Inside Mies van der Rohe's first high-rise, an eclectic marriage of style


Tim Samuelson initially discovered the apartment complex—a modernist skyscraper in Hyde Park with sweeping views of Lake Michigan—the way he learns about most things: by reading about it.

"I happened to be going through a book, and here's a picture of Mies van der Rohe's Promontory Apartments," says Samuelson, the city's official cultural historian, his voice imbued with some of the awe he must have felt back then, in 1996, chancing on the German-American architect's first high-rise. Samuelson had recently sold his house in Pullman, with plans to move to the north side. Alas, apartments in that area were prohibitively expensive. Units in the 1949 Mies building were more affordable. "Not only did it appeal to my background in architectural history, but here was a place where I could see the lake—something I always wanted to do."

Tim Samuelson and Barbara Koenen - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • Tim Samuelson and Barbara Koenen

Samuelson's job for the city involves researching, consulting, and curating, but also imbuing awe: for Chicago's buildings, forgotten stories, cultural history. He moved into a well-preserved 15th-floor condo and furnished it. Very carefully.

"I wanted everything just so. This was going to be a kind of showplace for Miesian simplicity and modernism," he says, confessing a tendency to line up the furniture with the cracks in the floor. "Then Barbara moved in with me."

Barbara is Barbara Koenen, an artist, budding arts entrepreneur, and recently retired city employee who for years facilitated a range of artist-centered events and initiatives for the Department of Cultural Affairs. She and Samuelson married in 2000, and she moved into his Promontory condo, bringing her own, more maximalist design sensibility. She's not someone compelled to line up the furniture just so.

"My motto, unlike Mies's, is 'more is more,'" she says. "But [Tim and I] have gotten to a nice equilibrium, with stuff of mine, stuff of Tim's, and stuff we came across together."

The couple's home decor is a blend of Koenen's art and Samuelson's cultural relics. - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • The couple's home decor is a blend of Koenen's art and Samuelson's cultural relics.

The consummate minimalism is gone, replaced by a warm, earthy blend of Koenen's art and Samuelson's cultural relics. There are framed works from her "war rugs" series—inspired by both the Afghani war rug tradition and Tibetan sand mandalas, except the sand is replaced by spices—as well as interesting sculptures by Chicago artists such as Adelheid Mers and Richard Rezac, bits of moss from trips to Maine, dried flowers, and stones. There's his midcentury-modern furniture, beautiful remnants from Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, and assorted oddments, like old matchbooks and Eliot Ness's handcuffs (found on eBay and engraved with the famed federal agent's initials).

"It's a really interesting blending of our stuff, our lives," Samuelson says. "A mixture that's still playing out as we speak."

"And always will be," Koenen adds with a laugh.

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