Interior designer and renovation expert Carl Mattison turns an abandoned Victorian cottage in Grant Park into a modern yet historically respectful home—and a buyer’s dream.
When a historic home in Grant Park, just down the street from where Carl Mattison lived on Ormewood Avenue, fell into a state of disrepair, the home renovation expert and owner of Carl Mattison Design felt compelled to breathe new life into it. The project would not only satisfy a creative urge, but also help preserve the historic neighborhood’s authenticity and charm—not to mention the area’s increasing home values. Little did Mattison know, though, how complicated it would be to get his hands on the house and get repairs under way. The historic little home, it turns out, came with some big challenges.
During a storm in 2006 or 2007— Mattison can’t recall exactly when it was—a tree fell through the entire front portion of the small, early-1900s Queen Anne home, which Mattison estimates had two bedrooms and a single bath at the time. “This being the Grant Park Historic District, you really aren’t allowed to [alter] the facade of a house, because they’re trying to preserve the overall aesthetic of the neighborhood,” says Mattison of repairing the home according to the Historic District’s building standards. “But these owners got a special variance to remove the whole house because the tree went through the entire front portion.”
With their permit in hand, the home’s owners set about building a new one in its place. But, eventually, life got in the way and they abandoned their project, leaving it to an uncertain fate. “The house sat there for a while,” says Mattison. “My partner, Rob Smith, and I had lived on this street, and we knew the house had been sitting there for a couple years. We thought, ‘How do we buy this?’” Mattison and Smith, who are co-owners in a Grant Park-based renovation company called Balustrade Properties, made an offer, but the owners weren’t ready to sell. Still, it wasn’t enough to deter the two.
“The market was changing, and we’d go another year, and we’d make another offer,” Mattison says. “Meanwhile, we’d see this house falling more and more into disrepair. The sheathing on the outside was being destroyed by water. It was a very big rarity in Grant Park to see a house sitting there like that, on a prominent street, on a cross street that goes over to the park—it’s only about 15 houses from the park. You’d go by it and people would say, ‘What is going on here?’ Well, nothing was going on.”
Eventually, Mattison and Smith moved off of Ormewood Avenue— around the corner to a different house—but they weren’t ready to give up on their plan. In early 2014, they put in yet another offer on the house, and then, according to Mattison, “sat around for a while thinking it wouldn’t happen.” This time, they were wrong. “Around April of 2014, they said ‘Okay,’” Mattison recalls of the owners’ acceptance. “Based on the changing market, we’d made them a better offer. Then, we thought, ‘Oh, no— now how are we going to afford to do this since the market has changed so much? What are we going to do?’”
Mattison and Smith knew that the answer was to convert the home to a five-bedroom, four-bath abode, and that it had to have living space in the basement, based on its location and what would-be buyers in that neighborhood were interested in. “We’d lived in that neighborhood since 2003, so we decided to follow through with the project and turn it into what’s officially a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house with bonus space in the basement and a two-car garage on a great lot,” Mattison says.
In creating a space that would meet buyers’ demands, Mattison and Smith had to be deliberate in maintaining the old home’s originality while also creating spacious, modern interiors that buyers would find extremely livable. Mattison says that, because they were working on the site of an historic home but starting essentially from scratch, securing a permit proved an unusually lengthy process. “We bought the house in April and we couldn’t start work until November,” he says. “People in the permitting office couldn’t agree whether it was an old house or a new one.”
Once the permit was issued, Mattison and Smith got down to creating what Mattison calls a hybrid home—a structure with a historically inspired exterior and modern, updated interiors.
For the new home’s exterior, Mattison wanted to honor traditional and historic design philosophies—which he did by reincorporating cedar shake siding and gables—but with a modern spin. He executed the latter idea in the form of a fresh color palette. “A lot of Victorian cottages, like this would’ve originally been called, would’ve had the same cedar shake siding and the gables, and people would’ve painted it different colors [than what we chose]. But going to a fresher, brighter color palette brought this home’s exterior into the modern world,” he says of the aqua, gray and sage-green combo he selected. Also to pay homage to the home’s original features, Mattison installed what he calls crow’s feet windows on the front of the house. Finally, the home’s cheerful, aqua-colored front door was a sort of exclamation point. “Painting the front door—not just staining it, and not keeping it a traditional color—allowed it to be a little more modern, fresh and vibrant,” Mattison says. “We have a lot of young families in Grant Park, and I was trying to appeal to someone who’d look at it and say, ‘This isn’t the static old color palette that everyone uses.’”
Inside, the home’s previous owners had already begun to modify its compartmentalized floor plan into a more open one before scrapping the project entirely. “We worked with some of their layout because some of the open spaces were really good and desirable in Grant Park, and you don’t get those that much in an old house without popping a weird room off the back,” Mattison says. Now with a master suite and two bedrooms upstairs and an additional two bedrooms, a kitchen and living area downstairs, the home’s interiors are also replete with nods to its early 20th-century origins. High ceilings, six-panel doors, wide door casings, a picture rail that rims every room and built-ins on either side of the fireplace are just a few of the vintage inspired elements that bring a charm factor into the space.
The home has since been purchased, proof that Mattison’s intuition and design savvy were spot on.
STORY: Lindsay Lambert Day