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  • Lauren Mitrick Wood

Our North Shore Project, Part I

By now you've heard about the shoestring renovation Charlie and I did when we first got married, and you saw how we transformed our Bucktown townhouse into the perfect city-dweller's respite. Now, our greatest home-owning adventure yet has us 25 miles north...

For five years we were content in our townhouse in Bucktown. We had made it all our own and loved so many of its features! Then the pandemic hit and we were forced to stay home for months on end. We kept busy around the house as best we could, but kept asking ourselves, are we ready for a change? What kind of change do we actually need? I was growing tired of the three-level-townhouse life. Climbing two flights to entertain from the kitchen to the rooftop wasn't ideal. I just kept dreaming of a yard where I could just walk outside from the living room and enjoy dinner on the patio, a walk in the grass, a swing in the hammock or even a dip in a pool. To get that in the city we would have had to shell out a pretty penny. There was only one thing left to do: look in the burbs....dun, dun, dun!

Were we really ready for the suburbs? The answer was not clear, but we started looking at options. I didn't want to move into another vanilla box or something "basic". I wanted something that was architecturally interesting, something tantalizing, maybe something that even scared us a little. Remember we were in the depths of 2020 lockdowns and not much was going on—we could have used a little thrill ride...and oh what a ride it's been. We thought this could be the perfect pandemic project. If we didn't like living in the burbs we could just sell and move back to the city. Spoiler alert—as of October 2021, we still haven't even moved into the house.

Jens Jenssen, a master landscape architect

Ideally the perfect home was out there that we could just move right into but I wasn't finding it. After scouring the MLS for weeks I decided we would probably need to put on "Pinterest" goggles and go after a clunker we could transform into something beautiful. Then we found the perfect spot... or so we thought. The house was right in the Ravinia district in Highland Park. It was a cottage for Jens Jenssen back in the day. Jens was a popular landscape architect from the 1920s who left his mark after designing places like Humboldt Park and Ravinia. He worked alongside the renowned architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to help curate the gardens for many of Shaw's estates in the Chicagoland area. Shaw's best known for his Lake Forest Market Square - the first planned shopping center in the United States.

We had grand plans like painting the exterior black!

We were the first group in to see the house, and after winning the bid we were coming around to the idea of finally trying out the burbs. I had grand plans to paint the entire house black, modernize the landscaping, convert the unfinished lofted area above the garage into a yoga studio and turn the humdrum kitchen into a super sexy modern kitchen.

Here's a little overview of our renovation fantasies for this adorable house...

The living room (far left) was already fabulous, it just needed a little more inspired, modern furniture and a fashionable new fireplace mantel.

The kitchen would get an entirely modern makeover, with sleek black finishes and brass fixtures.

The dining room needed a major overhaul. We loved the look of this black & white inspiration.

The light fixture is so chic!

Finally, we'd revamp the spacious backyard (left) with ideas like a firepit, wildflowers, new pavement, and so much more. I had more Pinterest pins for landscape design than I can count!

And then, the big surprise...

We got a call from the listing agent. The sellers were canceling the deal. For no reason other than, "They just changed their minds and didn't want to sell." Wait, what?! After 18 years helping clients buy and sell I had NEVER had this happen. What. Are. The. Odds? There goes that. We were devastated but picked up our crumbled emotions and marched on with our search.

A couple months later a house came up that looked interesting. I was drawn to the vintage moldings, the etched glass in the dining room and the large formal entryway. I can't forget to mention the south-facing sunroom in the back, adorned with triple hung windows—that light, though! Coincidentally, it was designed Howard Van Doren Shaw himself, so our connection with Jens Jenssen continues.

Van Doren Shaw, our esteemed architect

My parents stopped by the open house since we couldn't make it and they said, "You have to buy this one." We were off to the races. I called the broker and said I wanted to set up a showing to see the house since I could not make the open. She said something like, "We already have two offers, sorry." I begged and pleaded and finally got a showing in for the next day. We pulled out all the stops: an over-asking bid with an escalation clause, an as-is offer, and accompanying "love letter" to the sellers. Wouldn't you know it, we found ourselves under contract for the second time for a house in Highland Park. Why Highland Park? I grew up in Wilmette for 10 years before moving to Lake Forest where my parents still live. My husband Charlie ping-ponged between the East Coast and Lake Forest where his family settled and remains there today. As we do a lot of work in the city, Lake Forest felt too far north for us, and we didn't necessarily want to recreate our childhood. Lake Forest is a lovely place to visit, which we do often, but we wanted a place where we could be a little more ambiguous like living in a bigger city. Highland Park gave us that and is just that much closer to the city, has a burgeoning downtown, access to lakefront beaches, a Metra stop and a quick bike ride to Ravinia. We went under contract in September of 2020, closed in November and started construction in January 2021. We enlisted the help of a deisnger, Jessica Margot Design, and nine months later, we are still working on it.

What have we been doing for the past 9 months? You'll just have to stick around and see in Part II...


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