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The Poppy House

A South Side manor’s historical elements are preserved while it gets updated with contemporary furnishings and bright color.

The family room features rich jewel tones and a new sectional from RH paired with pieces the homeowners wanted to keep, such as the velvet chairs and wood
stump tables.

The powder room incorporates a seating area with a custom bench, vintage blown-glass sconces and a mirror from 1stdibs. The textured wallpaper is from Shagreen Art.  

Designer Jen Talbot kept and restored all of the original woodwork and wallpapered the ceiling in between the beams with a printed grass cloth, opting to add lightness through furnishings instead. Custom sofas from Robert Allen are covered in a Donghia mohair and paired with vintage chairs reupholstered in a leather pleat from Kravet with a neutral rug from Stark.

The vintage brass-and-glass coffee table is dressed with accessories that subtly tie in to Prairie School style.  

Graphic wallpaper with lines that are similar to Prairie School-style homes established the tone for the butler’s pantry, with its inky black cabinetry and brass hardware. 

The custom closet is “like a Cadillac,” explains designer Jen Talbot. “There are custom shelves, and it lights up when you walk in. It’s any woman’s dream closet.” Accessories from South Loop Loft and hardware from Schoolhouse Electric finish the space.  

Kenwood is a tiny neighborhood that, unless you’re from the South Side of Chicago, you’ve probably never heard of. With expansive lots and historic mansions a mere mile from the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, its most famous resident is former President Barack Obama.

But before Obama, there was Ernst Magerstadt. A former coal businessman-turned-Cook County sheriff, in 1908 Magerstadt commissioned architect George Maher to design a home for him in this enclave named to the National Register of Historic Places, which includes homes designed by architect luminaries Howard Van Doren Shaw and Benjamin Marshall.

This was also the time of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Robie House in Hyde Park, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, is considered the finest example of his Prairie School style of architecture. As a contemporary of the famous architect, Maher designed the Magerstadt home with similarly low-pitched rooflines and massings of large windows. Thirty-two windows with stained-glass poppies earned the landmark-status home the nickname Poppy House. Other significant architectural features include copious amounts of stained wood, original built-ins and a stained-glass mural by the Linden Glass Company above the living room fireplace.

The homeowners (a couple with two children who moved to the neighborhood from Wicker Park so they could be closer to their daughter’s school), knew the home would not be easy to reimagine, but nonetheless they were attracted to its easy flow of rooms, generous natural light and history. “Be respectful of the artistry and the architecture, but incorporate our contemporary furniture,” was the direction given to interior designer Jen Talbot by the wife, who sits on several boards of charitable organizations in Chicago.

Of her client’s directive to update the historically significant house while preserving the architecture, Talbot says, “It was very challenging to design because of the predominant presence of the original wood paneling, which we needed to preserve.”

In fact, the dark woodwork and the green-and-gold glass mural, along with the poppy windows, inspired the color scheme for the project. “I love the architect’s use of light and the stained-glass windows with the poppy theme,” the wife says, adding, “We knew from the first moment we saw this prominent fireplace mural that the decor colors would need to reflect it.”

So out went the dated wall stenciling and earthy tones, and in came the bright pops of color and contemporary furnishings. “The owners have eclectic, modern taste and a great collection of art,” Talbot says. Side-by-side black-and-white prints by Sol LeWitt introduce pattern to the living room, as do graphic accessories. Richly hued vintage chairs reupholstered in pleated Italian leather and a pair of custom brass ottomans in green velvet from Lawson-Fenning are a nice counterpoint to sofas covered in luxurious cream mohair and neutral walls.

In the family room, a pair of burgundy velvet chairs the homeowners already owned pick up the hue of a print by British sculptor Anish Kapoor (known in Chicago for the ‘Bean’ in Millennium Park). Talbot also incorporated some of their other existing pieces, such as petrified wood stumps. Painted entirely in navy blue, this room, an ’80s addition, gave them the freedom to experiment without any historical restraints. “The house has nice light and big windows, so we were really able to go for it,” says Talbot.

Nearby is an original butler’s pantry that once sported yellow cabinetry until Talbot got to it. “We wanted to go dark in there to play off the graphic wallpaper, which has lines similar to a Prairie School home,” the designer explains.

Emerald green plays prominently in the powder room, formerly used as an office by Magerstadt. A window with green poppies served as the obvious inspiration. The wallpaper by Shagreen Art is a modern backdrop for a vintage mirror from 1stdibs the homeowners brought with them.

“This house has great bones,” Talbot says. “I love playing with colors, and this project lent itself to rich and luxurious jewel tones.”

After almost two years on the South Side, the homeowners are happy to call Kenwood and the Poppy House home. “It’s an interesting, eclectic neighborhood with a lot of history,” says the wife. “We are very pleased with the selections we made with Jen’s guidance,” she adds. The rooms flow easily from one to another, and the modern updates play off the historical architecture. “It feels very solid and is cozy and private,” the wife explains, “but with a great deal of light because of the way the architect positioned the windows.”


Single-family home

Kenwood Architecture
George Maher

Jen Talbot Design

JJ Millwork Design

Final Touch Painting & Decorating

Coffee table in family room

All custom upholstery

Mohair fabric on living room sofas and cushions

Custom green ottomans in living room

Powder room ceiling fixture

Ceiling fixture in family room

Grass cloth on living room ceiling

Custom living room sofas and powder room bench fabric

Family room sectional and floor lamp

Hardware throughout

Ottoman and vintage Moroccan rug in closet

Rugs in living room