Thursday, April 6, 2023

The Miracle House, 2001 North Nordica Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. (1954)

Frank Lloyd Wright meets The Jetsons.
Scale Model. Locals called it the "Spider House," "Grasshopper House," or "Glass House."

The bold, mid-century modern "Miracle House" stands at 2001 N. Nordica Avenue in the Galewood neighborhood within the larger Austin Community Area. The genesis of the house is perhaps unlike any other in Chicago, for it was built as a grand prize for a raffle sponsored by the nearby St. William Catholic parish. The name Miracle House first appeared on the raffle tickets, and it has stuck with the property. 

In 1953, Fr. Frank Cieselski of the expanding parish conceived a house raffle to raise funds for a new church, school, convent and rectory. Edo Belli, a 36-year-old Chicago modernist architect and a Catholic who had attracted the backing of Archbishop Samuel A. Stritch for other diocesan commissions, offered to design the house free of charge and was given complete freedom of design. Indeed, Fr. Cieselski urged the architects to produce a boldly futuristic design that would capture attention and boost ticket sales.


Today, the house is a unique work of modern residential architecture in Chicago with a structural system based on two giant steel arms acting as a suspension bridge rather than load-bearing walls and columns. The Miracle House is unique for its almost all-glass exterior, making it innovative in its openness and connection with its exterior surroundings.
The primary elevation of the house faces south onto Armitage Avenue. The second-floor kitchen with a glazed curtain wall is suspended over the driveway, creating a carport, reflecting the centrality of the automobile in residential architecture in America in the postwar era. The first floor is clad in coursed Lannon stone, a widely used material in the mid-twentieth century.


The Miracle House resulted from a campaign to raise capital funds for the expansion of a Catholic parish complex that resulted in not just the construction of the house itself but also St. William parish a mile away. Thus, it reflects the important contributions religious communities made to Chicago neighborhoods. The futuristic design of the house also reveals the cultural optimism for novelty and the future that captivated America in the 1950s, even as the Cold War menaced on. 
Detail the pair of 36-ton steel trusses from which the house is suspended. They were fabricated by the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, which donated its services to the project like many suppliers.


The house is also significant as the work of Belli & Belli Architects and Engineers, Inc., a small, family-run architecture firm founded in 1946 in Chicago, which by 1953 was a booming office with 45 employees. Belli & Belli played an outsize role during the modern era in Chicago and throughout the nation. The firm's designs were marked by structural innovation and an expressive modern aesthetic that was arguably more popular than the austerities of the International Style.
Chicago's Hugh Hefner with his wife, Mildred, and daughter Christine in his new 1955 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible in front of the "Miracle House." 1955



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The house was built entirely with donated labor and materials, including the stainless steel arms from which the house is suspended. General Electric donated appliances, retailer Sol Polk (Polk Brothers) donated furnishings and the General Bridge and Steel Company provided the steel arms. The raffle raised enough money to not only pay for a new church but a new parish rectory, a convent and a school. 
In addition to the prominence of the automobile in residential architecture, outdoor living also became a new priority in the postwar era. At the west elevation of the Miracle House, sliding glass doors lead to a patio, and a canopy over the terrace was added later.


The Galewood Neighborhood in the Austin Community.
Galewood first developed as a 320-acre frontier farm settled by New York transplant Abram Gale in 1838. In 1899, a portion of the farm was leased to the Western Ho Golf Club, which remained there until the late 1920s. In 1927, the golf club and what remained of the farm were subdivided for residential development by G. Whittier Gale, grandson of the original settler. Many of the homes in the neighborhood are bungalows and various revival styles of architecture, including Tudor, Georgian, and French eclectic from before World War II and Cape Cod and Ranch-style homes from the postwar era. Galewood has a distinctly suburban feel, with the houses deeply set back on large, manicured lots.

Building Design and Construction
The Miracle House is essential to the Galewood neighborhood of Chicago and the local St. William Catholic parish. The idea of selling $1 tickets for a raffle with a chance to win a futuristic house was motivated by St. William's need to expand its campus, an expansion that the raffle succeeded in funding.

The raffle drawing was held at the old Lion's Club in Chicago in December 1955. 
A raffle ticket from which the house derived its name. Purchasers were entitled to a house tour in the months leading up to the drawing.
A $1.00 Raffle Ticket Equals $11.00 Today.

To that extent, the raffle not only added the Miracle House to the neighborhood in 1954 but eventually, by 1961, also a new church, convent, school, and rectory at the four corners of the intersection of Sayre and Wrightwood Avenues. Belli & Belli designed all these buildings in the modern style, and for the church, Edo Belli employed a thin-shell concrete wall and roof structure, a new technology of which Belli & Belli was an early adopter. Coincidentally, Belli & Belli's offices were located in the neighborhood.

