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A Place for All Seasons
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A Place for All Seasons

With its elegant structures, extensive sculpture gardens, beautiful watershapes and exquisitely maintained grounds, this 12-1/2-acre estate in Highland Park, Ill., is the product of two decades of ongoing design work by architects and environmental designers Suzanne and Ron Dirsmith. Among the many works of art and perfectly scaled amenities placed on the property, the project’s pool and spa create spectacular spaces for relaxation or exercise.

With its elegant structures, extensive sculpture gardens, beautiful watershapes and exquisitely maintained grounds, this 12-1/2-acre estate in Highland Park, Ill., is the product of two decades of ongoing design work by architects and environmental designers Suzanne and Ron Dirsmith.  Among the many works of art and perfectly scaled amenities placed on the property, the project's pool and spa create spectacular spaces for relaxation or exercise.

Water can be a central feature of any design, but in many cases it is just one element among many of equal (if not greater) importance.

In the case of the project pictured here, the owners, a gentle and loving family, established and have maintained a vision of just the sort of warm and nurturing home and landscape they wanted, one in which the lives of family members and friends would be sustained, enriched and enlivened. Their vision (and their involvement with us) might have begun with the water, but it has since expanded to include nearly every detail of the property’s interior and exterior spaces.

Our clients believe, as do we, that there is a natural order to the universe and that the “built environments” we create can confine us or free us, starve us or nurture us. As we move through our lives, our simple challenge is to live and love, work and play in settings that offer emphatic expressions of our essential humanity. In other words, what we build and create forever shapes our lives on a variety of physical and spiritual levels.

So while this property plainly has a beautiful swimming pool and spa and those features are important elements in the overall environment, what is more important is how the element of water is used to meet the spatial and spiritual needs of the clients and how it enhances all of the places they choose to occupy.

Taken out of context, that may sound a little high flown – so let’s bring it down to street level with a look at the entire project and how it’s come together through the past 20 years.


The clients first contacted us in 1980 after they’d seen television and magazine coverage of the work we’d done for Hugh Hefner and had attended a wedding at Chicago’s North Shore Unitarian Church, which we had also designed. Once they tracked us down, which wasn’t hard given the fact that we’re located in the same city, they asked us to create an indoor environment centered around a family swimming pool.

They told us up front that they wanted some of the same sense of fun, interest and mystery they had seen in our other projects. So we visited the house, a large, 1950s-vintage builder’s home set on a 2-1/2-acre lot surrounded by native woods and a pair of golf courses.

At that point, the family had lived in the home for about two years, and the owners were ready to expand and upgrade the place in a variety of ways. We were told that the swimming pool and spa environments were to be the first in a series of projects that ultimately would bind us together with these clients for two decades. During that time, we also designed and built a large home at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic for them, along with a substantial estate on a private island near Boca Raton, Fla.


Our work on this property bagan more than 20 years ago, when we were called in to design a set of indoor watershapes. From the outset, we strove to make the pool and waterfall and their surroundings seem a natural expression of the land — right doiwn to the elaborately patterned terrazzo decking.

The father, a native Chicagoan like us, is a hugely successful industrialist who runs worldwide manufacturing and distribution facilities for his unique line of products. He’s a quiet, shy, gentle person who treasures privacy; he and his family are all well-educated world travelers who have amassed a marvelous collection of fine and contemporary art including works by Picasso, Calder, Liechtenstein and many others.

One of our ongoing challenges has been to create environments for the family’s ever-growing collection of indoor artwork and outdoor sculpture.

As we do with all of our clients, we spent a considerable amount of time initially just talking with them, getting to know them personally and coming to understand what they had in mind for their home and property. In this first set of encounters, our discussions covered how the swimming pool and spa complex would be used throughout the seasons.

We soon learned that they were true nature lovers and, as such, wanted watershapes that would fit in seamlessly within the fabric of their land and home while providing the qualities of mystery, delight and comfort they wanted for themselves.


The pool and spa environments were to be enjoyable, but they had to “relate” to their majestic surroundings.

We set it up with a gentle, organic, intimate shape with a depth ranging from 3-1/2 to 5 feet. We find in many circumstances that this shallow depth is a practical, physical ideal for our clients. It allows the entirety of the pool to be used by everyone for swimming, games, floating, talking or simply walking around. It’s also cost-efficient in terms of heating, recirculation and chemical treatment.

Inside and outside the pool and spa, we set up a variety of seating ledges and alcoves and what we call “fun niches.” These are places where one lies back against the pool edge and looks up at the sky through skylights or reflects on nature as it is seen through large sliding-glass walls.

