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Stunning 'Ferris Bueller' Glass House Gets New Life With Major Restoration

By Linze Rice | June 8, 2017 5:28am
 The Highland Park home used as the scene of character Cameron Frye's home, where he infamously (and accidentally) launched his father's vintage car out a window and into the ravine below.
Cameron's House
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HIGHLAND PARK — The famous glass and steel home that served as the set for Cameron Frye's house in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is undergoing a historic renovation — and it's not because a bright red Ferrari crashed through one of its windows.

The Highland Park home and pavilion were featured as hypochondriac Cameron's house — and his father's car showroom — in the classic 1986 John Hughes film, though its back story stretches far beyond the well-known movie. 

In fact, the North Shore structure already had been famous for 30 years in the architecture world before Ferris and Cameron included it on their list of hooky hangouts and when the 250 GT California Spyder the two "borrowed" from Cameron's dad smashed through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The home was built in 1953 and designed by A. James Speyer, a student of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose linear, steel-heavy buildings like Downtown's Kluczynski Federal Building, IBM building and much of the Illinois Institute for Technology's campus would inspire new generations of design and architecture.

Speyer's midcentury modern house that sits surrounded by trees in a ravine was held up as a model for steel home craftsmanship. 

"There's that cultural connection people make back to the house because of the movie, but for us, that's sort of a fringe thing," said Jim Baranski, principal at Baranski, Hammer, Moretta & Sheehy Architects & Planners, a Chicago/Galena-based firm overseeing the renovations.

"It's a very valuable, important piece of midcentury architecture."

After the house was built, Speyer went on to serve as a curator for the Art Institute of Chicago for the rest of his career, but Speyer mentored architects, too. In 1974, Speyer's protégé David Haid created a pavilion on the grounds of the home.

Set over a ravine about 30 feet below, the addition acted as a garage for homeowner Ben Rose's personal auto collection — which was also the case in Hughes' movie. 

(Story continues below)The infamous car scene taking from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" that took place in the pavilion. [YouTube]The actual inside of the pavilion. Currently it's being used for storage. [Provided/Baranski, Hammer, Moretta & Sheehy Architects & Planners]The pavilion overhanging a ravine below. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

When Rose died in 2009, the home's future suddenly became uncertain. 

It hit the market that year at $2.3 million, and its price slowly fell until 2011, when its listing had dropped to $1.65 million. 

Faced with the threat of demolition, the home eventually wound up on preservation group Landmark Illinois' list of endangered buildings.

Despite its iconic status, the few inquires came from buyers looking to tear the residence down, Baranski said.

Despite its rich history, there was no question the house was in physical despair and lacked standards of modern living.

For example, the home's interior temperature couldn't raise above 52 degrees, Baranski said. While the floor-to-ceiling glass provided phenomenal views, the single-pane windows did little for keeping the house consistently warm or cold. 

Similarly, its steel beams served as a "thermal bridge" between external and internal temperatures, Baranski said — a problem also found on the raised home's floors.

At some point, the original Rose family installed a duct cooling system, however it was added to the home's exposed underbelly and ultimately did little to remedy the temperature problem. 

The fact that the property contained two separate parcels was also listed as a challenge in selling over the years. 

Originally designed as a car showroom, the pavilion also houses a kitchenette and bathroom. 

New owners would not only have to figure out what to do with the two entities, but also deal with the ongoing flow of curious fans who track the home down. 

Still, it was worthy of saving, Baranski said. 

"I live in Galena. ... Basically, in order to tear a building down here you have to get permission from God," he said. "It just doesn't happen." 

(Story continues below)The home's original exterior. [Provided/Baranski, Hammer, Moretta & Sheehy Architects & Planners]A new underground living space and two-car garage is the biggest part of its renovation. [Provided/Baranski, Hammer, Moretta & Sheehy Architects & Planners]The raised homes, single-pane windows and steel bars make the home difficult to heat or cool properly. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

The property reappeared on the market in 2013 for $1.5 million, and in 2014 a couple stepped up to save it. They purchased the home for just over $1 million.

Baranski said the new owners understood and embraced the property's significance in both pop culture and architecture. 

As they wait to move in, the home is a bustling construction site, with crews helping to not only make the space livable for its new family, but also revive the vision of its creators. The architecture firm declined to reveal how much the renovation will cost.

Though most of the work will be done on the inside or underneath the home, Baranski's firm is replacing all the windows with thermal glass, insulating the top and bottom of the house and adding an in-floor hot water radiator system. 

Baranski's team will also restore the structure's steel beams back to their original brick-red color, a welcome change to the charcoal-colored paint added some time before the pavilion was built.

The most extensive part of the renovation is the construction of an underground living space and garage.

At some point in the 1980s the small contained a separate garage, but it was later removed.

Currently workers are digging a 15-foot trench under the house that will become a two-car garage, children's play area, storage space and laundry room. However its submerged configuration will keep it almost completely hidden.

The home's pavilion, now being used for storage, will remain and likely be used as a guest house or for additional space, builders said.

It's been a demanding renovation, but an opportunity Baranski said he and the homeowners are happy to take on. 

"This house was very close to being torn down, and that's sort of an issue on the North Shore and in the Northwest suburbs in general: Where people are looking at historic houses and saying, 'OK it's not worth it, we'll tear it down and build some new thing,'" Baranski said. "We're trying to make a point that says, 'Look, these houses can be saved.'"

"If you think about it hard enough, and you're creative enough, you can make these houses livable for the next hundred years."

Photos by DNAinfo/Linze Rice or provided by Baranski, Hammer, Moretta & Sheehy Architects & Planners. See more in our slideshow above.