When Edo Belli agreed to volunteer to design the Miracle House, Belli & Belli had already designed the first of what would become many churches, institutions, and hospitals for the Catholic church in general and the Archdiocese of Chicago in particular. In addition, the firm took on commercial work, but Edo Belli had yet to design a single-family dwelling other than for himself and his family. The Miracle House was a project that Edo Belli had to discuss with Cardinal Stritch, as the residential design was different from a standard part of his firm's practice.

The house would be built on a large lot (100' x 200') at the northeast corner of Nordica and Armitage Avenues. Precisely how this property was identified, or the decision-making that led to its purchase, is still being determined. Its proximity one mile south of St. William parish was undoubtedly a factor.

Construction began as soon as Belli's design was completed in late 1953. As word of the planned raffle to win a futuristic house got out, donated labor and material started pouring in to assist with the construction for a good cause and publicity. The Chicago Bridge & Iron Company contributed the massive steel arches, and General Electric donated all the necessary appliances, making this an all-electric house. Sol Polk of Polk Brothers, a famed Chicago appliance and electronics retailer, provided all the furnishings free of charge. Sol Polk also led the promotion of the raffle. Trade unions offered their services pro bono. Jim Belli, Edo's son, believes the only thing that should have been donated was the windows.

When construction of the Miracle House finished in late 1954, purchasers of a $1 raffle ticket were entitled to a house tour in the months leading up to the drawing in December of that year. The raffle was also promoted with custom-made glass ashtrays depicting the house. 
This 6"x 2½" ashtray/candy dish was given to purchasers of multiple raffle tickets.
Movie star and former neighborhood resident Kim Novak announced the winning ticket. She attended St. Williams, and her parents lived on Sayre Avenue, a half block from the Miracle House site.

The house winner was Joseph Novelle, who lived a half block away on Nordica. 

He owned the house briefly, selling it in 1957 to the Marano family, who put on a compatible addition in 1965 as their family grew. The Maranos remained in the house until 1989, when they sold it at auction to Alexander Fletcher, a Chicago fireman, who lived there for 10 years. 

In 1999, Dr. David Scheiner, M.D. bought the house and lived there as only its fourth owner in Novelle's 65-year history. (Dr. Scheiner had a long-established medical practice in Hyde Park, Chicago, where one of his patients was Barack Obama in the years before he became President.)

When it was completed in 1954, the house measured 20' x 56', with the primary elevation facing south onto Armitage Avenue. The house is suspended from two 36-ton steel arms spanning 100' in an east-west direction. The bridge-like structural system eliminated the need for load-bearing walls, allowing ample glazing and an open interior free of columns. The exterior on the second floor consists of a glazed curtain wall, while on the first floor, the exterior is rendered in Lannon stone, which is also used on the interior of the first-floor living room.
Lannon stone walls on the exterior carry into the interior of the first-floor living room. The floors are polished travertine. The short terrazzo stairway leads up to a split-level recreation room.


The first floor is a split level with the ground-level layout occupied by a living room and a recreation room (originally bedrooms) on the lower level. The kitchen and dining rooms are located on the second floor, and a main bedroom fills the third floor. The large expanses of glass create a light-filled and spacious interior with terrazzo and travertine floors. The most incredible room is above the south-facing carport - the kitchen, a beautiful projecting room with three glass walls emitting light on the south, west, and east.
Another view of the living room shows a flitch-matched wood wall panel and clerestory windows. Unlike more austere forms of modern architecture, the Miracle House is a "Contemporary" style with more broad appeal.
To accommodate a growing family of eight children, the Marano family added a bedroom addition to the house in 1965. Belli & Belli was offered the commission but declined due to the substantial number of hospital and commercial commissions on the boards at the time. A neighborhood architect, Ray Basso, took the job and generally respected Belli's original design, containing his work to the north side of the house, where the unique, original design stands on its own as approached from the south.
The suspended structure allowed for large areas of glazing, as shown in this view of the second-floor kitchen with terrazzo floors. Such opening up of exterior views of large manicured lawns was another characteristic of mid-century modern residential architecture.
For years, the Miracle House was a drive-by destination for locals in the Galewood community and fans of modern architecture. Postcards were printed, and celebrities visited, including Hugh Hefner, who grew up in the neighborhood. The Miracle House is still recognized as a local landmark in the Galewood community.

The Contemporary Style of Mid-Century Modern Residential Architecture
The Miracle House is a clear example of mid-century modern residential architecture. This catch-all includes a range of fluid styles and where commonly agreed-upon definitions remain elusive. Virginia McAlester's Field Guide to American Houses, revised in 2013, is regarded as the most definitive guide to American domestic architecture. It defines the "Contemporary Style" as best representing the Miracle House design.

