This Historic Midwestern Masterpiece Got the Renovation It Desperately Needed
A suburban Chicago couple rescue (and reimagine) a rare masterpiece of Midwest design.
Before: Hard Times
"Really? You’re not going to tear it down?" That question from incredulous neighbors greeted Rob and Amanda Miller pretty much every time they stepped outside their newly purchased wreck of a house in Hinsdale, Illinois.
"It would have been a lot cheaper to tear it down," Rob admits. But as the proud new owner of a historic Prairie School home, dreams of a fabulous renovation danced in his head. Yes, the place had fallen on hard times. Yes, many of its historical elements had been covered up. "It had been 1980s-ized," Rob says. "But I think if you live in Chicago, you should live in a home that honors this area's architectural roots."
After: Beauty Revealed
The Albert True House, built in 1908 and named for its original owner, vice president of a sash and door company, does just that. It was designed by Chicago-area architect E.E. Roberts, a counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright. Though pure Prairie School on the outside, the True House interiors were never Prairie-ubiquitous blond wood and straight lines. Its intriguing interiors echoed the Vienna Secession, a period that saw frilly Victorian meld into the dawn of modernism, specifically Art Nouveau. "Someone had to save this great old house," Rob says. He, his equally architecture-minded wife, and a team of pros, including architect John Eifler, interior designer Donna Mondi, and builder Joe Byczek, stepped up to the task.
On the exterior, clean-lined Prairie style feels current, thanks to refreshed stucco, new facework on decorative panels, and cedar shingles in place of asphalt.
In the entry, walls in Benjamin Moore's "Grant Beige" offer a neutral foil for original art glass and white millwork while a new plaster ceiling in a lacquer-imitating finish amplifies natural light. A brass-banded table from Mr. Brown with a shagreen finish strikes a modern note against the history-filled background.
Before: State of Despair
Before the salvation, however, came the sledgehammers. Architect John Eifler launched the project by gutting much of the interior and ripping out obstacles that stood in the way of exterior and HVAC upgrades. "I didn't appreciate how sad a state of disrepair the house was in when we bought it," Rob says. "When reality set in, I had a few depth-of-despair moments." Like when he discovered a 400-gallon tank was in the basement—full of sludge oil. And when he learned a cistern and "tons of brick" lurked underground, a veritable minefield for the crew installing modern mechanicals.
After: A Winning Living Room
Steadfast determination, however, won the day. Working from historical photos, Eifler and his team painstakingly re-created the stucco exterior, incorporating stylish twists such as cedar roof shingles and copper gutters. Inside, they carefully preserved historical touchstones, which Eifler and interior designer Donna Mondi took as cues for new design elements.
Hits of energy come from rich Bordeaux hues on upholstery and from contemporary art, including a fish painting in the living room chosen by Rob and Amanda’s teenage son. "They love boating and living an adventurous life, so this art spoke to them," Mondi says. "Plus, it's such a surprise in the room—and I like surprises."
A new fireplace in the living room mimics the surround of an original in the dining room. Clad in tile from Artistic Tile, it adds subtle color and a chic blend of matte and shimmer.
All in the Details
Carefully preserved, an original newel speaks to the home’s history.
History is at home here—but so are the Millers, along with their three teenagers and two dogs. "We wanted the interiors to honor the heritage of the house," Rob says. "However, we didn’t want it to become a museum. We live here after all."
Original wood flooring from the upper level of the house covers the new beamed ceiling in the kitchen. Bar stools are from Hickory Chair; island pendants are by Early Electrics.
Centered Around the Range
That's why they were keen to work with Mondi, a designer who shares the couple’s renovation worldview and their architectural savvy. "We were talking about what to do with the living room ceiling, and I brought up Mackintosh," Rob says. "I didn’t worry that Donna would think I was talking about a computer." In fact, Rob was referring to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scottish artist, designer, and architect who was a contemporary of E.E. Roberts and an influence on the Vienna Secessionist movement.
