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A New French-Inspired Manor on Chicago's North Shore

A new French-inspired manor along Lake Michigan fits in amongst its neighbors.

Project: French Manor Home, Winnetka, IL

Architect: Melichar Architects, Lake Forest, IL; Diana Melichar, AIA, principal

Contractor: Tiedmann Enterprises, Lake Forest, IL

By Will Holloway

When an early-20th-century French Style home in Winnetka, IL, succumbed to structural failure in 2003, the owners had four main goals for their new home on the site: to honor the previous structure; to appear as if it had been there for decades; to provide a traditional plan with modern amenities; and to be environmentally responsible. To fulfill these criteria, the family turned to Lake Forest, IL-based Melichar Architects..

Sixteen miles north of Chicago, the village of Winnetka is nestled comfortably among the affluent North Shore communities along Lake Michigan. An eclectic mix of historic houses, a few dating to the mid-19th century, makes up the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. The oldest survivor, the Schmidt-Burnham House, was constructed in 1837.

For Melichar Architects principal Diana Melichar, the success of fitting into the context of an established neighborhood hinges on site, scale and style. "The neighborhood is filled with fine historic architecture, and we wanted to make sure that our home didn't stand out as new construction," she says. To accomplish this, Melichar and her team created a formal front façade featuring carefully selected, timeless materials.

"It required some finesse to balance the large program and front elevation, as we didn't want the house to become too long and overwhelm the site," says Melichar, noting that the simple brick exterior draws upon French domestic architecture. The front façade, which contrasts with an informal rear façade, features tall French casement and transom windows, arched-top dormers, traditional lanterns, a wrought-iron balcony railing and a stained-mahogany front door with a hand-carved limestone surround. The hipped roof is finished with variegated slate.

While the homeowners originally wanted the side façades to be symmetrical as well, Melichar says that after much discussion, they realized it would be difficult to have absolute symmetry on all façades without sacrificing the functionality and integrity of the floor plan.

Inside, the formal living room and dining room flank the front entry space and overlook the front lawn. Towards the rear, an informal kitchen – the hub of the plan – and a large family room open to the backyard. The first floor also includes a bedroom suite for the homeowners' aging parents and a garage extending to the rear. The second floor has a master bedroom suite, four children's bedrooms, three bathrooms and a laundry room. Both the attic and basement are finished.

Interior Features

The interior features hand-scraped wood floors, paneled wood doors, custom millwork panels and built-in shelving, and Classically-inspired tiled bathroom floors and walls. One of the home's three fireplaces utilizes a marble surround salvaged from the previous house on the site.

While Melichar says that new construction typically has fewer constraints than renovation, this project was not without its challenges, including the need for extensive soil borings to ensure the existing ground was capable of supporting a new structure.

"The floor plan was also laid out with consideration to several large old trees on the property," says Melichar. "In fact, the village requested that the floor plan be flipped from its original design in order to save one more tree. Closest to the new structure, a large oak tree needed to be protected – so the foundation was hand dug and the tree roots were pruned by hand."

To satisfy the homeowners' desire for a green home, Melichar Architects incorporated products and procedures to create an eco-conscious living environment. "We followed the guidelines of the Chicago Green Homes checklist, in addition to providing construction guidelines for non-toxic construction practices," says Melichar. "We used all-natural cleaners, formaldehyde-free wood, recycled fiber interior insulation, zero-VOC interior paint, high efficiency mechanicals and Energy Star appliances. Amongst a list of restrictions, gasoline-generated machines – after the foundation was completed – and smoking were prohibited on-site."

Manufacturers & Suppliers

Key manufacturers and suppliers for the project included Marvin Windows and Doors of Warroad, MN; Christopher Peacock Cabinetry (kitchen and butler's pantry cabinets); Montgomeryville, PA-based Timberlane, Inc. (custom shutters and hardware); River Falls, WI-based Designer Doors (custom overhead garage doors); Chicago-based Atelier Jovence (limestone mantel); Restoration Hardware (interior hardware and lighting); and Camden, NJ-based Von Morris (interior hardware).

Although Melichar reports that the house isn't fully furnished and decorated yet, the family already feels right at home. They are on the same site the homeowner grew up on and within walking distance of the children's school, shopping, the library and the train station. And the house itself fits in seamlessly with its neighbors. "We think that we accomplished that goal, as passersby don't recognize the home as being different than the 80-year-old homes surrounding it," says Melichar.

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