Chicago may not be the first city that comes to mind when you’re thinking of buying a second home, but for Coloradans Janet and Frank Nessinger, owning a pied-à-terre here was a decades-long dream. Frank grew up in the Chicago area, went to school in Boulder and ended up staying there for a job. Janet, a native Coloradan, was based in Chicago in the ‘80s when she worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines. Both missed the beauty and vitality of the city. That they both had family living in Chicago (his extended family, her sister) sealed the deal. Chicago was calling them home.
Their top priority was a view of what they missed most: the sparkling blue waters of Lake Michigan. So when their real estate agent took them to see two side-by-side units for sale in the Jeanne Gang-designed Aqua building, it was love at first sight. From the building itself, with its iconic, sculptural presence and numerous amenities, to the units’ sweeping lake views and ultra-modern aesthetic, the couple knew immediately this is what they were looking for.
That said, it wasn’t exactly turnkey. To combine the two units (a one-bedroom and a one-bedroom plus den), the couple assembled a dream team: contractor Bob Soffer, lighting designer Anne Kustner, kitchen designer Peter Harris and interior designer Julia Buckingham, who was tasked with orchestrating the project.
Early on, they hit a minor snag. When the walls were down and the space was larger, the ceilings began to look a little on the low side. “It felt kind of closed in,” recalls Janet. Enter lighting designer Kustner, who came up with the idea of building a soffit on the ceiling and lighting the recessed areas in both the living room and dining room. The end result is a rather remarkable illusion of soaring ceilings. Cleverly, the soffit in the center of the room also serves as a place for the fireplace to extend into, making it seem as if there’s an actual chimney.
According to Buckingham, the see-through gas fireplace, clad in limestone with a playful vein texture, made for a logical transition between the two units. “Because it’s open on three sides to the living room, dining room and kitchen, it creates this wonderful, welcoming aura in the center of the home,” she says. “It’s great for entertaining.”
Entertaining was a big part of the agenda for this couple. Whereas their life in Colorado tends to be low-key and quiet, in Chicago they envisioned something far more social and energetic. Similarly, they visualized an aesthetic vastly different from their rustic, lodge-like, earth-toned mountain home.
“Janet and Frank knew right away they wanted something more urban, modern and coolly elegant,” Buckingham says. “Our inspiration really was the views of Lake Michigan, so we chose a color palette of cool grays and blues because we didn’t want to distract the eye looking out onto the lake.”
The Aqua building itself, with its wavelike curves, provided further inspiration. “The exterior of the building is all about the watery movement of a wave,” Buckingham says. “It’s a very dramatic building, and I really wanted to pay homage to it.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the kitchen, where Buckingham worked with kitchen designer Peter Harris to create a sculptural, curved Danby marble–topped island that mimicked the exterior of the Aqua building. The fluid movement of the glass tile backsplash, featuring waves of blues and greens, along with a set of sensuously curved leather counter stools, complete the statement.
In the dining room where a lot of the entertaining happens, Buckingham installed a wet bar using leftover cabinetry from one of the units, lined the wall with mirrored tile and hung shelves to display wine glasses. To capture the couples’ love of casual soirées, the dining room table converts to a billiards table. “When we throw a party, at some point we always take the top off so people can play billiards,” Janet says. “It really adds an element of fun, and it’s something my boys truly enjoy.”
While the oldest son laid claim to the second bedroom, Buckingham found space for the younger son in a room that would also serve as a den. Because the interior room didn’t have any windows, Bucking- ham added transom windows to bring in light, installed a Murphy bed and equipped the room with a pullout sofa for guests. The cozy room, decorated with a rug from Oscar Isberian and a photograph on aluminum by Chicagoan Eric Hausman, offers a quiet escape in this decidedly communal home away from home.
Stunning vistas serve as the main source of art in this open floor–plan residence, although it is punctuated with a number of artworks sourced from local galleries as well as a piece of functional art in the living room, Standing Man, that Buckingham picked up in Paris. In the powder room, the floor itself, an unusual black, white and avocado green mid-century modernesque tile from the Fine Line in Chicago, is the art.
Still, the art that matters most to this dual-city couple is the art of living well. “We’re here about every three months and Christmas and Easter, and we always have a party for the Air and Water Show,” Janet says. “It’s been so wonderful to have the hotel below us for extra guests, plus all the amenities: the indoor and outdoor pool, the fitness center, the amazing staff, not to mention the park here, all the great restaurants and being so close to the lake. As my husband likes to say, ‘When the weather’s good, it’s awesome. When it’s bad, it’s still awesome.’”
Photography by Eric Hausman