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Home on the Ranch
Lauren Viera | Photo: Werner Straube | September 27, 2012
Paring down from a traditional Cape Cod residence, a Winnetka designer heads back to the ranch, updating it for 21st century comfort.
In 2010, in the midst of downsizing to a smaller home after a divorce, interior designer Brooke Kelly failed to take her own advice. “I always tell my clients, ‘Don’t live through it,’” she says of renovations. “It will take much longer, and it’s such a nightmare. But all I kept thinking about was the money I was going to save by not having to rent, and all the money I could then put into the house.” Which, of course, ended up being a much bigger project than she anticipated. “I just kept imagining all the possibilities” she says. So she camped out in the sunroom, and let those possibilities transform into reality.
Imagination, on a budget, helped Kelly and architect John Fotsch transform a 1953 split-level ranch, once a dark tribute to the Greco-modern obsessed 1980s, into a light, airy 21st century homage to modern comfort. She was set on a ranch from the start: It’s a manageable size for Kelly, her home office and her two college-aged daughters. Plus, “I really wanted to preserve ranch homes,” Kelly says, adding that for people in her situation — divorcees or empty-nesters or older couples without children—there is a shortage of smaller homes. “I think there’s a need, at the least, to renovate them, as some are very dated and need a little fixing up,” she says. “I wanted to keep the ranch style alive.”
Surrounded by new-construction manses in Winnetka, Kelly’s reimagined ranch is a remnant of the midcentury neighborhood, upgraded by someone who’s spent the past two decades making spaces more livable. The skylit breakfast room, for instance, is anchored by an inviting white Saarinen table and blue, nubby dining chairs. “I wanted this room to be comfortable,” Kelly says. “I spend a lot of time in here.” She installed a flat-screen television, a horizontal fireplace and sleek white filing cabinets for storing everyday belongings. Storage is a through-line: The biggest challenge in Kelly’s move was downsizing. She left behind an über-traditional Nantucket shingle-style home, also in Winnetka, which meant cutting her square footage by more than half.
“Everyone, when they get divorced, they say, ‘I want to do something new,’” Kelly says. “This was a departure for me—doing a ranch and a modern space for myself. As a designer and having studied modern, I have always appreciated the style, but I never thought I would live in a home like this because of all of the antiques I’d been collecting for years.” The solution? Embrace the new with a few reminders of the past. On new built-in shelving in her pale blue bedroom, Kelly keeps a collection of antique silver overlay perfume bottles, and a favorite antique spindle-back chair sits against a wall. Rugs purchased during last summer’s trip to Turkey rest on the ebony-stained floors selected to complement Kelly’s dark wood antiques. In the light-flooded sun room, modern prints are offset by an antique military chest. And in the master bathroom, a marble mosaic floor is reminiscent of Kelly’s prior bathroom, while a sculptural soaking tub and mod, sliding medicine cabinets from Hydrology move her into the future. (That brand-new bathroom was just part of a major expansion to the upper level; both to add dimension to the home’s exterior and allow Kelly her dream bathroom.)
Completed in two phases within the first year of buying, Kelly’s drastic renovations left no room untouched. The house was desperate for attention. The prior owner, a bachelor with three sons, had left his mark on the home—the pool table in the basement den, hoards of stereo equipment, party souvenirs in the foliage (“I can’t tell you how many beer bottles I’ve found in the yard,” Kelly says)—but made no upgrades during his tenure. The décor dated to its 1970s and ’80s owners, whose legacy is preserved in the backyard’s thoughtful landscaping, including a generous brick patio and swimming pool. Now lush and mature, the verdant backyard was the biggest selling point for Kelly, who knew she wanted to play it up in her redesign.
The yard was the catalyst for reversing the ranch’s biggest issue: its dark demeanor. Kelly recalls the first time she walked into the home with her Realtor friend, who advised her to stay conservative. “I said, ‘I know, I know; I’m just going to redo the front door’—it had those ’80s shower-door glass side lights—‘and the stair railing, and raise the ceiling, and then open up the bay window with sliding glass doors…’” She trails off. In the end, practical solutions made the biggest impact. Kelly swapped in a taller front door and added a clear glass transom and mahogany door, shedding light on the living room, whose dropped-ceiling she raised with clean, elegant lines. The living room’s pop-out bay was replaced by sliding glass doors to access the yard. Every door and window in the house was replaced, and, in many rooms, windows were enlarged or moved to maximize light while streamlining the home’s formerly boxy exterior silhouette. Practical upgrades, such as moving the heating and cooling units to the attic and closing the exterior gap between the kitchen and the garage, created additional storage and living spaces. Storage solutions are everywhere, from a hidden walk-in pantry in the kitchen, to an entire hallway of storage built into the new laundry area.
As for the budget? “Somebody that’s in the business never really has a budget,” Kelly laughs. She admits she pulled a lot of favors and stretched dollars, but she hasn’t tallied up the bottom line. More important, she says, is that she followed through on all of the little details she knew would bother her if she didn’t fix them in one fell swoop. “If you don’t get to them the first time,” she says, “you’re just going to have to go back, and nobody ever does.”