Saving a mid-century classic

Matt Nordloh's small brick home features a central courtyard that creates a giant terrarium-like feel, open to the sky. Built with no exterior windows, the house is nearly invisible from the street.

It sounds like a secret compound: a small brick house in Glen Ellyn, Ill., built with no exterior windows and nearly invisible from the street, almost swallowed up by the surrounding Victorians, Colonials and McMansions.

Its walls and ceilings are clad in dark African mahogany; the floors are terrazzo embedded with fossils.

A circular brick fireplace stands freely in the living space. And there are few interior walls, allowing the square footage (about 1,400 in the original part of the house, 800 in an addition) to flow.

Koi swim in a heated pond that is at once inside and outside the house, in an open courtyard that sits in the center of the box-shaped, single-story abode. The courtyard, ringed in glass, is the focus of the interior; all rooms face it.

What this house doesn't sound like is a cozy, vintage structure that could be included in the National Register of Historic Places. But historic status is in the works.

In these days of dismal real estate news, the story of an absurd little house from the 1950s that could survive tear-down mania - and an owner who would pour sweat and tears and money into it - rings especially warm and fuzzy. Or fuzzy and complicated.

"I didn't fall in love," says Matt Nordloh, the house's owner of four years. He bought the place, in serious disrepair, from the previous owner's estate, likely saving it from the wrecking ball.

But Nordloh insists he's no do-gooder. He didn't buy the house because he was a preservationist or even a minor zealot of mid-century modern architecture. Four years ago, he was simply a newly single man who needed a roof over his head and who wanted to stay in the neighborhood, close to his young daughter.

And he remains an architectural consultant who knows his way around blueprints. His hobby is rehabbing and selling houses, though he intended to live in this one.

When the price came down on this "weird-looking little box" after months of negotiation, up went his love for it.

Nordloh knew nothing of the house's architect, Paul Schweikher, a mid-century modernist of note and a buddy of Mies van der Rohe. Nor did he realize that mid-century modern architecture was just coming of age in the world of historic preservation.

"These types of buildings are just turning 50," the age at which a building is considered historic, says Kate Keleman, guest curator with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. "It's a movement that's loved by some people and ignored by others, but largely unrecognized."

Keleman, whom Nordloh hired to write his nomination for the National Register, struggles to label this kind of dwelling. She settles on "mid-century atrium house."

She says that "inward-looking" houses were an "interesting trend" that showed up after World War II and signaled a major change in what Americans wanted in a home.

"They wanted open space," Keleman says. They wanted the indoors and outdoors to flow seamlessly. They wanted a total "turning away from traditional styles" - away from all the revival French chateaus and Spanish Colonials that were being built in the 1920s and '30s.

Nordloh just wanted a house he could afford, and understand. He admits to initial plans for an all-out rehab/redo. He even talked about adding windows. (A 1960s addition created two bedrooms and several windows.)

"But as soon as I moved in, I said, 'What are you doing?' " he says. "The house immediately got a hold of me and spoke to me. This is a different house, and it required a whole different approach."

He shelved his big plans. Instead, he listened to the house.

The electrical system needed upgrading. The shower in the main bathroom didn't work; plumbing lines were broken under the concrete slab. A toilet was broken. The roof leaked. Exterior trim boards in the courtyard were rotted. And both bathrooms in the addition flooded when it rained.

Yet Nordloh managed to find the love to pursue the provenance of his home. He "Googled" his way to familiarity with Schweikher, then Keck & Keck (architects of the addition) and mid-century modernism in general.

He learned that, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Schweikher was strongly influenced by Japanese architecture, embracing the flow of a Japanese house, the lack of defined spaces, the weaving of indoors and out.

So Nordloh composed a list of "sympathetic" improvements to update the house without altering its soul.

He added a skylight to the living space, to bring much-needed light into the interior. He reworked the entry, tearing out a closet that closed and darkened it. And he made the garage truly attached, adding a passage between it and the house.

"The project brought me a lot of anxiety," he says. "But as I got further along and things came to be, it also quieted me.

"There's really a sense of calm and stillness here, unlike any house I've ever been in or had or worked on," he says. "It just comes over me."

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