Heartache is transformed into a new home filled with love and light
Sue Ruge would never have envisioned this house as her family’s dream home—divorce had stained that portrait of loving husband and wife living carefree with their three school-age children in a big vintage house in Hinsdale, Illinois—but this newer, smaller home in the same town is in every way a dream come true.
When her 25-year marriage ended, Sue had to downsize. The 6,000 square feet of the 1930s home her children had grown up in became exactly twice too much house for her to handle. There was no way she and the kids could maintain its imposing grounds. Instead of hitting a wall, she hit the pavement, canvassing block after block of the area for real estate. She left notes on doors, determined to keep her children within the comfort zone of their old neighborhood and schools.
On a small lot only four blocks from the Ruges’ large home, builder Bill Ryan had begun excavation for his own family’s residence. Sue and her children were friendly with his wife, the town librarian. The Ryans were moved by Sue’s story—and her fortitude. “We had a long talk, and he stopped construction and sold the property to me,” says Sue. She retained Ryan as her contractor and later went to work for his company as an “internal customer” who helps brainstorm spec homes.
Sue was adamant that construction of her new home be completed by Christmas that first year. “I wanted my oldest child, Mary, who was then a senior in high school, to be able to spend one Christmas making memories in this house before she went away to college.” She met her deadline with a month to spare.
Instead of replicating in miniature the colonial style of the stately house they left behind, Sue chose a breezier, less formal look. Having grown up in Massachusetts, she opted for the shingle-style architecture of the houses on Cape Cod, where she summered as a child. Inside, she wanted hardworking, intimate spaces that were bathed in light. Her team of architects, contractors, and designers honored those goals. They also rallied behind Sue’s seemingly quixotic (but in fact, very reasonable) request to build and decorate an exact replica of her favorite room in the old house—its den. “Our goal was to preserve our home and keep our memories close. We weren’t looking to erase the past in any way,” she says.
The new den appears freshly plucked from the old house, down to its identically proportioned bowed fireplace with paneled surround, black-and-white toile curtains, and sink-down checked chairs. “The architect and carpenters went to the old house and took exact measurements of the room, then literally re-created it here,” Sue says. “That den was so important to my children growing up. It was where we curled up with books by the fireplace, and I didn’t want to leave those memories behind.
“Recycling the furniture and draperies from the old house saved me a lot of money,” she also notes, “but more important, it preserved our home.”
One thing she did not want to repeat from her former residence was its wasted spaces. “I was determined not to have any room we only used a few times a year,” ?Sue explains. Instead of a formal dining room, the new house combines living and dining spaces. “We wanted a fireplace in the dining room, a place to pull up chairs and sit. I believe spaces can either bring you together or draw you apart. These draw us together.”
She credits interior designers Barbara Svihla and Olivia Paxton for that success.
“They were my voice to the architects and builders. They made sure all of my old furniture fit and that the measurements from the old house didn’t get lost in the building process.” Svihla and Paxton also designed all the interior wood moldings. Made crisp with white paint, the moldings and walls exude the inviting airiness Sue desired.
Special pieces from the last house sometimes dictated the size and shape of rooms. A harlequin-patterned Chinese needlepoint rug previously used in the Ruges’ formal dining room became the centerpiece of the new house’s breakfast room. “The whole size of our kitchen was determined by that rug,” laughs Sue. An antique mantel relegated to the basement in the previous house regained its dignity in Sue’s new master bedroom.
For their first Christmas in the house, the Ruges had a huge party, inviting old friends, family, and all their new neighbors. Daughter Mary began making memories in the new home, just as her mother had hoped. This year, Sue received an e-mail from her, thanking her for that first Christmas and more: “You designing and building our house from such a huge source of pain is just breathtaking—how you could pull something so beautiful out of that experience of divorce. I’m just now able to imagine how much pain you must have been in, and how you focused all your energy on creating something positive for us. You are so strong. You are one in a million.”
Architect: John Forehand, lead project architect, Darcy Bonner & Assoc. LLC, 205 W. Wacker Dr., Suite 307, Chicago, IL 60606; 312/853-3470.
Interior designers: Barbara Svihla and Olivia Paxton, Svihla Paxton Interiors; 630-525-0048.
Photography: Gordon Beall
Produced by Hilary Rose
Every room in the new home was designed to be used daily. Warmed by the fireplace, the breakfast room has an antique harlequin-patterned Chinese rug that was moved from the owner’s previous residence; in fact, the new breakfast room was sized to fit the rug.
The kitchen’s traditional cabinetry and beadboard ceilings go airy in white, a theme embellished by the pots of leggy narcissus on the windowsill.
Fresh fruit and pastries on classic pie plates give depth and color to this bright kitchen.
Details on the next slide.
A metal reindeer fruit bowl holding oranges lends a subtle holiday touch to the counter space.
The richness of the natural wicker dining chairs warms up this cozy breakfast room.
Decorating for Christmas is a must, says Sue. “Our newest holiday tradition is inviting every neighbor over for a huge but very casual Christmas party. It’s a caroling party. A bunch of the neighborhood dads play the piano and everybody sings.”
The home’s shingle-style architecture looks especially picturesque with a blanket of snow.
Sue Ruge with son Nicholas and daughters Mary (left) and Shannon.
Sue’s bedroom achieves character from a mantel salvaged from her old home’s basement. “I didn’t have a bedroom fireplace in that house, so this one’s even better!”
The pine armoire reflected in the entry’s mirror serves as a coat closet and avoids blocking the windows. Detail on the next slide.
The carved German nativity is a family heirloom.
The main room combines living and dining for great function. Its coffered ceiling and detailed moldings—all painted white—add to the airiness of the windows.
Silver and crystal ornaments glow in the light from the living room’s many windows, giving the Christmas tree an organic radiance.
The pearlescent and silver hues of the mantel vignette are illumined by natural light.
Sue’s favorite room in her old home was the den, where she read to her children. She replicated it in the new house, recycling all its furniture and draperies.
Employing classic elements—cranberries and evergreens—the winter tablescape is timelessly elegant.