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Chicago-Area Home with Chic Cottage Style
Light, bright, and airy, this authentic re-creation of a French country cottage will leave you wondering why you ever doubted the power of white.
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Dawn McKenna—a real-estate agent who’s lived in eight different homes during the 24 years she and her husband, Stephen, have been married—possesses a unique eye for possibilities. But even she didn’t immediately recognize the potential in the Chicago-area house she, Stephen, and their four kids call home. “I was the listing agent for this property and held an open house here,” she recalls. “It never occurred to me it would make a perfect house for our family, because it only had three bedrooms. But Stephen walked in and immediately fell in love with it. End of story!”
A weathered split-rail fence delineates the grounds of the McKennas' enchanting home, a convincing reproduction of a French country cottage. Its cedar shake shingle roof and oak board and batten siding define its architectural provenance.
Photography: Werner Straube
Produced by: Hilary Rose
Architect: Michael Graham, Liederbach and Graham Architects, 500 N. Wells St., Chicago, IL 60654; 312/828-0900; liederbachandgraham.com.
Architect for addition of bedroom, mudroom, and library: Patrick Fortelka, Charles Vincent George Architects, 1245 E. Diehl Rd., Suite 101, Naperville, IL 60563; 630/357-2023; cvgarchitects.com.
Kitchen designers: Laura O’Brien and Peter Harris, O’Brien Harris, 500 N. Wells St., Third Floor, Chicago, IL 60654; 312/464-9460; obrienharris.com.
First the couple incorporated a sensitive, looks-like-it’s-always-been-there bedroom addition to accommodate their two youngest children. Then Dawn whitewashed the house from top to bottom, and filled its interiors with take-anything pine tables and sink-in, linen-slipcovered seating – also in white.
A salvaged pair of architectural columns from Belgium announces the transition between the dining hall and the family room. An antique pine rectory table backs the linen-covered sofa; a jolt of electric blue floats above the fireplace, contributing an element of surprise to the all-white space.
Family Room Seating
“People always wonder how I can have four kids and an all-white house,” she laughs. “But the truth is, everything is slipcovered, so it’s really easy to keep clean. I’ve had my sofas for ten years – nothing will destroy them. And if red wine or Gatorade get spilled on them, oh, well. Into the wash they go!”
Salvaged from a Connecticut barn, the family room’s white pine floors are stained with a custom mix of seven shades of gray, and layered with a shag rug. Silk velvet chairs flank a French limestone fireplace. “My look is casual and organic, but with bits of sparkle,” Dawn says. “I like a little sheen and shine here and there.”
In a cozy corner of the family room, an ebony side table carved from a single piece of wood sidles alongside a mohair-upholstered chaise longue embellished with brass nailheads. French doors beckon to the terrace and pond.
Dawn's easy, breezy attitude perfectly suits her family’s casual cottage lifestyle. “It’s fun to be home here,” she says.
Completely gutted and redesigned, the McKennas' new kitchen showcases Dawn’s talent for creating a casually elegant mood. She eschewed upper cabinets – “too bulky,” she says – in favor of a focal-point range hood fabricated in zinc. She lined the room with vast expanses of timeless marble and open shelves to display her oft-used collections of silver and glass.
Reclaimed terra-cotta floor tiles from Provence ground the kitchen’s airy eating nook. Washable linen slipcovers cloak chairs gathered around a bleached walnut console table. Chairs are on casters to roll easily into the dining hall when the McKennas entertain.
Adjacent to the kitchen, the intimate hearth room features an antique French limestone fireplace and a cowhide-clad ottoman. “We’re not a big TV family,” Dawn says. “This is where the kids like to lie around and do homework.”
Along with a mostly open floor plan that encourages family togetherness even as it provides cozy spaces for teen private time, the property also features a pond just a few limestone steps from the house. “It’s a totally unexpected thing to have in the middle of a suburban neighborhood,” Dawn says. “It’s really pretty magical.”
The centerpiece of the McKenna family’s outdoor-loving lifestyle, a pond nearly twice the size of a regulation hockey rink, gathers friends and family in all seasons. “Around it we have paths to walk on, bean bag loungers to fall asleep on, and a hot tub to relax in,” Dawn says. “We are always on the go – this house slows us down.”
Indeed, from alfresco summer meals on the pondside terrace and autumn nights gathered around the adjacent fire pit to rousing games of winter ice hockey, the pond welcomes the McKenna family – and their many guests – year-round. “Our house is the hang-out house,” Dawn says.
Good thing the house is always party-ready, enabling Dawn to host everything from post-game get-togethers for her kids’ sports teams to holiday dinners for the extended McKenna clan - who all live nearby - at a moment’s notice. “This house doesn’t have a formal dining room,” Dawn explains. “It has a dining hall, instead, which also doubles as our entrance hall. It’s a practical use of space that really gives the house personality.” In it, a pair of inexpensive, 60-inch, collapsible tables are layered with white linen, floor-sweeping tablecloths, themselves covered with scratch- and ring-hiding antiqued mirrored tops. “They’re glamorous but forgiving,” Dawn says, neatly summing up the relaxed vibe that pervades her uniquely inviting home.
Suspended over the dining hall, an antique carriage lantern casts a warm glow.
The master bedroom’s linen-upholstered headboard is studded with hammered polished-nickel nailheads. A hand-blown Murano glass lamp from Italy rests atop a mirrored bedside chest, one of a pair.
Bedroom Sitting Area
Warmed by an antique fireplace surround from Belgium and glamorized by a 1940s vintage mirror, the master bedroom displays Dawn’s deft hand at blending genres, eras, materials, and finishes. Sit-awhile furnishings surround a mirrored coffee table edged in brass, evincing Dawn’s affection for all things metal.
Dawn originally planned to place the master bathroom’s brass bar cart in the family room, then decided it would be an ideal home to her collection of bath salts, oils, and moisturizers. “It’s like a candy cart for me,” she says. “I’m a real tub person.” The light fixture – one of Dawn’s favorites – hung in the dining room of her previous house.
Virtually indistinguishable from the outside, the new bedroom addition offers spacious quarters for the McKennas' two youngest teens beneath a soaring, 25-foot ceiling. Designed to accommodate sleepovers with ease, its nautical aesthetic is cleanly, crisply, and subtly communicated via burlap pillows, linen bed coverings, and light fixtures crafted from rope. Storage drawers beneath the beds are practical alternatives to floor-hogging furniture.