Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photography by Edward Badham
A few years ago, when Brent and Karyn Uptain decided that they wanted to move out of their beloved but tiny Crestwood home, their realtor took them on a tour of a dozen houses. After seeing all of them, they asked to return to the first, a red-brick two-story Georgian in Forest Park. “The first time we saw it, we loved parts of it, but we were like, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s keep looking,’” Brent says. “Then we came back in our minds through the 12 houses we’d seen, and we said, ‘Wait, what about the first one?’ It was hard to remember because it was the very first house we saw. The very first house you see, you think, ‘Oh, it’s probably not going to be the one.’ So we came back here, and we were standing in the kitchen, and I said, “This is our house. I see all of the things now that I didn’t see before.’”
Brent, owner of Studio J Brent Architecture & Design, admits that he and Karyn initially had some hesitations—the house had been updated in some ways, but it still needed a lot of work and had its fair share of quirky features. “We were not interested in inheriting someone else’s problems,” Brent says. “But the house was right in the middle between being a house in fantastic condition that someone else had already done a lot of things to and a house that had tons of problems—it was a weird blend of the two. But it had that immediate charm and a great view down to the park and a great stature from the street.” In other words, they fell in love—with the house and with the idea of being a part of her history. “I am always careful of saying, ‘I own this house,’ because I actually feel like you can never own a house that’s like this,” Brent says. “You’re just taking care of it right now; it’s really not anybody’s house at this point, because it’s so old.”
And it was the quirks they fell in love with as well. An architect himself, Brent shares that the home is full of layered details worth discovering. “I love it because it’s an oddball house, oddball in the sense that when I first looked at it, [the fact that it was a] Georgian was the third thing I saw,” he says. “Because it was built in the ’20s, I see lots of details from that period that were kind of arts-and-crafts architecture: the way rooms were, the way the flow of the house was designed, the way openings were framed, the way certain details were completed. They’re not classical details—they’re arts-and-crafts details.
“So when you walk through this house, you think, ‘Well, this is actually a two-story bungalow with Georgian skin on it,’” he explains. “That’s what I thought was so quirky: They just kept building houses the way they had been building them, but sometimes, they said, ‘Let’s put columns on that one and make it a Georgian.’”
The details, including original oak floors, an oversized stairway landing (a perfect reading nook), and a breakfast room with a butler’s pantry, do their job of reminding you often that you’re in a home that has been standing for nearly a century. One of the more modern features, though, is one of the Uptains’ favorites and was a major selling point for them. The original master bedroom has been expanded to include a sitting area, where Brent keeps his master stereo system for his massive collection of CDs and albums, and a master bathroom, which the house didn’t have before the 2007 update. “It’s a great amenity to have. It’s a real closet and a real master bedroom, but it’s attached to this historic home,” Brent says. “And I’ll be honest—I’m an architect, and it took me three times looking at the house before I realized that there was an addition. So I love that it’s been added onto, but the addition is so carefully done that it doesn’t stick out as being new or different.”
Another feature that the Uptains now adore is the carriage house in the backyard. Brent estimates that it was added on as maid’s quarters sometime in the 1940s; there was even a call bell using a low-voltage wire that ran to the main house and connected in the kitchen. When the Uptains bought the house, the carriage house hadn’t been touched, Brent says, since maybe the 1960s. There was termite damage, decades-old carpet, and absolutely no insulation. In the spring of this year, they decided to take it on and renovate it as a studio for Brent’s architecture business. The project took five months and they ended up having to completely gut the carriage house (which has a three-car garage on the main level and a studio apartment upstairs.) Brent took this opportunity to leave his own mark on the house; the studio is peppered with accents in burnt orange, one of his favorite colors.
Though the studio is only 550 square feet, Brent has expertly maximized the space. Shaped like a kidney bean, one side offers a sitting area while the other houses Brent’s workspace plus a small eating space. In the middle is a completely updated full bathroom. And greeting you at the top of the stairs is a tall case of Brent’s music collection, complete with a library ladder. He knocked out the low ceiling in favor of opening up the space toward the vaulted roof, stabilized now with cables, an aesthetic and functional addition. “It’s neat because the shape of the outside is now the shape of the inside,” Brent explains.
The Uptains’ main goal as they’ve lived in their home is to allow the house to lead. They’ve tried not to make the house bend around their desires; rather, they’ve worked with the existing spaces—and yes, quirks—to enhance what’s been in place for a long time, like sourcing a narrower-than-normal sink for the downstairs powder room instead of widening the space by knocking down walls. Even their eclectic decorating style seems to shift and change to match each room as it fits; when in doubt, they let the house decide. “I don’t want a house that looks like everyone else’s house,” Brent says with a smile. “[We wanted to] make it a fun place to live without losing the integrity of the home, preserving the quirks and unique features that contain the charm of the house.”