How to Renovate a Classic Building Without Losing Its Character
A 19th-century, down-at-the-heels row house gets a bespoke makeover.
“So much of the focus of this project was the architecture. The whole idea was that the furniture could and should be a little bit more understated.”
Naturally, interior design is as varied as our moods, but no matter what your taste, it’s hard not to appreciate the calm composure that defines this residence on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Transformed from a tired multi-unit dwelling into an architecturally sophisticated single-family home by architect Peter Harlan of Jackson Harlan Architects, this 19th-century row house has been masterfully appointed by Oak Park, Illinois designer Kelly Cleveland.
Although the building required a total gut, the new program and deft detailing hint at the property’s original character.
“When you enter the house, it doesn’t look like a brand-new home,” suggests Cleveland. “You can tell it’s been renovated, but we painstakingly tried to offer some sense of its past.”
The black, white, and gray color palette was set by the client, but Cleveland worked hard to specify just the right shades to guarantee a level of richness and contrast. “Picking the right shade of white can be excruciating. Some can make you feel like you’re in a surgical space. I usually pick tones that are little bit more grayed out because they’re more calming and soothing. But we wanted to call out all the architectural details, such as the crown molding, so I used a crisp white there and kept the walls a lighter, gray white.” The designers’s artful orchestration of a limited palette is manifest in the kitchen. Here, she painted the perimeter cabinets black to give visual weight to the room and kept the island light with Benjamin Moore’s Owl Gray.
“We painstakingly tried to offer some sense of its past.”
The home’s furnishings go a long way in underscoring that echo of the past Cleveland was determined to conjure. It’s not
that she sourced scads of antiques or went exclusively with heritage upholstery patterns. Rather, traditional, and transitional profiles create a subtle, eye-filling sense of comfort, that deep familiarity that characterizes a well-loved home, rather than a showplace. “Not every piece has to make a statement,” she says. “There were a handful of pieces original to the client and then quite a bit that we bought. But so much of the focus of this project was the architecture. The whole idea was that the furniture could and should be a little bit more understated, stuff that is not too precious.” Which isn’t to say the home is lacking jewel-like touches. A meltingly fluid fixture from Ocher dangles above the dining room table and the kitchen sports low-backed brass stools upholstered in emerald green.
“In theory, good design is seamless. It doesn’t scream at you.”
One of the more striking architectural bits in the house isn’t found in the living or dining room, but upstairs, in a child’s bedroom. Incorporated into new millwork carved in complementary arch motifs, are two gothic elements salvaged from a church in New Orleans. Framing a dressing table backed by a wall covered in a playful Pierre Frey paper depicting elephants and camels, this striking composition is both sophisticated and whimsical—and utterly unexpected.
Between construction and applying the final touches, the project occupied Cleveland for three years. Looking back at her efforts, she says, “In theory, good design is seamless. It doesn’t scream at you. But when you really look, there’s a lot of perfection in there that doesn’t just happen by accident.” Having achieved her goal and created a here-and-now home pervaded with a respect for the past, she ought to be feeling a little serenity herself right about now.