A Lincoln Park home’s traditional face hides a modern heart

You could say that the roots of the redesign of this classic, circa-1890 Chicago home reach all the way back to a St. Joseph’s Academy high school French class in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where Heather Brennan and Jesse Oberkirsch met and became close friends.

Fast-forward several years and each woman has a husband, three kids, and several moves under her belt. Heather (now Heather Sullivan and living in Chicago) asked Jesse (now Jesse Hufft and living in Kansas City, Missouri) to help out with the project. Jesse and her husband, architect Matthew Hufft, are co-founders of the eponymous Hufft, a design-build firm.

For Heather and her husband Scott, it was a no-brainer. “I have known Jesse since I was in braces—of course, she didn’t have to have them—and we’ve been great friends for a long time,” says Heather. “I admired the cool things they were doing, and I was excited to work on a project with them.”

So, when she and Scott purchased the brick home, there was never really a question of who to select as an architect. “I told her to look around and talk to other architects in the area,” says Jesse. “I asked her to only choose us if they really wanted to. She was firm that they wanted to hire us.”

In fact, the work had already begun—but not by any of the players mentioned here. “When we bought it, it was in the process of being converted from a two flat to a single-family home. Demo had happened and, although the glass in the back had already been installed, it was a blank canvas,” says Heather. “Actually, that made it easier for me to envision what it could be. Although it came with the plans for a new house, I don’t believe I ever looked at them. I wanted to see what Hufft would do.”

Matthew did take a look, but quickly laid the plans aside. “We decided to do our own thing,” he says.

It was a neighborhood and home style that’s very familiar to both Matthew and Jesse. “Before we were married, we all lived in Chicago,” says Jesse. “Although I don’t remember this house specifically, I often went to the shops on the corner down from it and I occasionally babysat nearby. I must have walked by it hundreds of times. Even though the four of us hung out frequently, I could never have predicted back then that we would be helping Heather out with a project.”

One of the first suggestions was to move the stairway to the center of the house, making it a dramatic sculptural element and a light well that floods all three levels with sunlight. “Moving the staircase to the center of the space and then having a skylight above this feature allows for light to flow much more efficiently from front to back, as well as top to bottom,” says Matthew.

The idea was not immediately embraced by his friends and clients. “We were all on vacation together in Michigan, and the four of us sat down to look at ideas. When we saw that Matthew had put the staircase in the center of the house, at first our reaction was ‘whoa,’” says Heather. “We had not expected that, and it took us a night to wrap our minds around it. When we moved in, I saw the genius of it.”

Anyone who has spent a winter season in the Windy City also understands. “There are so many gray days in Chicago, and many of these old homes are very dark,” says Heather. “The natural light in this house makes the winters more bearable.”

A Lincoln Park home’s traditional face hides a modern heart

The home is located in Lincoln Park—a neighborhood where narrow homes stand next to each other in rows. “Getting light into the home is quite a challenge, so we looked for any opportunity to do so,” says Matthew. So, in addition to the the open stairway topped by a skylight and the glass exterior on the backside, they installed a slatted bench over an internal skylight in the kitchen to let light filter into the basement-level playroom.

Of course, if you can see out, others can see in. “It’s true there’s an apartment building behind us, and at times I’m sure they can see me cooking dinner,” says Heather. “Honestly, it doesn’t bother me, because I love the light so much.” That said, the master bedroom and bathroom have curtains and shades that completely cover the windows.

If someone did glance in, they’d see a largely white interior, including an almost pure-white kitchen. “The kitchen was very important to me,” says Heather. “To be honest, it feels like that’s where I spend the whole day. I wanted it to be bright white and have plenty of space to move around.”

For Matthew, the color served a purpose. “Cove lights and the white landscape of the kitchen (white quartz countertops and high-gloss casework) allow light to reflect and impact adjacent spaces,” he says.

The snow-white kitchen gave Jesse a moment of pause. Between the two of them, they have children ranging from age 2 to 8. Heather’s boys are 2, 4, and 7, and Jesse’s children are 4, 6, and 8. “We basically alternate years,” says Jesse. “When Heather said she wanted a kitchen like that, I said, ‘but what about the crayons?’ She has a very strong sense of style, though, and has made it work.”

One of the ways it works is its use of tough, easy-to-clean surfaces. The countertop is durable Caesarstone, and wooden kitchen stools are kid-friendly. “If we had a fire, I’d grab those stools as I ran out,” says Heather. “Not only are they comfortable and beautiful, but they have no crevices and they are easy to wipe down.”

The stools help Heather accomplish her other goal: warm modernism. “To me, modern interiors can sometimes look stark and masculine,” she says. “We warmed up this interior with wood accents.”

It’s a motif repeated in other areas of the house: In the master bathroom, the vanities are made with walnut wood, and in the master bedroom, wood scraps are mounted over the bed as art.

Brick is another material that adds color and texture throughout the house. Not only can you see the red masonry of neighboring homes through the windows, but the architect also left areas of the original brick exposed in the home.

A similar move is employed in the basement, where the stone of the foundation is a key design player. The area is dedicated to kids, and it features a playroom and a small stage. “The stone is so beautiful, we just couldn’t cover it,” says Heather.

She adds: “The stage was my idea, because my oldest went through a time where he carried a guitar everywhere. Matthew came up with the benches, where the adults sit while watching kid performances.”

The playroom makes a case for one of Hufft’s building philosophies. “I’ve heard Matthew say this many times: Don’t wait until your kids grow up to build your dream house,” says Jesse. “Our feeling is that, if you can, do it now. Enjoy the holidays and make the memories today; don’t wait. If kids make a mark on the drywall, it can be painted.”

The remodel was complete three years ago, but the friendship endures. “There’s some amount of stress with the process,” says Jesse. “You are working with building, budgets, and decisions—all things that can be hard. But, in our case, working with folks we knew so well made for a good working relationship. I think they knew we were going to take care of them.”