David Teplica has Helen Brach's sink. Apparently, one of the many things the candy heiress left behind when she disappeared in 1977 was an American art deco fixture in precisely the right style, vintage, and shade of white to go with the milky glass walls in one of the bathrooms at Teplica's 98-year-old north-side mansion. He tried to get by with French deco porcelain at first, but the color was wrong. Brach's basin was perfect, right down to the two little pegs in its feet that matched up so satisfyingly with two old dents in the bathroom floor.
Details like those pegs have been Teplica's obsession since he bought the mansion he shares with his partner, Kalev Peekna, in 1997. Designed by the prestigious firm of Schmidt, Garden & Martin, the place first belonged to Levant M. Richardson, who made his fortune on a patent for the use of ball bearings in roller skate wheels. Teplica supposes the house—near what was then the lakefront—served as Richardson's "little getaway" from the stresses of life downtown.
If so, it's an awfully formidable-looking little getaway: a fortress of rough-hewn granite blocks with Romanesque arches, copper roofing, and windows topped in leaded glass. It's changed hands a number of times over the decades, at one point serving as quarters for a Catholic order, the Redemptorist Fathers, which installed institutional cabinets in the kitchen, stand-up shower stalls in the bathrooms, and a hallway between the main building and the coach house. A longtime neighbor says they also—appropriately—roller skated in the basement.
By the time Teplica got hold of it "it was filthy," he recalls. Worse, it was gauche in a particularly horrific 70s manner. "Zigzag brown foil wallpaper.... Olive green shag carpeting. Some pretty tragic stuff.
"But my dad was a restoration architect," Teplica says, "and so when I walked in I knew the potential. I was sort of trained by dad to see through to the fact that all the finishes on the wood were original, and all the plaster was original, and many of the fixtures."
A plastic surgeon who's also achieved some success as a photographic artist (he's got a show up through May 3 at the Diane Tanios Gallery, 3243 N. Broadway), Teplica paid what now seems like a ridiculously low $650,000 for the property—about 15,000 square feet of house on six city lots—and estimates that he's spent an equal amount restoring it to a near-as-humanly-possible approximation of its former splendor. The effort has included months spent cleaning rooms full of tiger stripe oak or burled walnut paneling with cotton squibs and distilled water to bring out grime-obscured grain without disturbing the original amber shellac. Teplica brought his father, Joseph, in from Pennsylvania to supervise. "He had very advanced heart disease so he couldn't personally do much," Teplica says, "but he could watch to be sure that everything was happening correctly." It turned out to be Joseph Teplica's final restoration; he died at 70 in 2000.
Teplica's made himself an expert on the mansion's life and times, interviewing the descendants of one of the early owners; "picking the brains"—and inventories—of dealers; and making pilgrimages to roughly contemporary homes like the Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where he was gratified to find they have the same style of laundry tubs he does. Standing in the mansion's Celtic-themed English Renaissance entryway—which he believes Richardson plucked from some British stately home and put back together here—Teplica points out the invisible sights, saying, "I'm told there was a huge grandfather clock right there... an Egyptian Revival recamier there..."
Above his head hangs an enormous light fixture in the lantern style he says jibes authentically with the entryway's overall aesthetic. It took him five years to find that lantern, with just the right finials, dentals, and acanthus scrolling—and then another three to track down the canopy (from Brussels) and chain (from an Indiana farm) to go with it. Asked if he has a timeline in mind for completing the restoration, Teplica laughs and estimates it will go on for a few years after he's dead. After all, there's still some shag carpeting to be pulled out, and those Redemptorist cabinets in the kitchen, and always the possibility of trading up to something more perfect. "So," he says, "I'm not imagining there will be an end to this."v