An Eclectic Chicago Townhouse Where Trad Meets Modern
History and high style collide when designer Julia Buckingham’s childhood dream house finally becomes her own.
As a girl, interior designer Julia Buckingham would stare wistfully out of the window of her father’s bright-yellow Chrysler convertible during the short drive through the Chicago suburbs to his office. Each day they cruised past a stately Queen Anne with wide bay windows, whimsical turrets, and delicate stained glass, and she would imagine herself ensconced in one of its elegant rooms or welcoming guests through its ancient, oversized oak doors. To her, it looked like a grainy snapshot from 100 years ago that had been brought to life through the magic of Technicolor—the house’s exquisite millwork was in pristine condition, its manicured grasses, split-rail fence, and candy-colored heirloom hydrangeas seemed poised to be the site of a midday tea service, complete with ladies in bustles and sculptural hats.
But Buckingham wasn’t the only one with a passion for this particular house. As she grew up and bought her own family home in a neighboring suburb, her beloved Queen Anne remained under the devoted stewardship of its longtime owners. Then in 2007, the house hit the market. “We must have gone to look at it three or four times,” recalls Buckingham, who was clearly smitten, but unsure if the 6,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, 19th-century manse was right for her family: her two oldest children were headed off to college, and her youngest was just entering high school. But after consulting her own inner child, she decided it was just right. After all, she and her husband had never met a high-needs property that intimidated them. The couple bought, renovated, and lived in no less than 13 houses before this one (including three that were deemed tear-downs before they revived them), combining their expertise in space-planning, décor, and the rare art of contractor-wrangling to pull off exceptional residential projects in record time. This one would be no exception.
“When we embark on a new home it’s a very cohesive plan—everything is complete by the time we cross the threshold to move in,” explains Buckingham, who says the popular design philosophies of “live with it as-is for a while” and “design over time” are not for her. “On move-in day, I want the wallpaper up, the art hung and all the furniture in place. I want to be able to pull the trigger and start life right away.” It is this combination of creative fervor and domestic haste that allowed them to complete in a mere month what could reasonably have taken other homeowners years. “We had to tear the roof off and completely redo it while it was snowing,” remembers Buckingham. And while the house had gorgeous, well-maintained bones, there was plenty to keep the couple busy inside as well: they replaced the kitchen countertops, updated the backsplash, applied fresh paint and wallpaper throughout, and transformed the attic into a master suite, its clean, white modern envelope punctured by a smattering of skylights.
While one might assume—given her career as a successful interior designer (not to mention her impressive tenure as a serial homeowner)—that decorating would simply mean moving beloved pieces from one residence to the other, or at least shopping her own showroom for the right items, Buckingham again bucks the trend of highly personal, investment pieces to which she stays loyal. “Whenever I move I have a huge estate sale and get rid of everything. Each new house project for me is like taking on a brand new client—I like to start completely from scratch,” she says. Her previous home had a more rustic feel, with textured walls and beefy stone mantels (“sort of a European cottage vibe,” says Buckingham); the new house required a different aesthetic language. Her response was to bring in pieces whose pedigrees spanned centuries, from classical Beaux Arts busts and chunky, industrial accoutrements to sleek modern lighting from still-breathing design stars like Tom Dixon. She masterfully worked with the house’s existing details, including pristine tin ceilings in the kitchen and one of the baths, by choosing more contemporary lighting and equally eye-catching patterns for the walls so as not to create a time capsule. Case in point: The kitchen, with its centuries-old ceilings, sports a modern leafy wallpaper pattern rendered in grayscale, the branches hung, Christmas-tree-style, with antique gold skeleton keys.
“I’m always drawn to the quirkiest, craziest things,” says Buckingham, who worked as an antiques dealer before becoming an interior designer. “They just make me happy.” In her childhood-dream-house-turned-grown-up-creative-canvas, such happiness can be found in every room. The parlor is anchored by a heavy industrial maritime chain, shaped by the designer’s imagination (and a talented metalworker) into a table and topped with glass. Above it, an ornate iron chandelier hangs off of what looks like a giant rusty fishing hook fit for a Great White. In an upstairs hallway a table with 20 legs displays a collection of vintage hats, while another hallway is lined with antique hand mirrors. “I have this reverence for history,” says Buckingham, whose own history is now forever entwined with that of this once-coveted Queen Anne.