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Swept Away

March 5, 2008 By Louise Farr

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A few years ago, Sheila and Jim Clary decided that they needed a home upon which they could impart their own touches. But they were busy—she as owner of a Chicago entertainment marketing agency and he as president of an executive benefits company. 

With their lives filled with work, travel, and entertaining, they didn’t want to build from the ground up. Instead, they house-hunted in the neighborhood where they already lived, Old Town, which is known for its tree-canopied streets lined with cafes, boutiques, and antique shops. Eventually they stumbled across a spec house, still in the framing stage, which would allow them to incorporate the elements they wanted. “In the city, your space is limited,” Jim says. “Clearly there are trade-offs for living there. You don’t have a yard. You have to go through an alley to park your car. [But] we wanted a sense of space.”

Swept Away theater

What the Clarys got is four floors of airy comfort and sophistication, from the top-floor master bedroom and the his-and-hers offices to the lower-level media area, with guest rooms and other living spaces in between. A key feature that sold the Clarys on the 7,700-square-foot home was its high ceilings. “A lot of houses we looked at had a good sense of space on the first floor, but the other floors had normal-height ceilings,” says Jim, who also chose the house because of builder Jay Metzler of Chicago’s Metzler/Hull Development. “Jay had designed a house where the ceilings were the same height throughout,” Jim says. “It’s built for entertaining, so it’s set up to be welcoming. It’s big, but it doesn’t feel empty. It had the kind of living that we wanted.” Adds Sheila Clary, “I like all the natural light. You sort of feel like you’re swept away.”

For John Cannon, founding partner of interior design firm Cannon Frank, the challenge was to successfully meld the owners’ contemporary tastes with the traditional house they were buying. “I like to follow the aesthetics of the building,” says Cannon, who brought the exterior’s Celtic influences inside through details that include a Celtic-style arched living room fireplace, some furnishings, and the staircase’s ironwork.

Cannon also admired Sheila’s personal style. “She dresses impeccably,” he says. “The woman’s shoes are to die for—she’s phenomenal with her textiles.” So Cannon felt free, on occasion, to make design suggestions that other clients might have thought outrageous. “I think he was excited when I said I wanted color,” says Sheila, who designed the couple’s second home in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He just had a good sense of how far he could push me. John is confident, and it really helped me gain confidence.” Says Cannon, laughing, “Not many people are going to let you do chartreuse.” The color in question applies to the Donghia and Pollack fabric used to upholster the Art Deco-style club chairs by Interior Crafts that reside in the formal living room. 

The lower-level media room and bar, conceived primarily as a space in which to entertain (although the Clarys do watch TV and movies in the space), share the floor with the wine cellar. The rooms have emerged as a hub. The Clarys host wine tastings for their friends and make spontaneous selections via CellarTracker, a software system that keeps tabs on incoming and outgoing bottles. (Favorites include California’s Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Sine Qua Non, and Clos des Papes.) An Escient music and video management system controls the homeowners’ eclectic entertainment tastes, which range from comedies and action movies to Fox’s 24, and from jazz to Rod Stewart oldies, The Fray and Coldplay, with a smidgen of hip-hop thrown in to please Sheila.

The couple had never had a media room before. “They’re getting a lot of use out of it, which they weren’t sure they would,” Cannon says. To accommodate Jim’s 6-foot-3-inch frame when he’s watching the 60-inch Zenith plasma, Cannon designed a high-backed 12-by-10-foot L-shaped sectional sofa that’s 4 feet deep for him to sink into. “You don’t want to start fidgeting, you want to relax,” Cannon says. “When I watch TV, I really like to put my feet up and have my beverage nearby—just crash and relax and not wake up an hour-and-a-half later stiff.” The sofa is bathed in a Rodolph woven wool flannel; oval Donghia ottomans roll out on casters from under a nearby Asian-style table. To aid acoustics and ward off the slightest basement chill, walls are covered in a woven red cloth by Donghia.

“John’s first question is, ‘How do you live?’” says Sheila. “That makes everything make sense, because you’re not going in only from a design aesthetic.”

It was Cannon’s idea to reconfigure the L-shaped kitchen-family room into a great room that would comprise the kitchen and a secondary media room. “I knew that if one was in the kitchen prepping dinner, the other wouldn’t want to be far away,” says Cannon, who also knew that the couple used videotape in their respective professions and might want to watch video on their 42-inch Fujitsu plasma TV while dinner was in the oven. To the Clarys’ delight, that room has become the most used in the house. “I don’t think anybody can assume how they are going to use their house,” says Cannon, who considers it his job to take on that task for his clients ahead of the game.

Jim, an ardent technology fan, brought in custom installer John Baumeister of Baumeister Electronic Architects in Niles, Ill., to create a whole-home automation system that includes Crestron lighting and iPod interfaces in every room. “What I wanted was a home that was not just a so-called ‘smart house’ with a fairly elaborate electronic setup, but something that would lend itself to expansion in the future,” Jim says. To that end, builder Metzler ran conduits to every room so that the house could be adapted to future electronic innovations without retrofitting. “I think I drive John [Baumeister] a little nuts because I read a lot of the electronic magazines,” Jim says. “Any time there’s a new idea, I tend to want to put it in the house. You know the old saying, ‘You can always tell the pioneers because they’re the ones with all the arrows in their backs’? I probably need to be a little less quick to jump on things and let other people work out the bugs.”

“John is not afraid to experiment, but he’ll be the first to tell me why I do not want to do something—and he’ll always have a good reason to back it up,” Jim says.Baumeister, who relishes receiving e-mails from Jim whenever he discovers new and enticing gadgets, designed the lower-level media room as the heart of the home’s technology. “It’s an awesome home, but there’s a lot of Midwest sensibility in it,” he says. “It’s not like the West Coast. It’s not like Florida. It’s not something frivolous that’s just going in there as a show-off piece. If we’re putting in technology, the Clarys are going to use it every day.”

Sheila is particularly fond of her bedside Crestron touchscreen. “My favorite thing is the Good Night button,” she says. “You push one button and every light goes out in the house.” Another button is labeled Good Morning; press it and the path to the bathroom and the stairs are illuminated like magic. “This is definitely the smartest house we’ve ever had,” she says.


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