A couple redesigns a historic Madison farmhouse to welcome the outside in
The Nonn family enjoys their kitchen, which was built to be a gathering point for family and friends. See more photos of the home in the slideshow below.
PHOTO BY BETH SKOGEN
On the sunny corner of Baldwin and Spaight, Helen Nonn rocks gently on a porch swing relocated from her grandparents’ home in Tennessee. The swing made the journey to the Wil-Mar neighborhood along with a collection of mason jars, silver, crystal and the dressing gowns Helen and husband, Kristofer, used for their two boys, Ryer and Marlow. The Nonns wanted to bring family history to their newly redesigned home, which they purchased as first-time homebuyers in 2009.
The “little white house,” as Kristofer calls it, was originally built by cigar maker Matthias Wagner in 1868. In the more than 140 years since then, the house has changed hands a dozen times, and with minimal upkeep. The result was that it had recently fallen into disrepair, and wouldn’t have stood much longer.
Kristofer, a designer with KEE Architecture, liked the historic home but wanted to reimagine it for his own family. Once he won approval from the neighborhood association, he did.
“There’s a long tradition of designers and architects using themselves as guinea pigs for their ideas,” he says. “This was an opportunity to design a house that responds to the way we live. It’s really indicative of who we are.”
From the outside, the house mainly preserves the original look, except for solar panels on the roof—which provide solar electric and hot water—and a glazed tile silo Kristofer moved from its original home in Otsego, Wisconsin.
Inside, the home looks completely different. Rough-hewn with exposed wood and raw materials like cinder blocks and concrete, the house simultaneously possesses whimsy, nowhere more evidenced than in the Chinese lanterns that hang from the rafters upstairs. The lanterns, like the rest of the house, are a repurposed memory, used originally by the Nonns for their wedding.
In the renovation, not one surface of the house went untouched. The end goal was options. “We like moving furniture around the kitchen, and having smaller and bigger spaces, or porches that face the street or others where it’s more private,” Kristofer says. “We wanted a structure that responds to all those different impulses. We wanted to be active in how we inhabit the space. It’s almost like a puzzle.”
While Kristofer served as the designer and general contractor, he considers the house a collaboration with Helen, a special education teacher. Some of the most distinctive, handcrafted features of the home—such as the lathe wood laundry room, colored in eye-catching shades of blue—were her ideas.
Since the Nonns purchased the house, Helen has given birth to both of the couple’s young sons, living in uncomfortable spaces through much of the build.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into before we started the process,” she says. “I couldn’t envision the way it was executed, but the spaces feel exactly the way I wanted them to feel. Warm and filled with light and the outdoors. It’s just home.”
The neighbors also love the renovation. Big groups gather often in the open kitchen, and it’s not unusual, the Nonns say, to find some of them enjoying the porch swing out front. “We made ourselves a destination,” says Krisofer. “I’m honored that it has developed that way. It means the house is something others value and feel good about, too.”
For their housewarming, the couple researched and invited many of the previous owners and, to their delight, several came.
“I wanted to preserve this concept of history as an idea, not as a physical thing,” Kristofer says. “Most of what was there is now gone. But hopefully not the spirit of the little white house on the corner.”
Laura Jones is a Madison-based writer.