Not your average upgrade

Wilmette Harbor

Does anybody use the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” anymore? Even if the expression has become a cliché, the concept is still, at the risk of using another hackneyed term, fresh as a daisy.

Competition among homeowners to have the biggest, the best and the most is an old story, but it’s one that continues to have a life of its own. While the mainstream real-estate market is all gloom and doom, the upper brackets seem to get more extreme with each passing day.

Bathrooms with steam showers, heated floors, semi-precious stone surfaces and gold-plated fixtures? So 1990s. Kitchens with top-of-the-line stainless-steel appliances and custom-fitted cabinetry? Even spec houses have those. Home gyms? Ho-hum. If you want to make the neighbors jealous, you’ve really got to step it up a notch – or three.

Swimming pools are not exactly stunning news, but in a climate like Chicago’s, they are so impractical as to border on the idiotic. Although technology has improved the maintenance equation – most pools don’t need regular service visits from the pool man – owners still only get three to four months of usage per year, and the cost of keeping the water warm is rising with the same velocity as gasoline prices. Even more extravagant – and rare – are indoor pools, which require not only ample square footage, but even higher heating bills.

That’s why a combined indoor/outdoor pool on a large compound in Barrington Hills is in a category of extravagance by itself. It almost doesn’t qualify as an amenity in a single-family residence: The property is populated by various branches of an extended family, and the pool area is really more like a private swim club.

Indoor poolThe indoor pool is housed in a barrel-roofed structure attached to the main residence. The wall connecting the indoor and outdoor areas is mostly glass, interrupted by a fantastical fiberglass pink clamshell announcing the tunnel that connects the two parts, which are separated underwater by an etched Plexiglas divider. (Each pool actually has three separate water areas: a general swim area, a child’s pool and a cold-water therapy pool.)

It’s not enough that the pools are splendidly tiled; the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the indoor pool house is painted with a fresco that suggests the canopy of trees towering above the landscaped outdoor pool.

Before it started this job, Platinum-Poolcare Aquatech of Wheeling had worked exclusively on commercial installations, specializing in water parks. Principal James Atlas says this one cost “in excess of a million dollars,” not including the structure surrounding the indoor pool. Most of the expense came from change orders – Atlas says the clients added so many features over the course of the job, the fee ended up at about five times his original estimate.

There are other unique methods for adding water features into a home, and one Libertyville family has turned its love of exotic marine life into a living decorative element.

“These are avid fish people,’ says interior architect Shea Soucie, whose Chicago-based firm, Soucie Horner, incorporated four saltwater aquariums into a completely remodeled yet historically sensitive 19th century Greek Revival farmhouse. One of the most interesting of all the units is in a child’s bathroom. Like all of the tanks, it needed a separate room to access its “working” parts, and according to Soucie, “we had to plan for a huge mechanical room in the basement to accommodate all the equipment.”

Media rooms are pretty standard in a lot of high-end homes, but authentically replicated movie theaters take the idea to another level. More than 10 years ago, architect Allan Grant designed a Georgian Revival manor house for a rare lake-front site in Glencoe. Most of the interior resembles a grand English country house, so the movie theater on its lower level (there are no “basements” in the North Shore) is a big surprise.

Grant says his clients, who always wanted a home movie theater, found 1930s-vintage theater seats and wanted to use them in their house. The seats were in deplorable condition, but once they were reconditioned and reupholstered, they inspired him to devise a complete Art Deco theme for the room. Velvet curtains, deep colors and dramatic stenciling by John T. Olson Decorating make the period aspects of the room come alive, like the setting for an Edward Hopper painting. Since the theater was installed, the audio/video equipment has been replaced several times, to reflect all the advances in gadgetry that are mandatory to keep a competitive edge.

Few homebuilders understand the need for competitive home enrichment as well as Orren Pickell Builders. The company is synonymous with the sort of over-scaled, hyper-detailed, overblown tract castles and suburban palazzi that are lumped together under the term “McMansion,” which to many observers epitomize the poor taste that too many wealthy people seem to have. One of Pickell’s newest developments, The Tarns of the Moor, will feature 10 houses on approximately 40 acres in still-bucolic Bannockburn.

Pickell’s representatives bristle at the suggestion that the first of these – the “Scottish Manor House” – is a spec property. Not at all, they say: It was commissioned as a show house for two local shelter publications. In fairness, Pickell’s products are almost exclusively custom-built houses, but there the Scottish Manor House sits, fully constructed and on the market at $4.8 million, eagerly awaiting a buyer.

Many deluxe features are available to buyers of a Pickell confection, but the latest marketing salvo focuses on areas devoted to particular members of the family. “It’s a guy thing” takes on new meaning with the Scottish pub area in the lower level of the Manor House, where a full bar and “antique accessories” are complemented by a wine room and walk-in cigar humidor. Interestingly, the manly amenities actually show a little better at Pickell’s IMAGINE design center in Winnetka, where a stained concrete floor and heavy millwork create a rich, masculine aura.

Pickell homes cater to children as well. The design center offers what one sales associate described as a “grandchildren’s area” (presumably if you’re rich enough to afford the house, you’re too old to have youngsters of your own), but sales manager Tom Hackett refers to it as a “Kid’s Cave.” It’s a television viewing area in a cozy niche tucked beneath a staircase. It has a lawn-like shag rug, a wall mural of puppies frolicking in a field, and a suspended flat-screen TV. Quite frankly, it’s adorable, making clever use of a space that would otherwise be given over to a closet, and in a house that’s 7,000 square feet or more, owners probably don’t need any more closets.

When customization is taken to such an extreme degree, some owners will ask whether they’ll ever recoup their “investment” should they go to sell the house. For most, though, it’s not an investment in the conventional sense. Allan Grant says he always cautions clients not to do anything too extreme, but some owners simply don’t care. Shea Soucie’s aquarium lovers, for example, were well aware that their improvements wouldn’t necessarily appeal to everyone, but Soucie is certain this property will stay with succeeding generations of the family indefinitely. That way, they will only have to concentrate on keeping up with themselves.

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