Now & Zen: A Renovated Chicago Flat

In Chicago, a dilapidated red-brick brownstone gets a makeover that blends historic with modern Asian.


Zen-like simplicity in the master bathroom is created with a large whirlpool tub mounted amid stone-like tile and a walk-in shower/steam room with a waterfall showerhead. A seven-foot counter with dual sinks assures that couples can comfortably share the space.

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Sometimes you have to live with a house’s history, both good and bad, for a while before you can envision your own place in it. In 1986, art director Ray Kohl bought a neglected Chicago Federal-style two-flat on a double lot in a once tidy, working-class neighborhood that had since become overrun by street gangs. At the time, he could afford to renovate only the first-floor rental unit; improvements on his own bare-bones living space upstairs had to wait—for thirteen years.

The house, built about 1885, is in East Village, just a ten-minute commute from downtown Chicago. Formerly known as East Ukrainian Village, the neighborhood’s colorful history is visible in its elaborate Orthodox churches and rows of solid brick houses erected for families of the Polish and Ukrainian workers who rebuilt the city after the 1871 fire. Ray’s house was originally a “cold-water flat”—a multifamily unit with cold running water only. “In those days, you walked down the block to the ­public bath house and paid three cents for a hot shower and a piece of soap,” Ray explains.

Today, East Village’s upscale ambiance and coveted location belies both its 1880s immigrant background and its 1980s drug-fueled gang violence. And to see Ray’s contemporary renovation, completed in 2000, you’d never guess this was the same house that was suffocating under the burden of its history when he bought it. “The house was run down and filthy,” he says. “Nobody ever threw anything out. The basement, gardening room, and garage were filled with trash, old tools, and broken appliances.”

A thoughtful renovation

Because he appreciated the home’s good bones, Ray decided his disheveled place had potential. “At night, I’d come home, sit in the dark with a beer, and wonder: ‘What do I want to see when I first come up these stairs? What would feel nice?’” After years of consideration, he knew he wanted to achieve an open, expansive feel with an Asian aesthetic—one that preserved the integrity of the original building while integrating the Zen-­influenced garden he’d planted.

For help planning the major renovation and two additions—­including the 1,000-square-foot addition to the main upstairs ­living area—Ray turned to Mark A. Miller, an architect friend he’d met years before while both studied aikido, a martial art. Miller specializes in spirit-enriching spaces, drawing upon his years as a student of various Zen disciplines. He was also part of a winning team in the 2001 Green Homes for Chicago architectural design contest. Together, the two began exploring environmentally friendly ways to give Ray’s home a fresh start using ­concepts from Eastern philosophy.

Known in Japanese as “the way of a harmonious spirit,” aikido emphasizes balance and flow, even during combative situations. Students learn to use the ki, or energy, of the attacker to defend themselves. “Rather than meeting your opponent with force, aikido is all about blending with a punch or kick to avoid harming yourself or your opponent,” Miller explains. “If you’re using a lot of muscle, you’re not doing aikido properly. It’s supposed to seem almost effortless, which is just what we had in mind for Ray’s house.”

The way of harmonious spirit

To start with a clean palette, the house’s second story was ­gutted and a thirty-seven-foot addition was built at the rear. Balancing the house’s square, stolid corners, the new design incorporates curves, including a sweeping balcony overlooking the ­garden (with a serpentine walkway) and the arching roof of the stairway that leads to the brick-and-glass garden room.

Aikido-like flow from room to room also enlivens the home. One of Ray’s goals was to create a floorplan that felt open but still provided privacy. Because the home is long and narrow, Miller designed a slight offset in the middle so you can’t peer from the kitchen/dining/living room area to the master bedroom.

Ray is an avid gardener, so the Zen principle of connecting to nature was paramount. Miller harmonized the outdoors and indoors by designing large French doors leading onto the balcony from the living/dining room and master bedroom; now all the major living spaces have garden views. The master bedroom, located in the modern addition, was built at an angle to give a better vantage point on the garden; it’s also protected by the branches of a Crimean linden. “During summer, I open the French doors and am surrounded by green leaves,” says Ray. “It’s like being in a tree house.”

That tree is one of the keys to the house’s passive solar orientation. The long side of the original house faces south, and although it might have been easier to build the addition on that side, Miller wanted to preserve the southern exposure. On winter days, the home’s brick absorbs the sun’s warmth and holds it through the night. During summer, the south side is shaded by surrounding deciduous trees, and Ray is able to reduce heating and air conditioner use year-round. “Being environmentally sensitive is in line with the aikido philosophy,” notes Miller. “It’s all about respecting nature and working with it, not against it.”

A path to an inner world

Ray’s love of Asian culture is reflected in the home’s décor as well, and clean lines and quiet colors work surprisingly well within the nineteenth-century parameters. To create the authentic shoji screens, which serve as doors to the study and the living room’s entertainment center, Ray hired nationally renowned Japanese carpenter John Okumura, now retired.

More than anything, Ray delights in surprises. “In the garden, I have a secret path the neighborhood kids love to explore,” he says. “I planned it so you always find something you didn’t expect.” The same magic appreciation applies to his renovated home. A visitor approaches the traditional façade, then discovers that its narrow, square atmosphere opens into a light airy space with Japanese touches.

­“The flow of the house reflects the personal journey,” Miller says. “You leave the public realm—work, perhaps—and enter the home’s personal environment. Here, you take the path from the garage to the sidewalk, through the garden, up the stairs, and inside. You’ve separated from the outer world and are in harmony with the inner self and nature. That’s what we wanted this home to be about.”

What makes this home green?