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FALL HOME IMPROVEMENT: Family coaxes European charm out of their once 'scary' basement

CHICAGO -- Subterranean fantasy worlds aren't without precedent. Witness Alice and her wonderland. The Hobbits and Middle-earth. Professor Lidenbrock and his center of the earth trek.

CHICAGO -- Subterranean fantasy worlds aren't without precedent. Witness Alice and her wonderland. The Hobbits and Middle-earth. Professor Lidenbrock and his center of the earth trek.

And then there's Faith Kiehart and her basement adventure in Lakeview, Ill., a decidedly more "real" story of a land down under.

Kiehart and her husband, Doug Ballotti, transformed the bowels of their turn-of-the-century row house into a charming stone- and brick-walled cottage that looks as though it were plucked out of the European countryside. It feels "of the earth" and even cozier with timber beams for a ceiling and a sun-braised floor of Mexican clay pavers. A family room and guest suite (complete with shower, closet and private entrance) live down here.

And none of that was as easy as falling down a rabbit hole or into a volcano.

"It was a basement. And it was so scary," says Kiehart of the "before."


It was a basement's basement -- a dark, gritty space inhabited by a grotesque boiler and its minion of other, roaring, elderly, major appliances. Ductwork and pipes slipped through the space like tentacles. And the uneven concrete floor had pockmarks 8 inches deep.

"It felt dirty," says Kiehart, a designer by profession and mastermind of the conversion - which also involved a conversion of heart.

When Kiehart-Ballotti bought the row house six years ago, they intended to renovate it ad nauseam.

The place had 2,700 square feet on three levels (including the scary basement), ceilings of 10-feet-plus on the main floor, a double fireplace, a quaint garden and the almighty urban garage.

What it didn't have was a previous owner (for the last 40 years) who engaged in any serious remodeling.

From the beginning, Kiehart set her eye on the upstairs bedrooms with the intention of working down, through the entire house. She drew plans that upended that top floor.

But before the walls came down, the couple had an "aha!" moment.

"It just didn't feel right," says Kiehart of her big plans. They didn't know the Victorian well enough yet for such an invasion. And so, they decided to live in the house for a while and start renovating from the bottom up, where there were certifiable problems -- galore.


It was a gut job

Workers removed the basement's drop ceiling, exposing the 100-year-old wood beams.

They freed the brick and limestone walls of their yoke of bad paint and/or paint-with-tar. The sandblasting lasted days; the grit fell knee-deep. ("It was like a desert" in the basement, Kiehart says, and "all the way up the street, everybody's front lawn was all dusty. We bought everybody a bottle of wine.")

They evened out the concrete floor, replacing a small portion of it, and then laid the 18-inch-square Mexican pavers over the concrete.

They built a new staircase.

They replaced the windows (this is an English basement with windows at grade level that afford generous lookouts).

And while the basement was essentially one big room (with a few closets, a "nasty" bathroom and areas for laundry and a workroom), they cleaned up the openness. The space now reads: family room to the front, guest suite to the rear. Connecting them: a work/craft area with a vintage farm table and built-in pine bookshelves. Closets are built in along the sides of the space.

As for utilities, they got uplifted too. A new boiler, the size of a dishwasher, replaced the ol' monster one. And then there's a tankless water heater and stackable washer and dryer. All that and a utility sink now live in one small closet.


Furnishings: earthy and comfortable. A big leather armchair with lots of patina. A sofa bed with lots of cush. Play tables for their 3-year-old son, Roman, who is master of the universe down here. A simple bed and dresser for guests. A sampling of Ballotti's collection of guitars.

"We got a whole other level of living, and it's so fabulous to have Roman's toys down there," Kiehart says. And "in the summer, it's nice and cool."

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