Doblin House

Photos: Steve Hall

Before Bruce Doblin found a defunct T-shirt factory suitable for a single-family build-out, he had been shopping for outmoded structures in Chicago’s Wicker Park. When an otherwise alluring space there revealed prohibitive environmental problems, he turned his attention to another North Side neighborhood: Ravenswood. His architect, Joe Valerio of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates (VDTA), got a challenging commission with shifting ground rules. Straight away, they discovered that non-structural partitions were all that held up the bow-trussed wooden roof, and that the failed trusses were pushing out the masonry walls.

It was significantly cheaper to insert a new steel frame roof instead of repairing the trusses. This also allowed the use of jacks to slowly pull the walls back to vertical. And so, by creative response to calamity, the home got a defining feature: a parabolic metal roofline perforated by tiny acoustic dampening holes and large skylights. During the build-out, the entire front facade fell onto the sidewalk. This incident, however, led to the one-of-a-kind windowless corrugated steel facade with scissoring doors to the garden and garage.

 

Another wrench in Valerio’s design scheme came a decade after he thought his work was done. “Bruce emailed me to say he was dating one of my clients [Lisa Wainwright, who, as Dean of Faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was the point person for VDTA’s work on the new student center]. Then, four or five months later I hear Lisa’s moving in and that they were getting married. Not only that, but she was bringing her son.”

Wainwright moved from a highly structured classicism to spare modernism, using art to warm the space. “I’m a control freak and I have a very specific aesthetic sensibility,” she said. “In this instance, I decided to let go. Bruce and I made a deal. I curated the space and he worked on the design side. I love how the garden spills into the home, and how it’s a walled-in oasis. I understand Le Corbusier much better now.”

VDTA expands its original design for a client to accommodate a growing family with a new addition, which is perched above the existing structure and consists of a glass-walled study, master bathroom, and closets.
 

The original house, finished in 2002, typifies Mies Van Der Rohe’s concept of universal space, one room with limitless possibilities for partitioning. It is the sum of an L-shaped glass curtain wall, steel frame, concrete floors, and masonry walls. “I warned Bruce that he was doing a very unusual house,” said Valerio, “and he said ‘No problem Joe, I’m never going to get married.’”

Valerio wasn’t convinced his complete home concept would stand up to adaptation, but it did, and magically so.

The idea was to make the addition part of the house but avoid any encroachment on the main space. It vaults above the masonry walls as a periscope to the world—a space that takes in a slice of the neighborhood and passing trains. As in the original space, one refers primarily to the courtyard gardens for awareness of the changing seasons. “It’s the extroverted part of the house, designed with Lisa in mind,” said Valerio. “She’s the big-thinking extrovert and Bruce is the calm and collected doctor.”

Axon by Valerio Dewalt Train Associates
 

Wainwright eventually took over the addition. Initially, it was meant for her son but once the plans were drawn up, she said, it was too good to hand over to a teenager. Her glass-walled study is the centerpiece, and the new master bathroom with granite shower, clerestory windows, and his-and-hers walk-in closets are off to the side.

For her son, Wainwright gutted the original master bathroom with its sculpture garden frontage and made it the second bedroom. With unprecedented physical separation in the home came greater privacy and tranquility.

“The best question Joe asked me was ‘How many shoes do you own?’” Said Wainwright. “And I thought, I like this guy. I had always liked his designs.’”

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