Michelangelo Sabatino and Serge Ambrose | File

Last month, Serge Ambrose and Michelangelo Sabatino were recognized by the Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside for the restoration of their home and garden. The 2022 Preservation Award recognizes the couple’s efforts to restore the 1939 International Style structure, known as the Benda House, both inside and out.

Sabatino, a professor of architectural history and historic preservation at Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture, and Ambrose, an architect and engineer focused on 20th-century architectural heritage, brought a wealth of knowledge to the project when they purchased their home in Riverside. 

Both are also active with Docomomo US, an international organization for the advocacy and documentation of modern buildings and sites.

They make clear that their four-year project was guided by a preservation mindset.

“This is a sensitive restoration, not a remodeling,” Ambrose said.

According to Sabatino, “We approached this with the idea of repairing not replacing, with a preservationist’s ethos.”

Michelangelo Sabatino says the couple’s work on the Benda House, designed in 1939, was a “sensitive restoration, not a remodeling.” He and Serge Ambrose also relandscaped the garden to reestablish the home’s relationship with nature. | Photo by Serge Ambrose

Sabatino points out that their architect-designed home stands apart from its eclectic neighbors. Unlike traditional style pattern-book homes, this modern house was sited keeping in mind solar orientation so that the living and dining rooms were in the rear of the house, where they would get southern exposure. A prominent two-car garage at the front of the house speaks to the inevitable rise of the car as a part of suburban living.

The couple worked to reveal the modern spirit of the home and were guided by original blueprints from architect Winston Elting, which have been passed from owner to owner of the home. They also researched what building materials were specified by the architect and used by the Berwyn-based builder Arvid Viren.

From the exterior, realized with Autumtints bricks, to the radiator covers and door hardware, Ambrose and Sabatino created a summary of original materials, that they shared during their well-attended presentation at the award ceremony during the Olmsted Society’s annual meeting at the Riverside train station on Jan. 20.

Their presentation also put the house into the social and economic context of the Chicago area. The commissioning owner, Francis Benda, was an attorney who lived in the home with his wife Sylvia, and two children. When the house was built, the backyard would have looked out on the Babson Estate, a sprawling house designed by Louis Sullivan with a landscape designed by Jens Jensen. That estate was dismantled in 1960, and the property was subdivided into smaller building lots.

Ambrose and Sabatino’s restoration of the property took the home’s setting into account. While the interior work focused on removing non-original finishes and materials as well as highlighting original features, the new landscape sought to reestablish a relationship between the house and the nature.

Geometric beds of plantings reflect the boxy profile of this flat-roofed house. Doing most of the work themselves, the pair created a series of outdoor rooms with a bluestone patio, and a row of trees in the rear and side yards.

Dan Murphy, board member of the Frederick Law Olmsted Society, says it’s obvious that a lot of sweat equity went into Ambrose and Sabatino’s home and garden.  

“The result benefits the community, both aesthetically and culturally in terms of contributing to Olmsted’s vision, and globally in the landscaping’s positive impact on the environment,” Armstrong said. “This is a gift to the community.”

The project so captured Ambrose and Sabatino that the couple are working on a new book titled, “Modern, Again: The Benda House and Garden in Chicagoland” which not only will include a history of their house in its Riverside setting, but will expand to cover the history of the modern house in America. 

The book is expected to publish in late fall 2023.