SUNDAY MAGAZINE: Home
In a light mood
Installing a young, active family in a tradition-bound house was step one. Then came bold color, new shapes and a stylish sense of humor.
Designed in 1894, the hall reflected the era's grandness with fluted columns, 18-foot-high ceiling, and a curved staircase worthy of 1940s Hollywood glamour. (Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)
Designed by J.T.W. Jennings for William Dixon Marsh and his wife, Laura, the house was said to be inspired by writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home in Cambridge, Mass. It possessed all the flourishes of the era's grand homes -- triangular pediment, center-hall entry with 18-foot ceiling, sweeping curved staircase, wainscoting, dentil molding and rooms carved out for a life of long ago, including a place to smoke cigars. Through the years, successive owners left their marks, but the additions and decor never strayed from tradition.
Until Fleps stepped in. After studying the house and its endless rooms, she listened to her clients -- a young, active couple with two children and a third on the way. What she gleaned, beyond the family's busy lifestyle, was that the homeowners possessed a sense of stylistic adventure and a desire to push beyond the obvious.
"I realized that the house and desire to take it on was very romantic. The incredible architectural scale and detail, as it had evolved through the years, was fanciful and characterized by exuberance, and we were free to continue in that tradition," Fleps says. Her plan was to respect the home's history and bring it boldly into the present with a mix of modern, vintage and antique furnishings, a fresh color palette and a nod to its 1940s glamour.
The renovation included removing yellow aluminum siding from the exterior, revealing beautiful wooden clapboards that once restored were painted a soft gray. She removed dated floral wallpaper and heavy window treatments, ultimately refreshing every room in the house, except one -- the second-floor library. Added in the 1940s, the library was visible upon Julie Fleps climbing the grand staircase.
"It was too cool to touch. The millwork palette of a rich blue had been created by someone truly inspired," says Fleps. She used that blue, along with grays and lots of crisp white to show off the home's architectural detailing throughout the first floor.
One of the biggest challenges was working with the rooms' scale and grandeur.
"We wanted to create a home that was fresh and livable, that would welcome children running through it. We needed to temper the museumlike qualities of the house," Fleps says. Blending in some of her clients' existing furnishings mirrored the intent of the project.
New choices were made, too. Fleps chose to hang curtain panels that coordinated with wall colors to provide a sense of calm and help with acoustics in the large, high-ceilinged spaces. Each room became part of a giant puzzle; decisions made in one space informed those to be made in others, and gradually the whole was completed.
In the dining room, Fleps reused two sideboards, reproductions of antiques, that her clients owned, and bought two white lacquered tables with chrome bases that can seat up to 16. She paired the tables with polished aluminum chairs and kept the home's original crystal chandelier, which added a dressy punctuation mark. A Higgins glass mobile hangs in the bay window above a custom sofa, introducing vibrant color with a yellow background and mix of pinks, corals, spring green and lavender. At the opposite end of the room, she hung a pair of stately wood-framed mirrors which had once been used in the downtown Palmer House. But before she did, she repainted their staid black frames a vivid coral.
"That color choice didn't seem daring or surprising to me at the time. It just seemed to be what was called for. But in retrospect -- maybe, it was!" Fleps says. She placed them above two low mirrored chests that she felt would marry the room's historic detailing and big, mirrored doors to its new more modern persona.
In the living room, she decorated in a similar way -- respecting the room's bones and scale, but making it cozier with a dark, peppery-blue wall color. The result was a more youthful space.
"We felt if it was furnished in a formal way, nobody would go in," she says. She reupholstered two of her client's sofas in a practical chocolate brown leather and wool and paired them with vintage chrome and glass tables and two off-white rugs from Crate and Barrel. The homeowners selected a pool table to draw family into the room.
The couple's master bedroom suite became the one area that Fleps remodeled to update the layout. She converted one of two bathrooms into an office, and transformed the other for a spa-style space the couple could share with matching sinks set in a concrete vanity, a free-standing curved tub, and oversize square porcelain tiles on the floor.
The project, which took more than a year, gave Fleps a huge dose of confidence.
"I learned to trust my instincts. As we proceeded, I found myself telling myself and my clients more will be revealed,'" she says. And it was. But she also knows that the best homes -- unlike museums or Hollywood stage sets -- are never finished. Family needs continue to evolve and inspire change. And Fleps plans to be there, continuing to look and listen.