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

  • 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.
  • Nestled under a curved roof, the bedroom hallway receives sunlight through the vertical windows on the left. The small windows to the right allow natural light to filter into the tub area of the master bathroom.
  • Eight-foot French doors in the dining/kitchen area invite light into the original portion of the home and allow for spontaneous al fresco meals.
  • To help the open, airy living room retain an intimate scale, architect Mark A. Miller continued the curved balcony inside the home, where it becomes a maple soffit with hidden cove lighting. Ray reconstructed the house’s original window shutter boxes that allow shutters to fold into the wall. Illuminated pedestals in the room display some pieces of Ray’s art glass collection.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford
  • Though modest in size, the kitchen provides creative cooking space under the auspices of the Laughing Buddha, who invites prosperity and abundance into the household. Because the kitchen conveniently opens onto the dining area, the FSC-certified maple cabinets, arched faucet, and elegant granite can be enjoyed from other parts of the house. “I chose this gorgeous granite because it reminds me of swirls of sea foam left on the sand when the tide goes out,” Ray says.
  • Ray retained the historic façade of his East Village brick home and lovingly restored many of its neglected details, including the original cornice and the flower-patterned limestone window lintels. He also installed modern double-glazed casement windows and created a single front entrance and foyer. (Originally there had been two separate front doors: one for the ground-level rental unit and the other leading to the upstairs home.)
  • Emphasizing flow, the copper-clad stairway is crowned by an arched roof. The curved main deck juts out just beyond.
  • To help the open, airy living room retain an intimate scale, architect Mark A. Miller continued the curved balcony inside the home, where it becomes a maple soffit with hidden cove lighting. Ray reconstructed the house’s original window shutter boxes that allow shutters to fold into the wall. Illuminated pedestals in the room display some pieces of Ray’s art glass collection.
    Photos by Barry Rustin
  • A large rear foyer delineates the house’s private spaces, including the master suite. Japanese shoji screens just outside the bedroom enclose an office. This foyer can be conveniently accessed through the home’s back entrance, which leads to a garden room and garage. Ray bought the antique silk kimono, framed and displayed under museum-quality ­lighting, during a trip to Tokyo.
  • The curving balcony on the house’s south side provides a wonderful view of the entire garden, and it serves as the focal point for Ray’s annual August garden party. Grapes ripen on the vines covering the railing, attracting birds eager for a feast.
  • Homeowner Ray Kohl (left) and architect Mark Miller met more than ten years ago while studying aikido. Today the friends joke that the martial arts practice of throwing each other was good training for when they disagreed over the house’s design.

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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