We’re very pleased that the Illinois Chapter of the ASLA will give an honor award next month to the redesigned garden at a historic urban property in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. As a five-parcel lot, this property could easily have become over-programmed with dozens of vogue landscape amenities like a pool, play area, and sport court. Instead, simple but theatrical design elements accentuate dramatic assets of a historic house.

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Photography by Scott Shigley

A sunken lawn to the south of the house is a serene counterpoint to the Victorian façade and when viewed from the street, it emphasizes the home’s vertical proportions. Part of this is to create the illusion of a “house on a hill.” When purchasing the house, the homeowner said, “There was something so gracious yet powerful about the way the house sat on the lot and presided over the block. They were clearly paying homage to the idea of a Tuscan villa on a rolling hill when they built it.” In response, our early design discussions with the homeowners were influenced by images of Tuscan landscapes like these:

Although the house is historic, a new addition at the back of the house by Vinci/Hamp Architects is contemporary. The landscape design responds to this juxtaposition: the structure of the overall garden is formal—you can see this in the sunken lawn, simple but dramatic lines of pathways, and the hedge of pear trees in the gravel garden—but much of the planting is designed to soften the rigidness of this formality.

Though the setting for the coach house is formal, landscape beds around the coach house are irregularly shaped to allow the plantings to spill out onto the paving in a more free-form style.

This blurring of formal and informal styles is especially evident in the back of the property, where private areas for entertaining and dining are tucked away in a secluded gravel garden that is adjacent to the contemporary coach house addition. This mix of contemporary and historic is consistent in the home’s interior which is exactingly restored but filled with exquisite modern furnishings and designed by Julia Buckingham Edelmann.

For the record, several of the IL ASLA jury members didn’t like how open the garden is from the street and in fact, we began the design process with a number of design concepts that created more privacy.

Early concepts screened the side garden areas from the street.

In the end, though, the client decided that a critical feature of their garden needed to be to “make the garden a neighborhood space for all to enjoy.” So as a result, views of the garden from the street are showcased, not blocked, contributing to an experience of the garden as a generous space.

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