BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
No one knows Lincoln Park’s secret streets sprinkled with palatial homes better than Rodger Owen. In his 30-plus years of building many of the most marvelous, he describes his construction of custom homes as giving families exactly what they want.
Although his firm, BGD&C, also builds in the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, where he lives with his wife, Janet, is closest to his heart: “When Janet and I sit outside we can still hear crickets. We are just six to eight blocks from the lakefront, but there is so much less noise and congestion.”
German families built early homes along the lakefront in the area while farms occupied the land further west. After the Chicago Fire of 1871, the neighborhood to the west was claimed by workers recruited to the new factories in the area or perhaps became employees of grand Gold Coast families who wanted them to live close by. You can still find small homes with large garages when chauffeurs lived and housed a Gold Coast carriage. It grew to be a neighborhood diverse in architectural styles in the late 1890s, with neoclassical homes reflecting the World’s Columbian Exposition alongside Queen Anne style and Italianate designs. Bordered by Lincoln Park on the east, Clybourn on the west, and stretching from Diversey to North Avenue, landmark pockets remain to remind residents of earlier days.
Rodger shared some perspective on the neighborhood’s history when it comes to buying and building:
“In the at least 30 years that I have built custom homes there, the whole market has changed. At first, people went to the neighborhood looking for lower pricing. They might tear out a bathroom or do a new kitchen, but that was usually the extent of their changes.
“The next wave of owners would tear more out. Finally, there was a period of total gutting of existing homes. We have now moved to new construction. Although there is not much vacant land, there are still a few frame structures that do not have much residential or historic value as well as vacant land, some doublewide lots. People in the market know that Lincoln Park offers less congestion, less noise, and a little more space.”
Affable and wise, Rodger is one of our town’s best listeners, a quality that suits his career. Realtors use words like “transparent” and “down to earth” to describe him. Schooled in the South of France and in Madrid through special programs in high school and college, a thousand years of European architecture and history have continued to fascinate him:
“There’s not a specific style that attracts me, but I do enjoy details and symmetry—the way things are put together and the reasons for that. When you stand out in front of a house, you see how many elements have to work to make it right. Whether you are setting a table or arranging flowers, you want a sense of order. Some asymmetry is good, but it takes talent to get it right.
“Janet and I love to travel. When we see houses and cathedrals from so long ago, I see so much detail—I see the painstaking process the builders had to use.”
Rodger says that 99 percent of Lincoln Park properties are customized for the owner, with only one percent custom built. About 20 percent of his clients already own the land where they would like to build. Rodger himself has an inventory of properties in the area. BGD&C does it all according to their clients’ specifications: design, architecture, engineering, and construction. And many of these partnerships have become lasting friendships.
“Most of my clients are families that need space for their children—whether very young or teenagers. They want yard space for the kids to enjoy being outside. They like looking at a restful garden, such as the ones Scott Byron often designs for us, or eating alfresco. Most have a strong and sophisticated idea of what they are looking for and come in with tear-outs, photos, or designs they like. Some have gone on Houzz, which has millions of photos of just about everything you can imagine.
“Since we start with no preconceived ideas or drawings, a whole lot of effort goes into the project. Every nut, bolt, screw, color, where you want the light switch to be, and on and on: these are client choices. We take great pride and satisfaction in the actual work, what you can touch and see. Watching it come out of the ground is terrific.”
As the top realtor in Chicago in luxury real estate sales for 20 consecutive years, Janet knows what she is talking about when she describes her husband’s homes:
“As a loving wife, I can tell you that each home is like a piece of art. I have often told him that he should sign a little brick somewhere on the exterior of each home, just as artists sign their work. His heart is truly in each home. His houses are not only built for life with every detail carefully thought out, but they are built for living.”
To Rodger, the floor plan is the most important: “If the space flows properly, you can do a lot more in less space. A house should not be cut up into lots of small rooms.”
Rodger was inducted into the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame along with Holly Hunt and Margaret McCurry a few years ago. He has served on the Board of Bright Promises Foundation for over 30 years and continues to volunteer for Lake Forest Academy. And as a volunteer in his own community, Rodger has been instrumental in constructive change.
“Not only do Janet and I enjoy living in Lincoln Park, which is like living in a ‘village within the city,’ I have a real sense of commitment to the neighborhood. Most of my homes are in Lincoln Park, and I not only enjoy giving back to the area that has been so good to me but also to be involved in the real heartbeat of Lincoln Park. Helping keep it a wonderful place to live is so important to me. Being a past president of Lincoln Central Association continues to remind me of how lucky I am to live and work here.”
Beyond his love for Lincoln Park, Rodger has a passion for sailing. “I learned to sail when I was very young, attending Culver Naval Academy during the summers. I have loved it ever since,” he shares. “Now that we live in Chicago, I get a real kick out of just being out there on our beautiful lake, the sense of pure relaxation and relying on the wind. Watching the skyline lights go on from the lake is a real added bonus. My wife and I love to entertain friends on the boat, too.”
But when the boat moors, Lincoln Park is where you will find Rodger.