URBANA — The owner and an architect have come to the rescue of a contemporary modern house that had been deserted for years.
The house on Delaware Avenue was designed by Jack Baker, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois for more than 43 years. He died in 2013.
Baker liked the interplay of light on sleek, smooth surfaces to the point where he wouldn’t have outlets on the walls; he recessed them in the floors.
“Jack tried to hide anything that was utilitarian,” said Chris Knight, the owner of the Blind Pig in Champaign.
Knight’s renovation architect was Jeff Poss, a professor in the School of Architecture for 30 years and, until recently, its head. He knew Baker well and has written about his work.
Knight and Poss had the great room, which had been partitioned by a large display shelf, turned into a greater room, a highlight of the house, dominating the second floor of the 4,200-square-foot home.
“Baker was one of the first architects considered to be a modernist to bring the style to the Midwest,” Poss said. He said the renovations to the house were so much in the modernist style that “we out-Bakered Baker.”
“I have put a lot of work into making it better than it ever was, including a bunch of upgrades, which even Jack Baker did not call for,” Knight said.
The house needed a lot of work.
“If he hadn’t bought it, the house wouldn’t be here now,” Poss said.
In honoring the work in 2017 (Knight had won before), the Preservation and Conversation Association said:
“The house had been empty for several years, and extensive repairs were needed. A new truss the length of the house was installed, and all of the south-facing sliding door/windows replaced. Most of the siding was refurbished or replaced where needed. In the interior, most of the drywall and the floors were replaced.”
The Delaware Avenue house was built in 1979 for Gertrude Robinson, a UI professor. She took a job at McGill University in Montreal and never moved in.
Robinson never lived in the house. It became a rental, which began to contribute to the problems.
Knight bought the house in 2014 and started living in it in 2016 with wife Karen, infant son Michael and ancient cat Lola, now 21. (Lola has her own cat tunnel to allow her to walk through the newly installed nursery without waking the baby.)
In the original architectural drawings of his plans, Knight considered installing a lap pool along the west side of the house, as well as a reflecting pool out front and a penthouse on the third floor.
Ultimately, he decided the additions were not justified because his family was going to move into the Solon Mansion in a few years.
During the reconstruction, he and Poss worked closely together. They make a good team.
“You can tell Chris the truth,” the architect said. “We have a special responsibility to do this right.”
It was a tricky project. In the years it was empty, rain caused great damage. The deck was rotted through. Plaster was damaged everywhere. Floors buckled.
The formerly partitioned great room is now a flowing space, with lots of windows and a beautiful wooden floor.
That floor had originally been carpeted — a matter of taste. Forty years ago, carpet was a big thing.
“It was wall-to-wall gray carpet,” Poss said, and replacing it meant altering how the floor met the walls. It also meant removing a cheap plastic cove base, usually not found in residential spaces. The Knights don’t miss it.
The rooms have been child-proofed for Michael, but as he grows bigger, there may still be problems, especially with the spiral stairs.
There was also a major change before the Knight family moved in. The property had sat in a huge yard, two lots.
“It would have been magnificent, but I couldn’t have afforded that,” Knight said. “So now we have views of our neighbors’ roofs.”
The house is big enough to handle cantilevered spaces, like the small “shoebox” space he calls “the shrine.”
It’s dominated by a photo of his great-grandfather, Color-Sergeant Kester Knight of Queen Victoria’s army.
Kester Knight was a sapper, a combat engineer. He saw action at the siege of Sevastopol in 1859 and served in China. The great-grandfather eventually became a red-coated beefeater at the Tower of London.
Knight the younger came to the U.S. as a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois, later adding British pubs to his workload.