A Modern Point of View

The Geneva Lake vernacular reflects the lifestyles of generations of full-time residents to weekend visitors. Originally a retreat for the Chicago elite, it’s no surprise that the predominant architecture leans toward Midwestern traditional design.  But for one long time Lake Geneva resident, it was time to shake it up! From weekend cottage to lakeside mansion, real estate authority Mike Keefe has seen every shape and size of home in the communities surrounding Geneva Lake.

Part visionary and part architectural enthusiast, this savvy businessman was ready to push the boundaries when it came time to build his family’s lake retreat. Instinct told him that the area was ready for something new, so when he and his wife Marie decided to build, the directive was thoroughly modern.  His keen perception paid off with an award from the National Association of Homebuilders, for Best Architectural Design in a One-Of-A-Kind home in 2018.  In an area where tradition runs deep, this fresh perspective on lake house living is gathering attention on the national scene.

Keefe’s decision to build in the Geneva Lake area was based on his love for Fontana.  The lake, convenience, and being surrounded by friends and family history all contributed to the choice.  The ideal location came with a variety of challenges, including an aged 1950’s ranch home and severe topography.  With the help of builder John Engerman, a plan was put in place.  Demolition, excavation and construction were orchestrated from the lakefront to the street side.

“This is a bold new approach,” says Engerman, “The entire project is an intentional departure from tradition that best utilizes the land while capturing remarkable lake views!”
This award-winning home is the achievement of architects at BSB Design. The structure takes full advantage of a sloping site while providing panoramic scenes of the lake. “It was all about the views, and how we could get the best views for each room . . . even working around the trees”, said BSB Director of Design, Jeff Mulcrone.

“You truly feel as if you are always floating above the water.”

Jeff Mulcrone

BSB Director of Design

Keefe did not necessarily set out to build a modern home, but once the idea emerged it was embraced.  He knew from past building projects that the site would dictate a great deal of the home’s design.  Having three levels was a priority, but height restrictions made this impossible to achieve with a traditional sloped roof.  The flat roof emerged as a solution.

The resulting architecture is modern, classic, and yet slightly unpredictable.   Sweeping vistas of the lake were made possible by stacking architectural cubes and shifting them for a cantilevered structure.  Architect Justin Bucy explains, “Because the foundation couldn’t push further down the hill towards the water, we needed to support additional space on the second level with steel.  We looked to structural beams to help carry the exterior design with glimpses of steel on the interior for a unified concept.”

Elegant floor to ceiling windows direct your attention to the lake from every vantage point.  The transparent glass walls are equalized with a composition of intentional organic materials. “Wood beams were added to soften the steel,” says Bucy, “along with subtle reveals around the ceiling as an alternative to traditional crown molding.”  The overall look is crisp and clean while maintaining a warm, inviting feel.

Visitors are greeted with a presentation of natural materials which honor the integrity of this location. The green roof canopy over the entrance is another problem-solving achievement, which also works to improve the view from the second story interior. In conversations with the architect, Engerman mentioned that he was open to a “live roof”.  This sparked the design that acts as a delightful wayfinding element leading to the point of entry.

Once inside, the foyer yields breathtaking lake vistas. There is an “uninterrupted view from the entry door to the covered balcony reaching out to the blue waters,” notes Mulcrone.  Every decision was carefully planned to keep the focus on the lake.  “In its basic form it’s a pretty simple house,” says Keefe, “not complicated from a design standpoint, but complicated to build.”

Keefe’s desire for a modern aesthetic was next placed in the hands of Interior Designer Mary Cook. Having worked together on several past projects, Cook understood Keefe’s request for a relaxed design with a nod to the region. Cook anchored the desire for a light and airy experience with the introduction of deeply stained white oak on the floors and in the wall paneling. A neutral color scheme was put into play and then counterbalanced with industrial elements that include steel beams, oil-rubbed panels for patina, and light fixtures to act as modern sculpture.

Cook’s involvement from the beginning was instrumental in making subtle adjustments throughout the living spaces to best accommodate the Keefe’s fun-loving day-to-day life, as well as frequent entertaining.  “You must always be cognizant of the way people live”, notes Cook.  Durability is essential in this lively home that thrives on blurring the lines between the indoor and outdoor environment. “It is a careful blend of modern contemporary living with high quality finishes and some common sense.”

One of Cook’s favorite accommodations is a movable high-top table centrally located in the home. The Keefe’s didn’t want a bar to be the focal point of this active area. As a result, sleek built-in cases were designed to display beautiful glassware, and the table was made to serve as a bar, a buffet, or can be completely moved away to open up the space for circulation.

The main floor offers fully retractable doors encouraging activity to stream out onto the deck.  The Keefe’s insisted that even the guest quarters have access to a separate and private outdoor area.  But the most remarkable view of all can only be taken in from the Owners Suite.  This awe-inspiring perspective from the top floor provides a feeling of complete suspension over the water.  “It’s like being on vacation at home” says Keefe who appreciates the view every day.

Builder John Engerman summarizes the immense appeal of this home. “It is built with consistent attention to the overall scale and principles of good design. Its timeless beauty is in the balance and the repetition of shapes, size, and pattern applied to all four exterior elevations and every level of the homes interior architecture.”

The founding principle of the original early 20th century modern movement was “form follows function”, and this home certainly expresses that beautifully today. Keefe sees modern architecture and the desire for something different as an emerging trend in the communities surrounding Geneva Lake. In an area where a relaxed lifestyle is the attraction, the ease and open flow that accompanies classic modern design is a perfect match.

By: Susan Pantaleo Bower

Photography by: Matt Haas and Jacob Sharp

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