The Chicago Commission on Landmarks voted unanimously during its Dec. 3 virtual meeting to grant the preliminary landmark designation to Galewood’s so-called Miracle House at 2001 N. Nordica Avenue.
The 1955 house stands out thanks to the abundance of glass walls and two sets of spider-like steel arms on the sides that keep the second floor suspended like a bridge. The owner, Dr. David Scheiner – a retired physician who was Barack Obama’s personal doctor until 2008 – requested the designation. He told the commission that he enjoys the house and wants to see it preserved.
Now that the preliminary designation has been approved, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development will research how landmarking the home will affect the community.
The proposal to landmark the home will then go back to the landmark commission for a vote before the City Council takes the measure up for final approval. If approved, the Miracle House will be the first city landmark in the Galewood neighborhood and the 14th landmark in the Austin community.
In 1954, the St. Williams Parish launched a raffle to raise funds to build a new church, and the house was conceived as a grand prize. Edo Belli, the co-founder of Belli and Belli architecture firm, came up with the design. Jim Belli, Edo’s son and the company’s current head, told the commission that his father wanted to design something that would accommodate a family of five, like his own. The city staff explained that the abundance of glass was part of the elder Belli’s signature style.
The firm did the design pro-bono, with General Electric donating appliances, retailer Sol Polk donating furnishings and General Bridge and Steel company providing the steel arms.
The name “Miracle House” was first used on the raffle ticket. The raffle raised enough money to not only pay for a new church, but a new parish rectory, a convent and a school. Since then, the building has only had three owners. Scheiner purchased it n 1999.
“I walked into the house, my jaw dropped and, the next day, I bid on the house,” he told the commission. “Every time I walk into the house, my heart skips a beat. It’s an amazing house. It doesn’t overwhelm, it just envelops me.”
Dan Lempa, a School of Art Institute of Chicago graduate student, kicked off the landmarking process. He grew up on the same block as the Miracle House and, after preparing a hypothetical application for a course assignment, he reached out to Scheiner to see if the owner would be interested in applying for real landmark status. The two spent the next several years working on the application, they said.
Owners rarely ask for landmark designations, city officials said. Scheiner’s involvement speeds up the process. The city won’t need to request consent or hold a public hearing before moving on to the final recommendation.
The city staff recommended the landmark designation, because the house had a distinct design that represented mid-1950s optimism and served as a rare example of Belli and Belli-designed residential buildings. And the report noted that, while the house got an addition in the rear in 1965 and a minor alternation in 1999, most of the original design survived.
Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at the Landmarks Illinois historical preservation nonprofit, said that her organization supports the landmark designation, because it would be valuable for Galewood.
“[Galewood] is a wonderful community and, as far as I know, it will be the first designated landmark in Galewood neighborhood specifically,” she said. “It’s a fantastic example of mid-century architecture and I believe it will the first Belli and Belli designation in Chicago.”
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes the Miracle House, repeatedly described the building as “breathtaking” and said that he appreciates the way Scheiner maintained the house and offered tours to neighbors.
“My wife and I drive by all the time and we’re going to visit it one day together, because it’s a stunning house,” he said.
Commissioner Tiara Hughes was among several commission members who praised Scheiner for asking for the landmark designation.
“I want this to set the precedent, moving forward, for the owners to see the value of preserving the historic fabric of their proprieties,” she said.