A Strong Attachment to History

Residents of LaGrange, Ill., recognize that a notable 155-year-old Victorian home underwent significant improvements, but the transitions are so deftly accomplished most can’t pinpoint where the 3,750-square-foot vintage house stops and the 1,420-square-foot remodel begins. The owners were committed to this uniform appearance to preserve the integrity of the home outside and in, for themselves and their architecturally historic neighborhood.

With two teenage daughters and a young son all sharing one small bathroom, the owners realized they needed more functional accommodations for their children. In addition, they were interested in a new master suite with modern conveniences for themselves. The existing detached garage was in very poor condition, so it made sense to create an attached two-car garage and leverage the space above.

The second story atop the garage includes the new 14- by 20-foot master bedroom with two walk-in closets, a steam shower, whirlpool tub and new cabinetry with an adjacent 11- by 17-foot den/exercise room. The heated garage has an adjacent mudroom with custom cubby shelving and direct access into the pre-existing family room and kitchen. Each level of the addition connects to the existing home, so the floor-to-floor ratios had to exactly match the historic home’s 10-foot-plus ceiling heights.

According to Troy Pavelka, design manager for Normandy Remodeling in Hinsdale, Ill., working on the house was the opportunity of a lifetime. “The owners were intent on preserving the home’s character, and it’s rare to see the level of detail found on this home. From replicating the corbels to stone foundation to the wrought-iron cresting and turret detailing on the roof, it’s truly a special project.”

Reclaiming an Era

On the exterior, the trim had rotted and the roof needed replacement. Normandy Remodeling’s carpenters matched the rich exterior woodwork. The craftsmen replicated the dormers’ keystone detailing, chamfered edge on the corner trim and pediment above the windows. Thirty-six custom wooden corbels were fabricated to simulate the existing corbels. The team used split-faced block to match the foundation stone applied in a 1930s addition, and skilled stucco work concealed the seams between the renovation work, the addition and the existing structure.

In keeping with the existing architecture, 7-foot-tall windows were added in the addition. French doors inside the master suite open onto a small European balcony with an iron railing that overlooks the back yard. The balcony creates a new connection to the outside and filters in daylight.

Armed with a keen love of nostalgia and archives of newspaper articles and historic photos of the house, the owners decided to reclaim an original feature of the home that had been lost during the past century: an elegant turret. Round windows were set into an 8- by 8-foot square turret, which is clad in copper with intricate cornice work. Because the windows were aluminum, Pavelka worked closely with the window supplier to create plastic barriers between the aluminum and copper to ensure the copper would not come in contact with the aluminum and oxidize.

The striking feature is more than a decorative landmark. Rather than close it off inside, Pavelka wanted to bring the natural light down into the space and allow occupants to see up into the vault. “Opening up the vault from below really created a ‘wow’ factor on the interior. The family and their guests become cognizant of the turret while inside, so it’s more than an exterior detail they see solely upon arriving home,” Pavelka says.

Contemporary Feel, Victorian Flair

To help the new space feel like a historic home, Pavelka designed a spiral staircase in the mudroom that rises into the upstairs den. Its wrought-iron railings with brass detailing and oak stair treads are reminiscent of the 1850s. With the first-floor ceilings so tall, calculating the vertical measurements between each stair tread and landing the staircase at the exact height of the second floor took careful planning.

The second floor itself also provided challenges, as the owners wanted hot-water radiant heating. The flooring is 3-inch-thick concrete with radiant water tubes running through it. The concrete provides thermal mass, which helps keep the heat in, but this type of system is commonly done on the ground floor slab.

“We did engineering research to figure out how to reinforce the structure, so it could carry the weight of the concrete system,” Pavelka notes. “Instead of a traditional 2 by 10 floor joists, we used LVL [laminated veneer lumber] as the floor structure. It’s a high-strength engineered wood that makes for more consistent floor beams, so it will be able to carry the weight of concrete plus the structure without sagging or deflection.”

The owners made a fireplace with a double mantel the focal point in their new master suite. The completely custom mantel work is divided into two pieces: a traditional wood mantel surrounding the fireplace itself and another one extending to the ceiling. A flat-panel television sits between the two.

Handmade, hand-glazed tiles from Sonoma, Calif., grace the top of the mantel. The hearth is a unique marble called Dakota mahogany marble, and the team pulled the fireplace together by using some of this marble for the keystone at the top of the tile surround.

Getting it Right

Normandy Remodeling did extensive remodeling of the existing areas of the home that tie into the new space. Upstairs, a partial remodel on the parents’ former master bedroom became a hallway to give the teenagers and a newly designated guest room access to the second bathroom. For the owners’ convenience, a part of their old master bathroom and walk-in closet became a second-floor laundry room. Along with the new master bath, the renovation required a new sanitary line and new water service upgrades.

The design removed a set of stairs that led down into a furnished basement from the kitchen and created another set of stairs in the mudroom for basement access. Although it was a standard staircase, to support the new stairs, crews had to reframe some of the floor joists in the existing part of the house that connects inside the garage.

When the team removed the old stairway to the basement, they moved a wall 3 feet to reclaim the space. The kitchen had a beautiful and unique tin ceiling, and the expansion left a ceiling space that needed to be patched. The owners conducted research for matching tin ceiling material and eventually found some that had to be imported from Australia.

Even small interior details were meticulously selected. Cast-brass door hinges, doorknobs and pocket-door trim were located to recall the existing door hardware. In the new space, the owners had push-button light switches installed. The millwork, stacked base and casing details could not be fabricated by existing equipment, so Normandy Remodeling had to have the trim supplier make new custom knives to cut matching moulding.

“When you are working in a house this old, nothing is straightforward, but that’s what made it such an extraordinary project,” Pavelka says. “When you walk across the threshold from the historic home into the new space we created, it’s seamless, and that’s what makes me the most proud.”

KJ Fields writes from Portland, Ore., about remodeling and design.

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