Twenty one years after Betsy Nathan bought her first piece of Chinese antique furniture in a Beijing market, while there studying Mandarin, the collector and dealer of Asian furnishings and artefacts has finally found the perfect home for her own collection of Far Eastern treasures, albeit in an unlikely Westernised setting – a sprawling Georgian house nestled amid the dense trees of a wooded ravine in the heart of suburban Chicago.
‘Over the years I have saved all these amazing objects that really mean something to me, and I’ve been waiting for a house that I knew we weren’t going to leave, a family home where I could incorporate them. With this wonderful property I was ready to do that,’ says Betsy, who founded her showroom and gallery Pagoda Red in Chicago, in 1987. Since then, it’s become an international business and word has spread to the Middle East, with customers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia purchasing Asian antiques and art for their homes and projects.
In 2012, after eight years living in the property, they decided to upgrade and extend the dated layout, including some of the façade, the interiors and the gardens. Now the house has four levels of family-oriented, practical, yet beautifully designed living spaces, including the addition of a lower basement level with a band room and a media room for Betsy and Daniel’s four sons, plus a gym and sauna. The ground floor features an entrance foyer, living room, dining room, a family room, and an office and a mudroom converted from the old porches either side of the
house. The first floor features the boys’ bedrooms, their nanny’s bedroom and the master suite, which enjoys a walk-in dressing room, while the attic has been converted into a guest bedroom.
‘The house was very traditional of its time, which wasn’t very conducive to a family living today, but we made it work,’ recalls Betsy. ‘Retrospectively, it was a good thing that we understood the house before we started reconfiguring it, as we knew what we liked, what we wanted and didn’t want.’
More than anything, it was her collection of antiques and artefacts that inspired the renovation project. ‘A brilliant designer and fantastic friend, Carlos Martinez, came over and we bounced ideas off of him, imagining where my pieces could go,’ she says. ‘When he suggested that certain items could go in the kitchen, which needed redoing, he prompted us to make a masterplan for a future renovation … of course, when we started doing this there was no going back!’
Betsy had an impressive “dream team” of architects and interior designers working on the transformation. While Carlos – principal of the internationally-renowned architecture practice Gensler – led the project as creative director, he brought on board his long-time friend Frederick Wilson, of Morgante-Wilson Architects; Daniel Krause – an interior designer for Gensler – joined the duo to reimagine the interior details; Kathy Manzella, a designer at de Giulio oversaw the kitchen upgrade; meanwhile, landscape architects Craig Bergmann, of Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, and Drew Johnson, of Rocco Fiore & Sons, transformed the exterior in line with the property.
‘From the beginning we were very clear about what we wanted to keep and what we needed to morph, and we always referenced the scale and volume of the old space so the new architecture and interiors would not feel out of place,’ says Betsy. ‘The end result is very seamless; it is hard to tell where the old meets the new.’
The walls of the new areas maintain the same thickness as the orginal house, in keeping with Georgian architecture, while details like ceiling coving, panelling partway up the wall and window shutters nod to the early 1900s. Some of Betsy’s Chinese antiques have been wonderfully repurposed in their new environment, mixed with mid-century furnishings, in a way that’s consistent with the heritage of the property.
‘Daniel Krause, a dear friend of mine and Carlos’, is fantastic with fabrics and finishing touches and had some amazing ideas of how to use my pieces. I have a set of six 19th-century Chinese panels that I knew I wanted to use in the house and Daniel took these old doors in a very modern direction; it was so fun to see where such items ended up.’ These ornate panels now front a large bar area in the family room, inlaid with an ombré Rodarte
fabric designed for Knoll, in yellow, orange and purple shades that shimmer like an ethereal sunset.
With a family of four boys, areas like the mudroom and the kitchen work overtime, says Betsy, so they need to be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. Despite being hard-wearing spaces, Carlos didn’t shy away from placing antique furniture from the PAGODA RED archives in these rooms. The mudroom – ‘the secret to the whole house,’ says the mum of four – features a stunning 18th-century provincial Chinese table that isn’t tip-toed around but used as a practical table for crafts and gardening, surrounded by the boys’ backpacks and muddy shoes.
The kitchen also features a collectable table with a rich heritage. ‘We love our kitchen, it really is the heart of our home, so it was important that it worked well and was efficient,’ explains Betsy. ‘I love the way it is designed. de Giulio is very masterful at what they do and their designer Kathy was fantastic. She helped convert a 19th-century calligraphy table that I’ve had for years and absolutely love into the kitchen’s central island.’
The garden experienced the same level of attention and was transformed from a muddy pit – the result of the renovation and extension work – into a beautifully landscaped area. ‘Craig is a true visionary and transformed what was basically a big hole into a terrace, which he planted in keeping with the ravine around us.’
Betsy’s prized antiques were also incorporated outside, where possible, including a pair of 18th-century carved stone panels mounted on the façade. ‘It’s been such a great project, finding homes for all these things that I truly love and then having them live another life here in our home,’ she adds.
THE OWNERS Betsy Nathan is the founder of Pagoda Red, a showroom and gallery of high-end furnishings, antiques and artwork with an Asian sensibility. Her husband Daniel Goldberg works in private equity and venture capital. They have four sons, Jack, Levi, Charlie, and Nate.
THE HOME Their seven-bedroom Georgian property, situated in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, USA, dates from 1926 and was sensitively renovated seven years ago.
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