Scraping the Surface: Inside a Painter’s Refined Wicker Park Home

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Art, music, friends, and family. That’s how artist Mark Yee describes what lies at the core of what he values. Four years ago, Yee and his partner purchased a 5,500-square-foot house in Chicago’s Wicker Park with the plan for a massive renovation that would allow them to put these things at the center of their home as well.

This expansive home on Chicago’s Beer Baron Row—a stretch of Chicago residences built on the affluence of nineteenth-century German immigrants who had made their fortunes in beer—sits shaded by oaks on a fastidiously manicured street, its three-story brick facade finished with a slate front mansard and teal gabled dormers just barely visible through story-book foliage. It once belong to William Hale Thompson, the famously boorish mayor of Chicago who was the last Republican to hold this office to date.

Though previous renovations had stripped the home of much of its original grandeur and the structure was in poor shape (lacking even insulation), the home had many classical elements that drew the couple’s attention. Yee and his partner wanted a home for their family—they have three children, Madeleine, Sebastian, and Vivian—but also one for entertaining. “We imagined parties for seventy-five and coffee for two.”

Photo by Nathan Kirkman

To realize their vision, Yee hired Chicago design firm Vincere. Principals Michael Stornello and Tom Konopiots are known for their luxurious yet livable spaces that mix contemporary and traditional, high art and comfort. “There is an art and a language of architecture, of line, of scale, and of color that comes naturally to Mike and Tom of Vincere,” says Yee, who credits the them with turning their ideas and questions into beauty and function. “When we first walked in and even today, you can see their attention to detail everywhere you look.”

“All five of us gave Mike and Tom a sense of how we would like to live in this house. We gave them our ideas, and we let them interpret that for us.” Yee describes the process of reviewing the plans and undertaking the renovation process as “having Christmas day over and over again, as [Mike and Tom] unfolded the plans and answered our every question.”

“The home’s history, and its remaining detail,” says Stornello and Konopiots, “gave us a good head start on what the final product could truly be.”

Photos by Nathan Kirkman

“The home’s history, and its remaining detail,” says Stornello and Konopiots, “gave us a good head start on what the final product could truly be.”

The result is a stately 8,000-square-foot home for a family: jazz concerts in the music room, movie nights in the family room, nightcaps in the library, and warm evenings on the private walkout balcony that ornaments the back of the house.

The Vincere team points out the balcony off the second-floor library as a favorite hidden detail of the home. “[It is] a private space overlooking the rear yard. It is intended to be intimate and for the homeowners themselves, which means not everyone will get a chance to experience it.”

Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Photo by Nathan Kirkman

“My paintings have dozens or hundreds of layers of paint,” Yee writes in his artist statement. “I scrape and sand the surface to find the colors buried beneath the surface. But then I find myself adding more paint and the colors are buried once again in a cycle of adding and scraping. The process is compulsive and freeing at the same time. I strive to reveal the story that was there all the time, just below the surface.”

I would be wont to not draw a comparison between Yee’s professional work and the creation of his home. “As an artist, I pay close attention to color, shapes, and lines,” says Yee. “Being in a home that balances these elements is important. A beautiful home provides a place for rest, play, family, and friends. I’m happiest when my work-play-family triangle is in alignment, and this house helps me keep these elements in balance.”

There is an effortlessness to the flow of this home, which seems at odds with its sumptuous furnishings, its near-mathematical use of color, the impeccable balance of color, texture, size, and shape. The way it feels formal yet remarkably soft. Tension always plays a valuable role in art, though, and without it works achieve no balance, no work of art is complete.

Photo by Nathan Kirkman

“We wanted a finished home that was true to the spirit of the house’s age, while modernized from a function and flow perspective.” Yee says of his vision for the home. But don’t let the luxury deceive you, virtually nothing in this home is so precious that it requires a gloved hand. “The home has beautiful, precious elements, but I don’t have to worry about them. Everything can be easily cleaned, and nothing is too fragile. And on the design side, the scale and architectural lines created by Vincere make perfect sense for the period of our house.”

Ultimately, this home must support a family. “Home,” Yee says, “is scraped knees, snuggles on the sofa, rollicking music from the piano ‘til eleven p.m., cooking with basil from your own yard, reading together in the library, and having room for three or more types of ice cream in your freezer. Home is where you can mend socks and where you fall asleep on the sofa with your kids and new puppy!”

Photos by Nathan Kirkman

Photo by Nathan Kirkman

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