Church Conversion

Church Conversion

The foyer maintains the look of the original 1901 church.
Jim Tschetter

This spring, a 1901 church in Chicago’s Little Italy was converted to a 5,500-square-foot single-family home.

With rental income in mind, a previous owner began to convert the church several years back, but he didn’t get very far. The new owners, a family with three young children, commissioned Linc Thelen Design (LTD) as the design-build firm to manage most aspects of the project. Preserving a sense of awe is no small task when partitioning a chapel and bell tower for seven bedrooms and six bathrooms. It was a riddle of light, volume, and materials.

“The client was very involved,” said Linc Thelen, owner of LTD. “In the end it gave us a better product. She had great taste and was fine going over budget.” The powder room exemplifies this willing extravagance; it took a whole week for crews to install the custom burlap wall covering.

Left to right: A Transceramica fireplace is the focal point of the living room, with a coffee table, sofa, and Hyde rug all from Design Within Reach and hanging lights from Arteriors; LEM Piston Stools surround a custom quartz island in the kitchen; The master bath combines modernism and historic details seamlessly.

“My goal was keeping the build-out very modern to juxtapose with vintage church details,” Thelen added. Stained glass, exposed brickwork, and ceiling turnbuckles mix happily with bone-white walls, a transparent quartz-clad fireplace with firewood cubbies, a media room, hanging pendants and sconces, stained Hickory cabinets, white quartz kitchen counters, and white oak floors.

Thelen applied the same studied discipline to furnishings, a curated mix of guest pieces and his own craftsmanship. There is mimicry of trusses and turnbuckles in wiry dining chairs and zigzagging hanging lamps, but mostly the home’s mellow modernism stays in the background so vintage showpieces can shine.

The bell tower once housed the furnace but features a glass floor on the upper level to let in light.

A big concern was creating more light and volume in the space. A drop ceiling had butchered the church’s best asset—its chapel. Now the great room, it’s a good spot to congregate once more now that the ceiling lifts 25 feet to the rafters. At the same time, in an architectural version of cap-and-trade, the 40 foot by 40 foot space was broken up into more functional bits. Volume lost and volume gained.

Thelen also blew open the foyer to make it part of the house, in the process putting its large window to work for the great room. As if the build-out’s inherent eclecticism weren’t enough, he supplied the kids with special distractions: a climbing wall in the boys’ bedroom and a hanging swing chair in the girls’ room. For guests, the nursery’s custom wall unit hides a Murphy bed.

Contrasting ceiling heights add intrigue. The bell tower, originally home to the furnace, offers superb views of the neighborhood and the Loop. Thelen installed larger windows and made an attic playroom of the space with a glass floor, glass table, and Lucite chairs. It has just seven feet of headspace. The master suite edges it out with eight. In the end, as they should, every space defers to the cathedral ceilings.