There’s also a large stone seat/ledge located under a waterfall on the deck next to the recessed spa. This seat was constructed from a single slab measuring roughly six by nine feet and looks as though it had been broken away from a large mountain outcropping. In the hydrotherapy spa, there’s a special spot with a specially designed array of jets that lift the body on a soothing surge of bubbles and warm streams of water.


Where the pool and waterfall are surrounded by glass and participate directly in the environment, the spa is off to the side – a private space meant for comfort, relaxation and therapy. The skylight above invites the sun into the space while offering spectacular views of the night sky.

And this was just the beginning: The real fun and magic came in blending these watershapes into the natural surroundings. Indeed, everything about this initial phase of our work keyed on the clients’ desire to bring nature together with the aquatic environment in interesting ways. So throughout the design, we blended stone, wood and metal to create a harmony between the built environment and the natural world.

When we were just getting started, the clients offered us their little plan sketch of a rectangular space that was to house the swimming pool. We worked from that simple concept, adding a range of features including stone waterfalls, skylights, lighting and a variety of warm natural materials and textures.

The spa, for example, is embraced by the gently flowing lines of weathered-edge Wisconsin dolomitic limestone and sits beneath a shingle-lined skylight that opens like a flume to the sky above. The ceiling is surfaced with wood – a band-sawn, beveled cedar that covers the space in an intricate, mitered pattern that is graceful yet warm and nurturing.


We carried this sense of the natural into every detail of the setting.

The pool decks and pool interior, for example, are all poured and finished in rustic terrazzo forms – a mix of Algonquin River pea gravel along with ox-blood (red) and obsidian (black) tumbled marble chips. Linear slot drains run along the edges between inset planter beds that feature lush tropical plantings, including areca palms, pothos, ferns and ivy. A series of smaller bronze mirror-banded skylights offer warm reflections of the sun, sky, trees, birds, rain or moon.


As our clients acquired neighboring properties and expanded their estate, they called on us to take every advantage of the inside-to-outside views that became available. In some directions, the greenery is right up front, sheltering the indoor spaces; in others, the vistas spread dramatically across the sculpture garden and into the distant trees.

When the weather is clear, natural light and motion encroach upon the interior environment, bouncing off the swirling and rippling water surfaces while throwing complex reflections onto the surrounding stonework, plantings and wooden ceiling. When the weather turns, one can look up and see soft, delicate snowflakes falling on the glass overheard before they melt and run off in ever-changing traceries.

Sometimes these views of nature are gentle and retiring, other times they are wild and exciting. No matter the season, there’s always something different and intriguing going on.

The Hot Seat

The spa mentioned in the accompanying story was designed to seat ten people comfortably. Among its many features is a single hydrotherapy seat of which we are particularly proud.

In all, ten special jets pulsate, spin and gently massage the body here. The array of jets includes two in the floor under the feet; two in the lower seat wall behind the calves; two in the seat under the thighs; two in the upper wall in the lower back/lumbar region; and two just below the waterline that course across the upper back, neck and shoulders.

The whole of the spa, however, does the job of providing wondrous hydrotherapy massage in all seating positions – and all enjoy unique views of the surrounding structure’s interior as well as the delightful exterior views found through the glass-paneled walls.

— S. & R.D.

The natatorium itself is wrapped around a huge, 150-year-old oak tree. Some of the large glass windows are frameless and seem to disappear into the surrounding landscape. And from any viewpoint within the building, one can enjoy views of the sculpture gardens, paths and axial views we created around the structure.

The pool/spa facility also includes a full kitchen, two wood-paneled shower and dressing rooms with cedar ceilings rising up to skylights, a full-sized sauna, and a special room that’s used for a variety of functions. Finally, there is a special sound/television system distributed throughout the space for all to enjoy.

The pool and spa facility turned out beautifully and the clients were thrilled. We had no thought at the time that we’d be asked to do anything more on the property, nor did we have the sense that this project was only the beginning of what was to become a long and fruitful relationship.


About two years after we completed the pool/spa facility, the owners contacted us again and asked us what we thought we might do if they were able to purchase two acres of property directly to the west of their existing land. At the time, this land was part of a 10-acre parcel owned by an elderly woman who had been born and raised there. She was a person of agile mind and great spirit – and owner of the largest single parcel still available in Highland Park.

