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A River Forest redo

1920s home updated to accommodate contemporary living

July 10th, 2018 11:57 AM

Rebecca McDonnell had an unusual request regarding the kitchen of her 1920s River Forest home: make it smaller. | Courtesy of Dennis Jourdan Photography

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Our house, but better. That's how homeowner Rebecca McDonnell describes her recently renovated home in River Forest. 

When she and her husband, Michael, purchased their Keystone Avenue house years ago, they loved the 1920s character of the home but knew they eventually would remodel. 

A basement flood gave them the opportunity to create the ultimate lower-level hangout space early into their tenure in the house, but they got to know the house and the lot for a few years before embarking on a full-scale remodel.

Armed with recommendations from friends and neighbors, the couple interviewed architect Michael Menn and found him to be the perfect match. 

"Two people referred us to Michael, and when we sat down with him, we knew he was the one," Rebecca McDonnell said.

Northbrook-based Menn said he has worked on many Oak Park and River Forest projects over his 42-year career and thinks that contributes to his understanding of the area's historic homes as well as the scope of work that is often needed. 

"They loved the house but it didn't have all of the amenities that they were looking for," Menn said. "They liked the tradition of the center entrance Colonial but wanted an updated kitchen and baths. We modernized those rooms and updated mechanicals but kept the traditional finishes."

In coming up with a complete remodeling plan for the house, which touched almost every room other than the formal living room, Menn hewed to tradition in the finishes and details of the space, and he also considered the unique desires of the McDonnell family. 

"Together, they love to entertain and having a large formal dining room was important," Menn said. "The dining room is now 33- to 40-percent longer because they wanted to be able to seat more people. They are also huge football fans. We provided circular access between the den, dining room, kitchen and butler's pantry to make it easy for guests to travel between the rooms."

Rebecca McDonnell also had a slightly unusual request for Menn. She wanted a smaller kitchen. 

"The kitchen was all one big open space," she said. "It was just too big. We only have one child, and we felt like we were yelling to be heard across the large space."

The original space was also lacking in storage and had too many doors to the backyard. Menn pulled the room in and added windows instead of doors to bring in the view to the outdoors. He added banquette seating to the back of the island for a cozy eating space. 

Menn also rethought the back of the kitchen, creating a butler's pantry with whimsical fish-patterned wallpaper, a mudroom and a walk-in pantry.

A room that was once a step-down porch off of the dining room was completely altered to become a true family room. With a coffered ceiling and French doors to the patio, this is a room where the family spends quality time together and with friends.

While the entry to the home retains its original size and shape, Rebecca McDonnell requested a unique touch. At first, she planned to paper the room in custom wallpaper, but once she determined that would be cost-prohibitive, she and Menn commissioned Chicago artist Paul Minnihan to create a scenic landscape that envelopes the entry and the stairwell. 

The personalized mural was inspired by McDonnell's Louisiana roots as well as the home's setting. 

"The idea was to make it feel like the outside of the house if none of the buildings were here," she said.

The Des Plaines River figures into the painting as do native flora. The McDonnell yard often hosts deer, including a fawn born this spring, so deer make an appearance in the painting. There is a fox, representing Rebecca McDonnell's maiden name, and the family dogs also make an appearance. Shamrocks represent her husband's family Irish roots.

As part of the 950-square-foot addition, on the second floor Menn created a new master suite above the family room. The spacious suite of rooms includes walk-in closets, and a luxurious bath with his and her sinks and a soaking tub. The previous master suite was recreated for their daughter, and two guest suites are often used by visiting family.

An upstairs office and the dining room received the same paint treatment from DaVinci painting. The high gloss treatment makes both rooms glow and emphasizes the details in the moldings and woodwork.

Throughout the project, Menn sought to use hardware, plumbing and light fixtures which fit into the 1926 home's character. Tile in the entry way and first-floor powder room is an antique-style, black-and-white pattern salvaged from a European castle. Menn also made sure to update the details that aren't so readily seen. Insulation and new mechanicals make the house incredibly comfortable, and a smart-technology system offers the latest in controls for all of the home's systems.

At the end of the day, Menn says working with the McDonnells to help them achieve a home that suits their family was a pleasure from both a design standpoint and on a personal level.

"What I like about River Forest is that you can have a house that's 1,200 square feet next to a McMansion," Menn said. "I love that mix. Their house is very traditional, so I kept to that character while giving them the updates they needed. Whether I'm working on a powder room or a project of this scale, I get very attached to my clients. If I'm out eating at a restaurant, and Michael and Rebecca walk in, I want to be able to introduce them to my family."

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