects quietly worked in affluent postwar suburbia.
Much like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School and his later Usonian designs, these architects took the modernist aesthetic and made it conform to nature. They created one-of-a-kind houses that were often low-slung; sited on large, wooded parcels; and featured generous amounts of glass for views and sunlight. Sometimes entire subdivisions were built, as was the case in Riverwoods, the town where Jennifer Nickerson grew up, which boasts more of Humrich’s work than any other locale. A half-century later, however, many contemporary buyers find it hard to warm up to the right-angled, experimental nature of some of the houses. And for buildings suffering from deferred maintenance, the price of repair and replacement can be steep. Today, modernist houses on large wooded plots of land in stable upper-middle-class and affluent areas of Chicago are sometimes even quietly marketed as teardowns.
The original owner of the Nickersons house, Eleanor Lieberman refused to sell to an owner who would demolish it. Her selectiveness was warranted. Lieberman herself hired Humrich to design the house for her family—husband Saul and their three daughters—after seeing his work in Riverwoods. Her ties to the property run deeper, still. Beginning in the 1950s Lieberman’s father, Edward Gray, developed the 150-acre Graymoor subdivision where the house sits. Graymoor was envisioned as a modernist residential community with minimum house prices of $35,000—although the construction price of Lieberman’s home was a then-staggering $200,000—with designs reviewed by an architectural board. “Graymoor is not a typical subdivision,” says Joe Kunkel, founder of Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond, a group devoted to preserving modernism. “There are no repeated builder plans.” Kunkel, by the way, is also the real estate agent who sold the house to the Nickersons. Though the subdivision remains largely intact, at least two original homes have been lost to McMansion fever in recent years. (One of these new builds is called the “Garage Mahal” by neighbors.)
“Lieberman was looking for the right portfolio of family take over this property,” Jennifer says. “She wanted someone who would restore the integrity of the house. We wanted to do that, and knew the importance of it.”
Humrich’s creation, a single-story, L-shaped house, is from the street quiet and unassuming at first glance. Look again and the 3,700-square-foot house proves itself a spectacular example of mid-century modernism, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. There is cedar siding, an exterior of common brick, generous windows, and handsome, overhanging eaves that give the residence a sense of mystery and modernity. Inside, the home unwraps like a present, revealing rooms, light, form, and space that are only hinted at from the exterior. “Everybody says the same thing once they’re inside,” says Jennifer. “It’s so humbling to the street, buy once you’re inside, it’s like ‘Holy Cow! Who knew?’ That’s one of the things we love about it.”
Jennifer and Adam found the house in 2006 while looking at real estate listings on the Internet. “We started clicking through more and more pictures, and when we saw the exterior shots we were blown away,” Jennifer remembers. They drove 30 miles to see the house that night—at 11pm.
The young couple had been married a mere 18 months when they bought the house. It was in remarkably solid condition. Humrich-designed cabinets and built-ins throughout the house still roll and move with the same crispness as the day they were built. The original electric double oven and cook-top range—early high-end appliances from Thermador—continue to operate.
Still, there was plenty of work to do. And the Nickersons knew they had to find solutions that would retain the home’s integrity. “We became educated by researching articles online, by reading, and by listening to all these people who were supposed to know what they were taking about,” Jennifer said. They also depended on advice from her father, a musician and jack-of-all-trades.
The biggest job was to breathe new life into the massive amounts of cedar siding and finishes inside and outside the house. The Nickersons interviewed six different companies before finding a contactor who could restore the home’s weather beaten and washed out exterior wood. “A lot of people wanted to stain the house,” Jennifer says. “We wanted the true color of the cedar to come out. We didn’t want to throw something over it.”
The contractor the couple selected carefully sanded away the weathered first layer, bringing back the original color of the wood. The new surfaces were finished in clear stain and linseed oil. A few pieces of wood that had been infested by carpenter bees were also replaced, but the new ones seamlessly match the existing cedar. Exterior brickwork was also tuck-pointed, with masonry workers matching the pink hue of the original mortar.
The exterior was only the beginning. Cedar is the predominant material inside the house, too. The Nickersons themselves tackled the job of cleaning and hand-applying linseed oil. The work halted when the couple discovered they were expecting a baby in 2007. “Fumes,” Jennifer said. Once baby Ava, arrived in the fall, the work resumed to complete her nursery.
All in all, the painstaking job required elbow grease, months of work and untold gallons of linseed oil. “Drums’ worth,” Adam says. “We kept buying gallon drums [of the oil].”
“And it’s still not done,” explains Jennifer. “It’ll take a full year to finish the inside.” But the result is worth the effort. The rejuvenated cedar gives the house a visual warmth and presence; natural light now skips across the surface of the wood. The couple also cleaned and repaired exterior concrete and oversaw restoration of a fishpond that doubles as a water feature for a three-season entertainment room.
The house is comfortable, well-planned and spacious place for couple and their infant daughter, and it is filled with surprises. The dining room has an original wet bar with refrigerator that still functions. The dining room also features a Humrich-designed cabinet console with built-in record player. There is an original Nutone built-in blender unit in the kitchen.
“We don’t leave our house on weekends,” says Jennifer. “We enjoy it that much. We just hang out in the environment we re-created.”Published in: Old-House Journal May/June 2008