Motorists on Lake Park Avenue near 39th Street have been swerving to the curb lately to gawk at a building that’s just gone up there between two vacant lots. Sometimes they ask neighbors about the elliptical concrete-block structure.
But the neighbors don’t know what to make of it either. Some call it Noah’s Ark. Others think it’s a church. “It looks like a ship or something,” says Eartha Kitt Terry, walking by one afternoon. “It’s pretty, but awkward.”
Reginald Wilson, who designed the place, calls it “the football house,” for its shape. It’s the latest–and most dramatic–of his south-side buildings, which future customers notice, if not the larger design world.
The two-story, 2,300-square-foot football house occupies only 45 feet of its 180-foot-deep lot. A passageway running from the combination living and dining room at the front of the house to the back porch cuts the kitchen in half, dividing the stove and refrigerator on one side from the sink and dishwasher on the other. Sebrina Jennings, who lives here with her husband, Farries, likes the kitchen just fine. “When I’m over here cooking, Farries can be over there washing the dishes,” she says, showing off the galley. “He and I can talk, and we can communicate with everyone in the living room.”
The master bedroom suite on the second floor is reached by an airy open staircase of metal piping painted silver. Hidden behind a bookcase off a basement bedroom is what the owners initially intended to be a “panic room.” But, says Sebrina, “I said to Farries, ‘Hey, if a nuclear bomb hits we’ll be the only ones here,’ and what good is that?” The panic room is now a spare bedroom.
Farries and Sebrina, postal workers in their 40s, met at the main post office in 1996. Sebrina, a supervisor, studied the figure Farries cut at the controls of his forklift. “You got a little sex appeal about you,” she told him.
They married four years later. Sebrina sent wedding invitations to President Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Mayor Daley. (None responded.) She put Farries in a silver suit for the ceremony and had everyone in zoot suits and flapper dresses for the reception.
Sebrina also has a flair for real estate. She bought her first building as an investment property when she was 21 and has traded up every five years since. Three years ago she and Farries purchased the lot on Lake Park and started looking for someone to build their dream house. Scouting the south side, they spotted a new home on Calumet and began leaving notes for the owner. There was no response, but one Saturday she and Farries came across Nelson McLemore, a physician, in the front yard. They didn’t get to see inside McLemore’s place, a glorified bachelor pad arranged around an atrium, but McLemore referred the couple to Wilson, his architect and also his close friend.
The son of schoolteachers, Wilson attended Saint Ignatius College Prep, where he met McLemore, and studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati. Returning to Chicago, he worked for several firms, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, until he tired of thinking about office spaces. “Commercial buildings are driven by budget considerations,” he says, “and the design elements are limited.” In 1992 Wilson struck out on his own, and McLemore was his first client.
“Nelson had money now, and he hired me to build his house,” says Wilson.
Wilson practices from the same sparely furnished studio apartment in Lake Meadows that he lives in, sleeping on a red futon by the wall. Most architects now rely on computers, but Wilson wouldn’t think of it. “When I was in school, we drafted manually,” he says, “and even when I was at big firms, computers were just coming in. Working by hand has always been my way.”
Seated on pillows on his father’s old desk chair, he does his renderings in pencil on Mylar paper at a drafting table by the window. Most of his projects are renovations, but he designs one new building a year. He doesn’t post signs outside his jobs, or hand out business cards, or send Christmas cards soliciting business. He prefers clients who admired one of his houses and tracked him down. He isn’t even a registered architect, which means he didn’t serve a proper internship and pass a prescribed examination. But Illinois law allows the unlicensed to design single-family houses.
“Reggie is an artist with an air of certainty about him,” says Stacey Halbert, a banker for whom Wilson built a house in North Kenwood. Its graceful curved wall, pocked with high windows, anticipated the football house. “My husband says Reggie’s arrogant, and there is a touch of that. He may listen to your input on some point, but he gives off the impression that it doesn’t really matter to him.”
“Clients have to trust their architect,” says Wilson. “I try to get them to adhere to my plan from beginning to end. They may want to change a wall, then a lighting fixture, and if you let them have too much input all of a sudden you’ve put up a different building.”
Wilson, who is 42 and single, travels extensively, often to the Caribbean and Europe with McLemore and their girlfriends. But he’s oblivious to the architecture he sees. “I don’t look to other people’s work,” he says. “In doing a job I consider a client’s needs, the budget, and the site, and I try out this scheme or that–something that’s expected or something that’s totally unexpected.” His most productive thinking time comes during long flights, when he makes drawings in a small sketchbook.
For the Jenningses, Wilson came up with a half-dozen layouts, beginning with a conservative one that was fine with Farries. “My aim was for a regular house with square walls and the furniture in a corner,” he says. But having drawn that, Wilson had moved on. He came up with the football house on an airplane.
Sebrina Jennings insists the elliptical concept was hers, she being the one who wanted a residence “that was unique, that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.” Farries knew when to fold. “When all this came down to my wife and Reggie wanting all the curved walls, I fought, but not much,” he says. “Besides, this had started to grow on me.”
There were disputes. Wilson vetoed the sunken living room that Sebrina wanted. “It won’t look right,” he told her. And he insisted on moving the granite waterfall from the entry hall to the living room. Construction began last September, and when the foundation was in, passersby stared. One asked Jerzy Ucinski, the contractor, “Is this going to be a pool?”
The masonry proved especially tricky. “With those walls, there’s no straight line,” says Ucinski, “and every brick had to be laid with a level.”
The Jenningses moved into their house from a condo in early April. “We aren’t in the best neighborhood in the world,” says Farries. “People are loud. They drink and throw their bottles around. But things haven’t happened here yet.”
They’re about to, since new town houses will soon go up a block over on South Ellis. As it is, Sebrina and Farries feel pleasantly cloistered in their long, fenced backyard, where they have a concrete walk and an oval patio. Come summer they intend to put up a screen and show movies to their friends.
“We love this house,” says Sebrina. “It’s a one of a kind.” So far it’s cost them around $325,000, and Sebrina thinks it’s money well spent. “This is one good investment,” she says, looking out at the yard from the balcony off the master bedroom.
She glances inside at her husband, who’s carrying some boxes. “Farries probably thinks we’re here for good, but to me this is just a starter home. Just don’t tell him that.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.