How the Maids' Quarters of a Chicago Mansion Became an Elegant Home

A Chicago couple return their slice of a venerable Chicago mansion to its old glory.

You reap what you sow, the saying goes. And it's proven true on Chicago's Gold Coast, where a couple nurtured a fading flower of history and watched it blossom into a truly stunning home. "My husband, John, and I have always loved antique buildings," Joann Stephens says. "We couldn't pass up the opportunity to be part of the history of the McCormick Mansion."

The couple bought what was once the maids' quarters in the prodigious four-story Georgian structure, built in 1893 under the direction of architect Stanford White. Commissioned by Joseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune, the mansion was first home to his daughter, Elinor, and then to Cyrus McCormick Jr., president of International Harvester and heir to the McCormick manufacturing dynasty. (Cyrus Sr. developed the first commercially successful mechanical reaper, a harvesting machine that revolutionized agriculture.) The McCormicks expanded the residence in 1927.

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Aimée Mazzenga

The home's grand history took a turn in 1978, when it was converted to condominiums. "This unit had been stripped down and modernized, but we knew it could be restored to the building's former grandeur," Joann says. "We had a vision for the look and the vibe. Marita and Krysta helped guide us to achieve that vision."

Marita Simmons and Krysta Gibbons are the minds behind Minneapolis-based design firm Kipling House Interiors. "It was an important project for us," Simmons says. "We wanted to bring some glory back to this space."

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Aimée Mazzenga

They began by restoring the apartment's original parquet flooring, adding traditional moldings and trim appropriate to the building's era, and reviving or—in the case of the dining room—uncovering original fireplaces. Then, with the shell in place, the design team added accoutrements that celebrate classic style while playing to today's style of living.

Gracie wallpaper, an antique sideboard, and neoclassical iron klismos accent chairs set a classic mood in the dining space. The small portrait is homeowner John Stephens' mother as a little girl. "It was important to find the right place for this painting that's important to them," Gibbons says.

"Marita and Krysta didn't change who we are; they enhanced it," Joann says. "We have things that are important to us. They honored that. This is our life, and anything that's important to us became important to them."

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In the living room, that meant prime display space on the front of built-in bookshelves for cherished Native American prints by McKenney & Hall. A large portrait—a beloved antiques store find—claims a place of honor on the wall opposite the fireplace. And the television, central to the family's ritual of watching sports together, gets a choice spot between the 19th-century prints. You might not notice it when the game's not on, though. "We were able to hide it in plain sight," Simmons says. "What looks like a piece of art is actually a Samsung 'Frame' TV."

A velvet-upholstered sofa bedecked in bullion fringe joins silk-covered slipper chairs to offer comfortable seating with an elegant edge that's echoed in woven grass cloth behind the white built-ins and wool draperies adorned with tassels.

Bullion fringe on the sofa and Scalamandré trim on wool draperies show the design team's attention to detail. They tucked a work space behind the sofa, crowned by an antique portrait. "We both wish it were our dad," Joann Stephens says, "but it's just a piece we found in an antiques shop and were drawn to. We laugh about all the interest he stirs up when my husband does Zoom calls."

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Other favorite art is showcased at the front of built-in bookcases.

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designer Marita Simmons

"We wanted to bring some glory back."

—designer Marita Simmons

Windows had to remain at their original size to retain the building's historic character, but the designers made them feel taller by adding paneling above and below.

The luxurious draperies repeat in the adjacent dining room, which the designers wrapped in a hand-painted Gracie wallpaper. A stately mahogany dining table cozies up to a fireplace—a delightful discovery uncovered during the planning phase of the renovation. "We were looking at blueprints, and they showed a fireplace behind a bookcase in the dining room," Simmons says. "We were able to carefully unveil that timeless treasure—and add a stone surround and an antique mirror treatment above the original marble hearth."

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The classic attitude continues in the kitchen, where the design team created a workhorse cooking space that reads as a fashionable bistro. An expansive island serves as the statement piece of the room. Its pro cooktop offers plenty of modern power, cloaked by custom European-style black metal cabinetry trimmed in unlacquered brass. Adjacent to the cooking zone, an additional island with turned walnut legs provides a prep station that doubles as a table with comfortable barstool seating. From floor to ceiling, walls shimmer in a chic coat of glazed pale blue tile.

Counter stools by Hickory Chair, clad in a Perennials ticking stripe, entice guests to sit and linger. Mixed metals, including the homeowners' copper cookware that hangs over the sink area, bring in a sense of layered warmth.

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Dentil molding crowns a hardworking cooking zone, where Wolf appliances are fitted into dramatic black cabinetry—both wood and metal.

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Parisian bakery shelving and a wood cabinet form a bar area just a step from the island. The stately central panels conceal a modern beverage cooler.

"It's breathtaking—definitely not your basic white kitchen," Joann says. "It's both elegant and cozy at the same time. I love the vibe—and I love relaxing here with a glass of wine at the end of the day."

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Aimée Mazzenga

An impactful transformation began by replacing outdated green marble tile with a Paris Ceramics stone floor. Walls were covered in delicate yet graphic "Acanthus Stripe" from Schumacher. A concealed jib door strategically houses a coat closet. The stairway, lined with a Stark antelope-print runner, was redesigned to feature a custom iron handrail with brass details.

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Respite also can be found in the den, which plays the dual role of adult retreat and grandkid hangout for movie and game nights. A mohair sectional provides relaxed sprawl-out space against paneled walls coated in rich color. "Art inspired the palette here," Gibbons says."I love how the aubergine color makes the den feel like its own destination."

A custom green mohair sectional is cushioned with Brunschwig & Fils patterned pillows. A campaign-style coffee table from Minneapolis woodcarver Erik Wyckoff pairs with antique side tables.

Indeed, each room beckons with its own blend of classic detail and sophistication. "Marita and Krysta's taste level is amazing," Joann says. "They helped us express our style and honor who we are in a beautiful way that also honors this historic house."

For more historic home inspiration, check out the latest episode of our podcast, The Better Buy. In 2017, after fixing up a couple homes together, Stephen and David (the creative couple behind Renovation Husbands) happened upon a completely gutted 1893 Boston Victorian and it was love at first sight. They began a multi-year renovation project filled with DIY elements.

Updated by
Cate Ragen
Cate Ragen is a freelance writer, editor, and stylist specializing in home articles. She has over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry and has written for Traditional Home.
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