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Western Springs couple blends contemporary into 1891 home
By Deborah Donovan | Daily Herald Staff

Laura and Dennis Zender sit in their living room, which is open to the dining room of their Western Springs house.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

The family dining room is open to the kitchen in the Zenders' home.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

The Zenders are a modern family, but the Christmas tree is old fashioned, and they cut it down themselves.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/21/2007 12:17 AM

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Laura and Dennis Zender love modern design and old houses.

In fact, Laura, a designer, is a bit of a minimalist even at Christmastime.

So you'll find sleek, contemporary decor in their 1891 home near downtown Western Springs.

"We've always wanted an old home," said Laura, an allied member of the American Society of Interior Designers. "It's got history. We love the soul. You feel that difference when we walk in. And I had just finished design school and was looking for a first project"

The Zenders and their children, 8-year-old Jack and 5-year-old Georgia, moved in three years ago.

The house itself is a bit of a mystery.

The couple has a photograph that shows it was built as a Queen Anne Victorian with details popular from the era. But early on, it became a stuccoed foursquare with Arts and Crafts touches like tapered pillars on the front porch.

"Sometimes I don't believe this is the same house," said Laura, showing the photo.

But Dennis points to the foundation and the barely visible corner of a neighboring house as evidence supporting the photo, which they got from the Western Springs Historical Society.

In the 1920s, the house became a two-flat, and didn't return to being a single-family home until the 1980s.

Pocket doors still separate the living room from the entry. The Zenders hope to open the old fireplace in the corner of the dining room and restore the old mantel they obtained from a previous owner.

While the couple mourns some of the historic features lost during various remodelings over the decades, the home's layout works for them like many Victorian homes might not.

"The open floor plan suits our contemporary aesthetic -- especially with young kids," Laura said. "I can stand in the kitchen and see all the adjacent rooms."

One thing that makes the home more livable is a 2000 addition of a family room and an office with French doors.

"Previous owners did a nice job with that," said Laura, who is on the historical society board. "You can't see it from the front of the house, which is so important with a historic house."

The Zenders have done a lot of work on the house, including re-stuccoing the exterior, upgrading the kitchen and three bathrooms, installing maple flooring in the addition and replacing the fireplace surround with hand-glazed tiles. But they weren't about to strip layers of paint off the woodwork around the windows in the dining room bay.

The fact that the room is open to the living room and sun porch -- where the window trim is all stained dark -- illustrates some of Laura's design challenges.

"I chose a dark mahogany dining table to coordinate with the dark wood casings in the living area, while choosing two creamy white chairs in the living room to play off of the Cloud White painted casings in the dining area," she said.

"I tried to create an overall composition by spreading the colors around the spaces, thereby detracting from the fact that the casings actually do not even come close to matching."

Laura thinks a family with two youngsters can start buying good wood furniture, but should hold off on upgrading upholstered pieces.

Another challenge was integrating furniture from their old house into new surroundings.

She offers two tips for preventing the decor from getting chaotic.

First, choose a palette. Green is an important color in her home, along with amber inspired by an original stained-glass window in the entry.

Second, stick to one or two types and colors of wood.

The dining room also shows how she uses contemporary furniture in the old home.

The dark wood table is contemporary, as is the light maple buffet. The relaxed Roman shades are mounted inside the wood trim so it won't be hidden.

The antique china from Laura's great-grandmother is a delicate floral pattern with strong colors on an ivory background, the white crewel chairs are traditional, but the lighting fixture over the table is midcentury with a round paper shade.

"That's one of the first things I bought for the house. If I see something I like, I buy it and make it work. I don't tend to plan a design, I let it come," she said.

While Dennis brags about the way his wife turned their master bath into a thing of beauty with marble flooring and subway wall tile, the bright sun-room off the living room is one of his favorite spaces.

"We like to read the paper here and play chess with the kids," he said.

Visitors to the Zender household aren't overpowered by Christmas decorations this season. The boxwood wreaths with white bows hanging in the dining room windows are an example of Laura's work.

"It's my modern aesthetic coming out," Laura said. "I don't have a lot of tchotchkes. A strand of white pine goes a long way on its own."

But the Christmas tree in the living room is another story.

"Christmas ornaments are one of the few things I do collect," she said. "I love a full tree. Everything makes the cut."

The ornaments on the tree range from ones made by the children to a rubber ducky Laura bought for one of them and the Waterford crystal Dennis buys her every year. And peeking out from behind the tree is a foot-tall lighted Santa from Dennis' childhood.

The tree is a Canaan fir -- similar to a balsam. These modern folks cut down their own for their old house each year.

"We don't do a designer tree," Laura said. "We tried one year. It doesn't feel right to me."