Hidden gem

Small, historic former rental in Oak Park now a 'tiny dream house'

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

When a job change brought Chelsie and Brad Bell to Chicago from Pittsburgh in 2015, they quickly figured out that Oak Park was the place they wanted to set down roots. 

Looking at rentals, they happened upon a one-bedroom, one-bathroom rental that was slightly unusual. A standalone house, the small rental was tucked away in an alley between Forest Avenue and Marion Street. 

 "We looked around and knew this was the spot," said Brad.

They loved the location and how they were able to walk to so much in the village. In 2018, after a few happy years in the house, they began looking for a place to buy in the village, but they didn't look far. 

"We saw one other house, and then we thought, what if we could make this house work?" Chelsie said.

They approached their landlord about possibly buying the house. After almost 20 years as a landlord, she was ready to sell. The couple loved the charm of the 1883-era home but knew they would have to make some changes to make the house their first home as owners. 

For starters, they wanted a bit more space and a different layout. As it was, the house had a bathroom on the first floor and a loft bedroom space that was open to the living room below.

They didn't have to go far to find an architect to help with the renovation. Architect Debra McQueen is a neighbor and was very familiar with the house. 

"We've lived around the alley from the house for 21years or so," McQueen said. "We've seen families and friends come and go. It's a very tiny house. It's unusual that it's in the same zoning district as these big homes with these big 10,000-square-foot lots."

Chelsie recalls that she and Brad were prepared to make some changes.

"We'd lived here for three years, and had this vision of things we could do," Chelsie said.

According to McQueen, there were two points that had to be ironed out with the village prior to the start of construction. The plans had to go through historic review as the house is located in a historic district, and McQueen aided in that review. 

The couple also had to seek a zoning variance since current standards require a certain ratio of building to land on a lot. As a member of the village zoning review board, McQueen recused herself from that presentation, but the Bells prepared a PowerPoint presentation and did it themselves. 

Successful in their petition to expand the square footage of the structure, they turned to the inside of the home with McQueen as their guide.

The Bells loved the cottage style of the home, but not the 1970s-era paneling. McQueen worked to infuse some age-appropriate elements into the redesign while keeping the changes that worked. 

The style of new trim and windows were in keeping with the period the home was built, but skylights that had been added at some point were kept to infuse the rooms with light. The Bells hoped to add a bay window to the front for their dog to have a spot to view the outside, but they weren't permitted to change the front façade of the home due to the historic nature of the house.

McQueen helped them create an open floor plan for the living spaces and more usable space for additional bedrooms and an additional bathroom. On the first floor, the living room flows into the open kitchen space. With an island for seating, a wine fridge and traditional white cabinets, the kitchen is the heart of the first floor. The original full bathroom on the first floor was remodeled, and a full bedroom, now used as an office, was added onto the side of the home.

The stairs to the second story had to be completely replaced because the steep original stairs were not up to code. McQueen's plans reconfigured the space on the second floor, closing it off from the living spaces below. Chelsie notes that the room was so awkward before that Brad's closet was open to the downstairs. 

"For three years, we lived here and wondered how we'd tie it in," Chelsie said. "That's what Debra was so key for -- figuring all of that out."

Now, their bedroom has two closets and shares a new Jack-and-Jill bathroom with a second bedroom at the back of the house.

McQueen says that the second floor presented some challenges. 

"The only bedroom had very low ceilings and was very limited in height because of the ridge of the roof," McQueen said. "We had to rebuild a dormer because it wasn't structurally sound, but we couldn't go higher than the ridge because of historic district constraints."

Working with Loop Construction for the remodel, they also installed high-efficiency heating, air-conditioning and all new electrical and plumbing service. A new outdoor seating space is shaded by the trees that they worked hard to protect during the construction process, which lasted roughly five months.

Today, Chelsie calls it "our little, tiny dream house." 

McQueen, who says her own right-sized home was built in 1862 and is not palatial either, says that small spaces are becoming more popular. 

"The whole idea of making a truly small house very carefully and make it live large is something a lot of people are embracing," McQueen said. "I really love this kind of challenge."

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Adrienne Szarmack Smith  

Posted: July 17th, 2019 12:13 PM

What a wonderful transformation. I think it's also worth noting the talented Ms. McQueen was also recently interviewed about the very large job of working on the mansion at Oak Park Ave. and Chicago. A multi-talented architect for sure.

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