A focal-point La Cornue range provided the starting point as the design team updated the Millers' kitchen. "It's like a piece of art," designer Mondi says. The geometric backsplash tile is from Ann Sacks.
A genre-bending maverick, Mackintosh balanced decorative curves with asymmetrical rectangles, making him a herald of modernism to some, a disciple of Art Nouveau to others. At the Miller house, he was simply an inspiration—for the geometric yet softly curved design on the ceiling, created by local craftsmen who keep the art of plasterwork alive.
Marble countertops were a must for the Millers. "They wanted an authentic material that will tell the story of their life," Mondi says.
Past and Present Collide in the Breakfast Room
"I'm not really a Prairie School girl," Mondi confesses. "I wanted to pull in Vienna, go more toward Mackintosh and Art Nouveau with this house, but I also wanted it to be relevant. When I'm given a historical home like this one, my thought process isn't 'What would a Vienna Secessionist have done in 1908?' It's 'What would a Vienna Secessionist do today?'"
Prairie School art glass and Art Nouveau style merge in the new fireplace in the expanded breakfast room. The hide rug by Kravet lends a tile-like feel. The vintage-look chandelier is by Currey & Company.
New Meets Old Butler's Pantry
"I want to pay homage to history but at the same time make the rooms current," Mondi says. "I see this as a home where traditional meets modern—a fusion of classical elements and unexpected, edgy moments. The modern things had to blend seamlessly, though. It's not easy to pick out what’s old and what's new."
Added during the redo, a groin vault crowns the entrance to the butler's pantry, layering more interest into the architecturally rich house.
Before: Leave it in the Past
Before the renovation, the carpeted dining room was dark and dated.
After: Color Brings it to Life
Subtle color, texture, and pattern merge in the dining room, where an original fireplace surround gets an update from contemporary tile and art. Mondi used a series of pendants from Arteriors to fool the eye into seeing symmetry in a room where the fireplace is off-center. The table is from Swaim; dining chairs are Belle Meade Signature.
Wallpaper from Bradley in the dining room looks traditional from a distance. Up close, you see that the pattern is actually animal skulls. Its pale teal blue background speaks to another of Mondi's twists on history, this time with color.
Before: Aged Out of Style
Like the rest of the house, the pre-renovation bedroom had been "1980s-ized."
After: Letting in the Light
The blue in original art glass provided a starting point for Mondi's palette. "I tweaked that Victorian blue and went with teals on the main level and gray-blues in the bedroom," she says. "Using earth tones seemed very natural; I added in grays and gold tones that speak to the home yet are very current. I wanted that tension between gray and gold and between a mix of metals: warm and cool, gold and silver."
A soaring groin-style vault plus a wall of windows makes the bedroom airy, bright, and beautiful. Mondi had the sleek low-slung bed custom-made to snuggle comfortably under a row of Prairie-style windows.
Cozy Fireplace Nook
A band of copper metallic tile adds a touch of shimmer to the fireplace surround. Hits of cozy blue mesh with walls coated in an easy-to-live-with gray, Benjamin Moore's "Half Moon Crest." The shapely chairs and side table are from Julian Chichester.
Space for Lounging
A luxe seat from Hickory Chair invites late-night lounging.
Modern Master Bath
A modern take on the claw-foot tub from Victoria + Albert nods to the era of the home in an updated way. The faucet is by Samuel Heath. Radiant heat warms the floor, clad in tile from Materials Marketing.
Worth the Work
The Millers' neighbors (not to mention their friends, family, and even random strangers driving down the street) put on the brakes to take a look at this architectural icon that sidestepped the bulldozer.
"It was complex, expensive, one of those projects that not every-one would be willing to tackle," Rob says of the two-year renovation. "But every day I pull into my driveway I think, What a cool house. Sharing it with people and passing on an appreciation of history is so amazing to me. We're stewards of this house, preserving it for the next generation. There could be no bigger reward."