Our clients explained that they had been trying to purchase the land from their neighbor for a couple of years, but that she was reluctant because she didn’t want to see her family’s land “developed” in the usual way, with rows of townhouses or condos facing the golf courses. She was open-minded, however, and told our clients she might be willing to sell once she saw what they intended to do with the space.

We went right to work and prepared some sketches. Our idea was to open up a long axial view from the main house and set up a system of jogging trails and rustic pathways through the heavily wooded space. We also drew in pieces of outdoor sculpture, integrating the new space into a sculpture-garden concept for the overall property.


By no means was our work on the estate limited to interior spaces or the immediate vicinity of the home. We designed the entire property to establish and take spectacular advantage of the long and short views that were available to us – and to place a large number of artworks in an array of appropriate settings.

Based on the drawings, the woman agreed to let our clients purchase the property. During the next 18 months, we developed the space per plan – but with about eight times the amount of sculpture! The new space became a natural extension of the stylized outdoor environment on the existing property, and their neighbor was thrilled to see land that had been so much a part of her life and family being used in such a harmonious and natural way.

Before long, our clients offered to purchase the eight acres she still had. She wasn’t ready for so dramatic a step, but she did agree to sell another 2-1/2-acre parcel and again waited to see what we’d do with it.

As things would have it, we had just finished planting an enormous stand of trees that included a variety of 18- to 24-foot evergreen trees at the end of the long view from our clients’ home. Nestled along the walkways and jogging trails were flows of flowering shrubs and ground covers, all augmented with landscape lighting, benches and about a dozen pieces of sculpture set into the landscape.

It was really beautiful, but we’d set it up as complete, never considering that we’d have another few acres to include in the program.


We weren’t sure how to proceed at first, but our clients ran right past our hesitation, agreeing to extend the program we’d developed to include the new acreage. So we extended the pathways, trails and lighting circuits, opening additional views into a variety of natural and sculptured alcoves.

Mirror Magic

Through decades of design experimentation and observation, we’ve discovered the special mystery and magic that can be gained through the careful use of mirrors.

In the project described in the accompanying text, for example, the skylights in the ceiling of the pool and spa housing are banded on their four vertical sides with mirrors. This creates an interesting effect where it appears as though there is no ceiling structure around the skylights and that the space is simply open to the sky.

As the sunlight moves across the sky (and as it changes its arc throughout the year), the reflections of the sky transmitted into the interior space by these mirrored surfaces are never the same – an ongoing, ever-changing, mysterious cascade of light that plays on interior wood, rock, plant life, metal and water. The same is true at night, as subtle reflections of moonlight caress the interior surfaces with a constantly changing interplay of light and reflection.

Any outdoor motion, from falling snow to wind-rustled tree branches, adds another dimension of mystery and variety – an effect that is particularly compelling at night as the up-lighting in the massive oak trees that embrace the building is reflected into the space via the skylight mirrors.

— S. & R. D.

We hung 70-foot rope swings on the limbs of 200-hundred year old oak trees and created a variety of seating niches and shorter vistas that capitalized on a number of special sight lines on the property. As for the stand of trees we’d just planted, we simply picked them up and moved them another 400 feet to the west, opening up a breathtaking view from the house even more effectively.

As the property was being developed and expanded in terms of the exterior gardens and landscaping, each and every section of the main house was also being carefully remodeled and expanded to take advantage of the new views we were establishing.

Before too many more years passed, our clients bought the whole of the adjoining estate. With each increment, they’ve more fully realized their dream of having a home environment that integrates nature with their living spaces – and does so gracefully through all seasons.

For us, the project began with watershapes and took off from there as an expanding canvas of natural beauty, sculptural art and architectural ingenuity. In all, it was an exceptional project. As designers and builders of spaces for humans to experience, we could scarcely ask for anything more.

Ron Dirsmith is principal architect and cofounder of The Dirsmith Group, an architecture firm based in Highland Park, Ill.,with operations worldwide. He and wife Suzanne established the firm in 1971 following employment with the prestigious firms Perkins and Will and Ed Dart Inc. He has a BS in Architectural Engineering and a Masters in Architecture and Design from the University of Illinois. He is also a Fellow in Architecture of the American Academy in Rome, which for more than 100 years has been a research and study center for America’s most promising artists and scholars. Dirsmith is one of only 172 architects to have been granted this honor. Suzanne Roe Dirsmith, president of the firm, holds a BS in Education from the University of Illinois and a Masters in Education from National-Louis University. She heads the education division of The Dirsmith Group, an effort dedicated to forwarding design and architecture education within the architectural community and to foster new thinking and raise awareness of architecture and landscape design as a blended whole.

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