When Chicago architect and designer Carlos Martinez, a principal with architecture/design firm Gensler, went apartment shopping with partner and communications consultant Michael Tirrell, they hoped they'd find a vintage unit. After years of living in the modern classic Mies van der Rohe building at 900 N. Lake Shore Drive, they were ready for an even older, more historic pedigree.
A 3,000-square-foot unit in an eight-story 1897 building on Astor Street — think an urban Downton Abbey — met the test.
This was the first Chicago building constructed specifically for affluent apartment dwellers. The couple's new apartment had still more cachet — an unusual square plan, grandly proportioned rooms facing the lake and original detailing. Martinez knew work was required since moldings and woodwork had been painted over through the years. But he didn't know how much, and he certainly was in no rush. "It was important first to live in the space, understand how rooms functioned, and see what natural light was available," he says. He also wanted to orchestrate changes for the building's common area since its architectural integrity had been severely compromised.
Martinez was fortunate. Building architects Holabird & Root had donated original drawings to the Chicago History Museum, and he studied them to restore common areas and to renovate his own apartment. But instead of striving for an authentic period look in his home, he decided on an eclectic mix because of his and Tirrell's striking collections — contemporary artworks by prominent artists including Chicagoans Roger Brown and Ed Pashke; midcentury furnishings masterpieces; and more than 3,000 books, which they planned to group among rooms by subject matter. "I liked the idea of interesting tension that results between today's lifestyle versus a building's historic background," Martinez says.
He began slowly. While he and Tirrell vacationed in the Caribbean, trim was stripped in a 30-foot-long entrance gallery and repainted a semigloss white, and Cuban mahogany doors were stained. When they returned, the completed gallery looked so fabulous that the partners knew it was time to move forward and redo everything. Martinez didn't develop a master plan. He let work evolve as he sleuthed for clues — removing layers and letting the house speak to him.
Tirrell, who loves to cook, laboriously tested kitchen equipment. Martinez gave everything a contemporary feeling with a touch of classicism (wood for most walls except one tiled in white glass laid in a brick pattern) but also some surprises: red for structural columns and an oversize poster of muse Julia Child. Martinez specified wider than usual Bulthaup drawers, and installed shelves to display their extensive cookbook library.
Each man gained his own bathroom, with a distinct persona. Martinez's has dark green slate and a shower; Tirrell's is all wood and mirrors with a soaking tub that faces the lake. "He's half-English, so he's a bath guy," says Martinez.
Because it was impossible to restore some intricate plaster molding due to paint buildup, Martinez went to the company that did the original work to recast it. He also replicated the ceiling of a nearby period house that he had worked on.
"I knew we weren't approaching this with what future owners would want," says Martinez. "Resale value had nothing to do with it. Everything was a lifestyle choice about how we like to live and entertain."
The result? A house that embraces modern life but never loses its sense of history.
Although Martinez says remodeling his home didn't provide new lessons, he relearned the importance of key ones:
Let your home guide you rather than planning in advance
Don't focus on resale value, but do what you'll enjoy most
A renovation's like giving birth; there's pain, but once the baby is out, you won't remember what hurt but will remember the pleasure
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