While different styles fall under the mid-century modern umbrella, they all responded to social and technological changes and new ways of living in postwar America. These transformations are well described in a 1960 issue of House & Garden:

Few periods in history can match the past decade in the number of spectacular changes it has witnessed in our daily lives. From a nation well supplied with automobiles, we have turned to a nation living on wheels with the not-too-surprising result that the garage has become the actual entrance of today's house. In a matter of months, TV grew from a rather expensive toy into standard household equipment and, in the process, added to the house a new room—the family room. Insulating glass walls of the southern California house have become equally comfortable for the climate of northern Illinois. The whole country has succumbed to a passion for cooking, eating and lounging outdoors, but at the same time, land on which to build, cook, and lounge has become progressively scarcer.

Despite their stylistic differences, mid-century modern houses typically have attached garages incorporated into the building. Open floor plans and large living rooms for TV are commonplace. Large windows take full advantage of views of large, landscaped lawns. All these characteristics are visible in the design of the Miracle House.

The Contemporary Style rejected historical styles of architecture. However, the style allowed for more materials, textures, and forms, making it more popular than the austere forms of mid-century modern house design.

The design of contemporary-style houses is clearly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses, built with natural materials, free-flowing interiors, and a blending of interior and exterior spaces. Contemporary-style houses were popular from 1945 to 1965 when architects designed them for individual clients or were built in large numbers by developers, most notably by Joseph Eichler, who made thousands of contemporary-style homes in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Contemporary House style emphasized the convenience of open floor plans and blending indoor and outdoor spaces. The houses are typically two stories in height with flat or shallow-pitched and exposed roof structures. Exterior walls are clad in various materials, including brick, wood, and stone, often combined. Entrances are often recessed or off-center. All these character-defining features are visible in the design of the Miracle House.

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Dr. David Scheiner bought the house in 1999 on the advice of his late wife, who had known about the home while growing up on the Northwest Side. “I walked in, and my jaw dropped,” Scheiner said, noting that he purchased the whole thing for around $375,000 at the time. The home, he said, is 70 percent glass, the floors are marble, and the Jetson's-style stainless-steel arms (they do not support the house) imitate the flying buttresses that hold up European cathedrals. Dr. Scheiner was Barack Obama’s personal doctor for nearly two decades, right up until Obama won the presidency in 2008.

On April 21, 2021, the Chicago City Council unanimously approved the landmark status of the Miracle House.

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A 2023 Real Estate Appraisal: $563,000.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

16 comments:

  1. Wow! Thank you, I never knew about this house!

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  2. I cannot believe I have never before noticed this house, thank you!

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  3. Fascinating! I live nearby and never heard of this house. Have to drive by.

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  4. I remember driving by with my family to see the house. My Dad must have bought a ticket because I remember the ashtray/candy dish. Then I went to High School with Kathy Belli.

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  5. I love architecture in the Chicagoland area. The details of mid-modern and contemporary styles, illustrated with fascinating images add to my understanding and appreciation of the era. Futuristic and Jetson inspiring architecture is always fun to learn about. The history of the raffle and the name "Miracle House" adds so much more to the story.

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  6. Lived in area many years. Raised family and house kids had many stories .😂

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  7. Thank you for sharing. I enjoy all your articles.

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  8. Thanks so much for posting this. I'd never heard of this home before but it's absolutely fascinating. A couple years back, I toured an Edo Belli home in Riverwoods, but it was quite different as the exterior walls were all curved

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  9. Thank you for sharing.
    I have fond memories of my father driving our family past this house in the early 1960s.
    I would be very curious to know who the current residents are.

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  10. Awesome article! I grew up in this area and all of the kids knew this house. I was interesting reading the history.

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  11. Wonderfully written, with so much information. Thank you.

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  12. I can’t believe I remembered all the this. Lived a couple blocks away, was only four then. My parents obviously bought raffle tickets as I remember clearly touring the “Miracle House”. We belonged to St Williams Parish. Went to school on that corner of the new buildings. Remember imagining what a nice convent (home) for those nuns! Also got married at the church. Great article, so many memories!

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  13. We lived at Barry & Sayre from 88’-98’. My daughter went to a partial year of Kindergarten at St Williams until we moved to Grayslake. We used to ride our bikes all over the area & I remember this house well. It looked like something you would see on the North Shore or in California. Always wondered what it looked like inside. Lucky folks to have the income to live in such a grand home.

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  14. As a longtime Galewood resident (birth 1950-marriage 1976), I found this to be the best explanation of the house I've ever seen. Thanks for an enjoyable and well researched and written article. Also, might you be related to the family after whom Galewood is named?

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    1. Dear tjbehrendt@hotmail.com,
      Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the history. I am not related to any Gales. My father changed his last name to Gale when he was drafted in WWII before reporting for duty.

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