But not Sherry O’Donnell and Gary Johnson’s 1973 townhouse, which was stuck in its own time warp.

“It was wall-to-wall white,” said O’Donnell. “Very sterile, with no personality at all.”

In 2009, the couple were looking for low-maintenance living when they came across a McNulty-built “courtyard” home in a secluded wooded development on a big walkout lot in Shorewood.

“We recognized the potential in the fabulous layout,” said O’Donnell. “And we could see beyond the popcorn ceilings.”

They moved into the lower level and immediately updated most of the main floor, combining their personal taste and style with 21st-century functionality.

For the townhouse makeover, architect Mark Kawell worked with the couple on a design that is “a contemporary interpretation of a Prairie-style home with warm woods and architectural structures,” he said.

To open up the living spaces, Kawell knocked down the wall (which was covered in ’70s-style bifold mirrors) that separated the original kitchen and dining room. By doing so, he created a massive great room. In that wide-open space, he carved out four distinct spaces — living room, dining room, bar and kitchen — by strategically placing stucco-covered pilasters, built-in cabinets and ambient lighting. “Pilasters are a good way to define space without walls,” he said.

Kawell also painted the ceilings and walls the same soft shade of sage. “This is classic in Prairie School-style homes,” said Kawell. “It creates uniformity and the eye picks up the woodwork.”

As a final cohesive element, he used continuous mahogany trim to tie all the spaces together. “We wanted a great room that didn’t feel like a bowling alley,” said Johnson.


Raising the bar

Because they wanted a gathering place to draw guests out of the kitchen when they entertained, O’Donnell and Johnson decided to splurge on a freestanding, African mahogany and granite bar.

“It’s like homes in Arizona where they have a beautiful wood bar right smack in the middle of the house because there are no basements,” said O’Donnell.

Next to the bar, a built-in lit glass cabinet creates a visual break between the bar and the new, larger kitchen.

Kawell replaced the kitchen’s 1970s aesthetic (wood parquet floors and laminate countertops) with a curved, granite-topped island, a colorful glass-tile backsplash and vertical grain mahogany cabinets.

To make the kitchen look and feel a part of the great room, the refrigerator is hidden behind wood panels and the microwave is tucked under the counter. “It’s laid out really nicely and I have lots of elbow room,” said Johnson, the cook in the family.

The original living room fireplace, finished in a bland white tile, was sorely due for a facelift. Kawell made it the anchor of the new open space by converting it to gas, raising the hearth and embellishing it with an earth-toned slate surround.

Kawell warmed up a stark white metal staircase dividing the living areas from the bedrooms by painting the spindles bronze and wrapping the railings, banisters and columns in mahogany. “By making sure function and design work together, we’ve given the new spaces a timeless quality,” he said.

After the great room area was finished, the couple tackled other parts of the 4,000-square-foot two-level townhouse, including scraping, smooth-coating and painting the popcorn ceilings in every room. They removed several of the home’s sliding doors, because “people didn’t know where to come and go,” said Johnson, and replaced them with windows.

Johnson and O’Donnell were fortunate to have a solid structure and smart layout as a starting point for refreshing their dated townhouse.

“We thought we’d just do a little cosmetic updating,” said Johnson. “Then we got on a roll and couldn’t stop.”