Now & Zen: A Renovated Chicago Flat

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

| July/August 2005

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.

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