Lisa and Tom Schreiner have always loved the look of authentic Colonial houses in the Northeast and wanted a home like that in Illinois. So they recently built their own house about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, filling it with 18th-century details that reflect nearly 20 years of planning.
Symmetry and classical detailing mark Georgian style. The front facade features a central entry, paired chimneys and five window openings on the second story. Essential to the look are double-hung windows with divided lights.
Tom, who owns an industrial supply company, was a history major in college. "I have an affection for colonial history," he says, and he wanted a house that echoes this country's early years. Lisa shared Tom's vision. She created an "idea file" -- a collection of magazine clippings featuring historic Colonial homes.
During the holidays, Lisa fills the house with fresh-cut greens and other natural materials gathered from the landscape, much like the colonists would have done (except for the Puritans, who outlawed Christmas frivolity). A simple wreath with pinecones and berries welcomes visitors at the front door.
The Schreiners pull a freshly cut tree up to their house. Two towering Christmas trees are in the front rooms, but the family tries to keep the overall look elegant but understated.
A 6-foot-tall soldier at the front door introduces Lisa Schreiner's nutcracker collection. Inside, a legion of oversize nutcrackers stands sentry along the wide curved stairway in the center hall, honoring the family's German heritage.
Twin transoms highlight a passage linking the living room to the library paneled with African mahogany. In a modern twist, two panels open, revealing a TV niche. The spinning wheel is a 19th-century antique.
Designed by architect Joseph Coath in nearby Barrington, the house honors centuries-old building traditions to an extent rarely seen in modern construction, using fine-quality millwork and high-quality natural materials such as copper gutters and a cedar-shingle roof. But the house is not a precise replica of past designs -- accommodations were made to allow for a light-filled home where modern conveniences coexist comfortably with colonial elegance.
A 12-foot-wide central hallway stretches from the front entry to the back door. In colonial days, halls like this were places to conduct business.
The layout of the main living area is faithful to traditional Colonial architecture -- with the center hall going front to back between four rooms. But the doorways are more than twice as wide (double pocket doors are 7 feet wide), and the home's windows are much larger, creating a light-filled interior that celebrates the landscape.
Detailed millwork, authentic floors and colonial color are among the hallmarks of traditional Colonial style.
At the Schreiners' home, classically inspired, painted-poplar millwork defines most of the interior. Full-height raised paneling spans the fireplace walls in the living and dining rooms; elsewhere, paneled wainscot extends to a chair rail. You don't need custom millwork to get this look: Home improvement stores carry common Colonial designs. Check local millwork sources for inexpensive woods you can paint; avoid synthetic trim pieces that don't look as real and may dent easily.
Readily available, wide-plank flooring is key to Colonial design. The Schreiners chose random-width white oak, finishing it with tung oil for an authentic patina. If dogs or high heels will frequent floors, try a predistressed plank, so scratches blend in.
Chippendale chairs, a Federalist mahogany sideboard with inlay and a crystal chandelier deck the dining room. The walls are a deep red.
Color choice is important to give walls a period-perfect paint scheme. In modest colonial homes, creams, earth tones and gray-greens were common. More expensive pigments, especially rich blues and deep reds, dressed the elegant interiors of more well-to-do colonists.
Built-in shutters, elegant furniture and navy blue walls give the living room a formal look. Though they look authentic, many of the Schreiners' furnishings are antique reproductions. Look for furniture with simple curves and modest ornamentation, such as the Queen Anne sofa and tea table with cabriole legs in the living room.
An arched niche displays a collection of antique blue-and-white English transferware.
Lisa decorated most of the house herself, blending a few prized antiques with kid-friendly antique reproductions. "I tried to make it so the kids can go in any room and do anything they want," she says.
Even with modern appliances, a kitchen can have a historically inspired look. Try raised-panel cabinetry and a brick backsplash that recalls cooking-hearths of old. A mahogany island top contrasts with the black granite perimeter countertop.
A trestle table and an 18th-century reproduction chandelier highlight the breakfast room. While the home's large windows allow for lots of natural light, every windowsill also contains a tiny recessed light, which emulates the glow of a candle. The home has six wood-burning fireplaces, each with a gas starter, so the family enjoys a fire every day during the holiday season. It's a perfect way to take the morning chill off the breakfast room.
Paneled cabinetry matches wainscoting in the bath.
A crocheted canopy decorates a bedroom's pencil post bed.
The screened colonnade offers a covered passage to the garage.
The four-bay garage resembles an old carriage house, complete with an early American flag.
When friends visit for holiday cocktails or a taste of Lisa's Schwarzwalderkirschtorte (a Black Forest cherry cake), fires crackle in the dining and living rooms. In years past, the Schreiners have spent Christmas Day down south, relishing a warmer climate. Their new home offers another kind of warmth. "We're starting a new tradition," Lisa says. "This year, we're staying."
A version of this story originally was published in Midwest Living® November/December 2008.