Discovering Dart

After learning the lakefront “tear down” they purchased was designed by an important Modernist architect, members of one Chicago family find their inner preservationists.

When David and Ellen Muslin had finally scrimped and saved enough to purchase a property overlooking Lake Michigan, they thought their dreams had come true. That is, until the angry phone calls started.

After three decades of scouting the lakefront shores for a property they could afford, the Muslins got the news they had been waiting for. “A friend told me that a house on a double lot at the end of his block in Glencoe was about to go on the market,” says David Muslin. He reported that it was in really rough shape, but that the land was spectacular.

“The site was incredible,” says Muslin. But the house was one of those simple, low-slung modern numbers built in the 1960s, with lots of windows, long overhangs, and no prominent architectural details—at least not that the Muslins could see.

Ellen had long dreamed of a picturesque Cape Cod, with a pitched roof, real wooden shutters, and multipaned windows. “The house was inconsequential. We wanted the land. We planned to subdivide the property and sell the other half to make it more affordable,” Muslin explains.

But when the Muslins obtained a demolition permit, they started getting angry phone calls. “So many calls,” says Muslin, “that I couldn’t keep track of who was calling anymore.”

It turns out the house the Muslins thought was negligible had been designed by noted Chicago architect Edward Dart in 1961. And it was as much a prize as the remarkable lakefront property itself.

Dart attended the Yale School of Architecture after serving in the Navy during World War II. There, he trained with some of the world’s most impressive Modernists, including Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Edward Durell Stone, Paul Schweikher, and Richard M. Bennett. After earning his degree in 1949, Dart settled in Chicago to work with Schweikher, then opened his own office in 1950—first in his home, then in nearby Highland Park, and finally downtown in 1954.

He soon started to gain recognition for his sleek, sensitively designed houses and churches. Among his first solo projects were the “House of the Fifties” for Good Housekeeping magazine and a model house for Popular Mechanics. In 1951 he won the National Association of Home Builders competition. And the house he built for himself in Barrington, Ill., in 1956 was featured in House & Garden in 1959 and Architectural Record in 1960.

His projects became more sizable and very visible after he joined Richard M. Bennett, one of his former professors, at the Chicago architecture firm Loebl Schlossman and Bennett in 1965. They included hospitals, corporate headquarters, university buildings, and Chicago’s renowned 1970 Water Tower Place, the nation’s first vertical mall. By the mid-60s, he had started racking up American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards for his work and was elevated to the organization’s College of Fellows in 1967.

But Dart’s career ended tragically when he died unexpectedly in 1975 of an embolism. At 53, he had designed about 120 structures in the Chicago area, mostly residences and churches; posthumous AIA awards brought his total up to 18.

To this day, however, the architect remains relatively obscure, notes Matthew Seymour, a project manager for Central Building & Preservation in Chicago. Seymour did his master’s thesis in historic preservation on Dart because he “realized there was virtually nothing written on him and his work is so unappreciated.” In fact, the only book on Dart was written by his late sister, Lake Forest teacher and writer Susan Dart McCutcheon (Edward Dart, Architect, Evanston Publishing, 1993).

Still, Dart’s work is considered seminal by a growing number of architecture experts. “He takes a step beyond the strict Miesian paradigm and manages to instill drama in his designs using such routine materials,” says local architectural historian Susan Benjamin, whom the Muslins hired to prepare the necessary documents to obtain landmark designation.

Perhaps one of the reasons he is less recognized than his peers is that “his work seemed deceptively simple,” speculates Arthur Miller, archivist and librarian for special collections at Lake Forest College’s Donnelley and Lee Library. “In truth, it was so elegantly crafted and exquisitely wrought that it was costly to build. Craftsmanship was extremely important to Dart.”

Dart was a master craftsman at every level. But as Benjamin notes, his real talent may have been the way he wielded resources. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency project designer Anthony Rubano agrees: “Dart was so clever at using what seemed like pedestrian materials, such as brick, wood, stucco, and glass. Through subtle manipulation, he would come up with these wonderful solutions that have a similarity, but are all different and project specific.”

Although the Muslins had never heard of Dart until they started fielding all those calls, the uproar certainly captured their attention. “The last thing we wanted was to cause a stink and have our neighbors hate us,” says Muslin.

