URBANA – The last decade of Margaret Erlanger's life must have been serene, particularly when she spent time in her home at 303 W. Indiana across from Carle Park in Urbana.
Designed by architect Jack S. Baker, now an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, the 1960s modernist yet warm home, with nods to Scandinavian design, features:
– Walls of exposed Chicago common brick, a buff brick of multiple hues.
– A front courtyard, built of the same brick, that provides both privacy and openness.
– A floor-to-ceiling window in a high-ceilinged room with an oak floor. The room was designed for performances, mainly dance.
– A nifty conversation pit, now lined with cushions and pillows, near a free-standing hearth.
One of the most striking aspects of the Erlanger home is its interior-to-exterior transitions of aggregate concrete floors and terraces, giving the linear structure the distinct feeling of being part of nature.
Miss Erlanger, who died in 1975, bequeathed the home to the UI as a place for visiting artists and scholars to stay; the university also uses it for receptions and meetings. Among those lucky enough to have found respite there were famed choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage.
A petite woman with dark hair, Miss Erlanger had been instrumental in forming the UI Department of Dance and leading it to a position of national prominence.
Baker worked closely with her in planning her home, which he called "daring for the area." He came up with a low-maintenance structure, adding numerous subtle aesthetic touches, among them metal rungs built into the courtyard – graced by a Shozo Sato fountain sculpture – to provide access to the low-pitch roof.
Inside, for access to the loft, Baker designed an open-rail oak staircase that leads to a small bridge, also of oak, to the bedroom.
He viewed the stairs and bridge as a "dramatic and theatrical experience where this great lady levitates from one level to another."
The loft is furnished with twin beds, a large desk, and free-standing closets made of mahogany, with no visible hardware.
One pushes the closet doors to open them; Baker liked to hide light switches and other hardware, according to Michael Todd McCulley, associate director of the graduate program for the School of Architecture.
Inside the small bath- room off the bedroom are two skylights, one above a sunken shower stall – its walls are mostly exposed brick with tile nearer the floor – and an open toilet stall, indicating the home was designed for a single person, McCulley said.
As a single person, Miss Erlanger – daughter of Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Erlanger, a physiologist – apparently did not cook extensive meals. Her simple yet sufficient kitchen was designed more for entertaining or receptions, McCulley said.
While Miss Erlanger and others have had a hard time describing her home, which won an honor award from the Central Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Mohammad al-Asad came closest to doing it verbal justice.
The architect and architectural historian from Amman, Jordan, who stayed in the house, wrote that it is logical and minimalist in arrangement and "meticulously and sensitively designed" to convey elegance, grace and effortlessness.
"The house's purity and simplicity are almost spiritual," al-Asad said.