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Balancing History With Modern Life

We have a historical house designed by a historically significant architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw.  It is not one of his famous Lake Forest multi million dollar estates, but it does sit in the heart of the La Grange Historic District  (on the National Registrar of Historic Places).  We can not bastardize this house.

So I did what I always do when I realize I’m in over my head. I googled Howard Van Doren Shaw, researched his style and influences, and bought books written about him. The more I read about him, the more I saw of him in this house.

The double gabled roof , the continuity of interior spaces, the beamed ceilings and that adorable inglenook were all signature Van Doren Shaw moves.

open great room  with architectural details and furniture used to delineate spaces rather than walls


Typical Shaw mansion

This was not an compartmentalized formal Victorian common for the 1890’s, this is a Howard Van Doren Shaw house that blends traditional style with some of the transformational ideas of the Prairie School architects in Chicago and the Arts and Crafts movement. Our addition needs to reflect that.

But I still need to access my kitchen from my  great room and I need more than one small bath on the second floor.

So I look through books and Dave sketches out potential floor plans as we get used to living in our 124 year old house.



This is our master closet. We need a new master closet. But notice the adorable window. That can’t change.


We really don’t need any more square footage on the first floor, but the traffic flow is miserable. We don’t have cooks and servants so the hidden kitchen isn’t working for us. We find ourselves living in the kitchen because, well that’s were the food is, but it’s too small for anything but cooking and standing and it’s a lonely adventure just to reach the comfy couch and large TV  in the great room. We both know, but don’t want to admit, that the adorable inglenook has to go. We have to create an opening to the kitchen. While this was painful at first, a few weeks realizing I need a refill while sitting on the couch helped me to get over it.

The other issue is a little less clear. Remember the old growth quarter sawn and burled oak paneling in the dining room that brought me to tears? Well it too is blocking the way to the kitchen. Since there is a door to the butler pantry that eventually leads to the kitchen, and since we already agreed to get rid of the inglenook, I’m thinking we leave the paneling alone and just deal with it. It’s an old house. That’s part of the charm. Dave disagrees. He feels strongly that there should be a clear shot from the foyer to the back of the house for good traffic flow, but also for good design. You shouldn’t have to go through your great room to get to your kitchen. This is a tough call. Remember, this beautiful well kept house with the updated kitchen sat on the market for over a year and was eventually greatly reduced because there way no easy access to the kitchen. BUT THE WOOD!

We thought a lot about which architect would be the perfect fit for this project. We’re fortunate that Dave has great working relationships with some of the best in the Chicagoland area, so it was a tough decision. For Dave’s thoughts on this, read Selecting an Architect . We hired Erik Johnson with Thacker Development Atelier partly because we have collaborated with him often and admire his work , but also because he was excited about the challenge of putting his fingerprints on a Howard Van Doren Shaw house. We feel confident he will do this house justice.


Armed with our “Needs” “Wants” and “I Can Live With this to save money” lists, we meet with Erik  and walked through the house. We all agreed we needed to balance the historical beauty of the house with the way we live today.

But before Erik can start drawing, he needs an “As Built” set of plans to work off off . I guess it’s not realistic to expect blueprints to survive 124 years, but it’s another delay and expense ($4,000)  to add to my ” I didn’t See That Coming” list. Regardless, a few weeks later we had our As Built plan to play with.

Having a set of plans to look at clarifies the traffic flow issues for me (Dave didn’t need the visual aide). On the first floor, we decided to gut and expand the kitchen, add a small family/sun room , and to improve flow and avoid  excessive swearing on cold winter days. a mud room and back door off the kitchen on the garage side of the house. Sadly, the adorable nook has to go to create access to the kitchen. We are still fighting about cutting through the oak panels to create a cased opening to the kitchen.  On the second floor, we will add a master suite (bedroom, bath and closets) and laundry (recommended for resale).

I can’t wait to see what Erik comes up with.

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