|Old meets new, iron meets wood and nature comes indoors in the Chicago suburbs.
The words rustic, durable and inviting never left Mike and Judy Lembke’s minds as they planned their timber frame home in northeastern Illinois. The outdoor enthusiasts who love hunting and hiking are also parents of four young rough-and-tumble boys. And even though their greater Chicago-area neighborhood was filled with mostly brick and stucco structures, they wanted a design that fit their lifestyles and worked well with their 1.75-acre lot, which backs up to a protected wetlands area.
Initially, the Lembkes thought log walls would best match the natural feeling they craved. “We really like logs, but the neighborhood we live in is very contemporary, and a log home wouldn’t have fit in,” explains Judy. “But as we started looking, we discovered that a timber frame was really more of the look we liked anyway.”
In particular, the couple appreciates the flexibility that the drywall offers as well as the solid security that timber frame trusses impart. The resulting home, especially the great room with its soaring 36-foot-tall ceiling and hammerbeam trusses, is bright and airy, and although it’s stunning, it’s still kick-off-your-shoes comfortable. “We didn’t want the boys to be afraid of damaging anything,” Judy says. “It’s a tough house. It takes a lot of abuse, but it still looks great all of the time.”
Nature’s influence is evident throughout the house. “We’re very outdoors oriented,” says Mike. “We love wood and nature, and we wanted to bring that indoors as much as possible.” Rich colors of autumn dominate the color scheme. The great room’s carpeting incorporates rock and fossil designs as well as images of bear, elk and deer. Animal mounts, leather and shed antlers blend with Native American artifacts and reclaimed wood salvaged from downtown Chicago homes that faced the wrecking ball. Much of the wood has a history, especially pieces from Al Capone’s former home that were used in the bathroom cabinets and to make the kitchen table.
The couple also seized every opportunity to incorporate artwork into their home. In fact, the structure itself is like a dominant statue surrounding and supporting the great room and entry hall. “The frame is basically a piece of artwork inside our home. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of looking at the joinery,” says Mike, marveling at the engineering that went into crafting his home’s timber frame. “The glass wall is like a changing mural for us. We sit in our great room and watch the geese fly by. It’s so clear that it looks like you could reach out and touch them.”
To continue the theme, at the center of the breakfast room’s ceiling, eight massive timber beams intersect to create a wood-and-iron sunburst. The rays of this sun pass through the stone walls into surrounding rooms, including the kitchen. “These beams were a way for us to transition the timber frame portion of the structure into the rest of the home,” Mike says. It also helps give the ceiling character and slightly drops the room’s height to give it a more snug scale.
The slate floor in the entryway hall is shaped like an arrowhead to signify the family’s love of archery. Abundant stone-work found in the kitchen, great room, dining room and six wood-burning fireplaces makes the home feel grounded. The stonework took hundreds of pallets of rock, brought from Missouri and Arkansas, and took six masons to completely install. “The rock has moss and lichens growing on it,” explains Judy. “Usually, the masons will acid-wash the stones to clean them up, but we wouldn’t let them. We wanted to protect and preserve the natural appearance.”
The crowning design decision that helped create the rustic lodge feel is the weathered-walnut boards recycled from a New Hampshire barn and used on the ceilings in the great room, the front and back entryways, the master bedroom, the kitchen and dining room and the outside soffits. Mike and Judy found the wood through a company that recycles timber from old barns. “It has tons of character because it is very weathered,” Judy says. “Of course, we had to put it in a garage and bug bomb it first to make certain whatever may be living in it wouldn’t be living in our house, too.”
Large, but Livable
“We travel a lot, so when we go somewhere, we often see something that we love,” says Judy. “We spent a lot of time researching before we actually built this place. This is our final home, so we really thought about what we needed.”
The home, roughly 100 feet long and 100 feet wide, weighs in at a massive 20,000 square feet of living space on four levels. Its sheer mass kept workers in construction for nearly 2 1/2 years and required some engineering feats, such as building the main floor from hollow-core concrete planks to allow a wider-than-usual span and creating a basement without imposing posts every 8 to 10 feet, according to Herb. Today, the finished portion of the basement includes a 60-foot-long archery range, a weight room, a game room and other living space.
But its astonishing size has a purpose: The house was designed to meet the family’s need for flexibility and growth. Now that the oldest boy has reached his teenage years, the Lembkes will probably finish the basement, which they built with capped plumbing in anticipation of eventually finishing it off. Because in coming years, the boys will leave home for college and then will one day return to visit with families of their own, the six bedroom suites were designed with future privacy in mind. “We want everyone to have his or her own space and not feel like they are infringing or intruding,” says Judy.
For now, the house is exactly how the couple envisioned. They enjoy hearing people marvel at “that interesting house with all the glass and wood,” and they love inviting people over just to watch their reactions as they come inside.
“It’s kind of like going into a church. You are in awe as soon as you go in,” Judy says. “You can always tell the new people in the house
Story by Lore Postman