Landmarks Illinois was among the callers, having received so many calls itself from residents who were up in arms about the house’s potential fate. “We sent a letter to the Glencoe Plan Commission objecting to their proposal to demolish the house and split the lot, and asked the village to give it landmark status,” explains Lisa DiChiera, the agency’s director of advocacy. They also mounted a letter-writing campaign and asked Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond (CBB), a nonprofit that celebrates and educates the public about modern architecture, to help.

CBB’s cofounders, Joan and Gary Gand and Joe Kunkel (who also lives in a Dart residence), arranged to meet the Muslins at the house. “We figured if we walked through the house together and showed them how extraordinary the architecture is, they may look at it with new eyes,” says Joan Gand.

The Dart house has a square central living area, a dazzling atrium-like space complete with a ceiling that soars above a ring of clerestory windows. Eight rooms—a sun porch, dining room, kitchen, study, grand foyer, and three bedrooms—surround the space, forming a larger square. The only break from symmetry is a later addition, a screened-in porch off the dining room, a stubby handle on a perfectly proportioned pot.

Into this central space Dart incorporated many striking features: a concave swoop on each of the ceiling’s four panels that give it a dramatic, tentlike appearance; an elegantly curved chimneypiece stretching all the way to the ceiling; and exquisitely crafted walnut built-ins. There’s also a breathtaking view of the lake beyond from every part of the room, thanks to the adjacent glass-faced porch, whose interior wall separating it from the master bedroom is also glass.

Equally astonishing was the structure’s condition. “Not bad at all,” admits Muslin. Certainly not as rough as the Muslins had been led to believe. A few of the clerestory windows leaked, finishes were worn, the kitchen was outdated, and the house needed new mechanicals. Even Amy, then seven, piped in with her own two cents’ worth: “Daddy, how can you tear this down? It’s perfectly fine.”

After the walk-through, “we were all awestruck. And David Muslin did a 180° literally right in front of our eyes,” Gand says.

“Joan really did a great job educating me about the fine points of the house,” says Muslin.

Ellen wasn’t there quite yet, but in subsequent weeks, as they did research on Dart, the couple came to see the structure as the treasure that it is, “distinct even among Dart homes,” notes Seymour. “With its mostly modern mindset and touches of Prairie and Japanese design, it’s a skillful blend of styles, and totally unique.”

Shortly after that tour, the Muslins hired Highland Park architect Richard Becker, who had expanded and refurbished their Evanston home, to take on the project and help them and Susan Benjamin attain landmark status. They also sold a sliver of the property to their next-door neighbors, who own an architecturally significant Tony Grunsfeld-designed home and were opposed to the demolition of the Dart home from the get-go. “That way, neither of the lots would ever be large enough to be subdivided,” Muslin says.

Becker was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on the house. “David asked me, ‘Do you think I’m crazy to keep this and make it nice?’ And all I could do was think about its incredible potential,” says Becker. The architect realized that potential by addressing all the obvious deficits—from replacing the outdated mechanicals and renovating the bathrooms to fixing the leaking windows and refinishing worn millwork—and giving the house a few tweaks to make it suit today’s lifestyle.

“They needed a master suite, a more appropriate kitchen, and an attached garage,” Becker says. He took advantage of that out-of-place screened-in porch, which wasn’t original to the structure but afforded “a perfect opportunity to get a spacious, state-of-the-art new kitchen with a fabulous view without changing the existing footprint—a good thing for the landmark commission,” he says.

Other tweaks included turning the former kitchen into a laundry room, converting a bedroom into a dressing room for the master suite, and adding a garage behind the kitchen, contiguous to the house. The last was a major accomplishment for Becker, since any addition was not supposed to show from the front of the house. “We convinced the preservation officials to let us do it because the front of the house is so understated and the new garage so seamless that the visual integrity of the facade isn’t compromised,” he explains.

Becker’s overhaul of the property earned a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award from Landmarks Illinois in 2011 and an AIA Chicago 2012 Design Excellence Award this past October. It also inspired Muslin to restore the 1961 stereo that came with the house as part of the walnut built-ins that line the main living space. The Muslins are now totally enchanted with their home and its history. The preservation community, it seems, has earned itself some new converts.

Online Exclusive: Dave Weible takes a closer look at the little-known Modernist architect and explores some of his other buildings.

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