Michael Walczak may only be 30 years old, but he always tells people he's been doing this—"this" being building and development—for 20 years. "I grew up in the business and he always took me to work and showed me the ropes," Walczak says about his dad, who emigrated to Chicago from Poland "with five bucks in his pocket," founded a construction company, and eventually grew it to more than 100 employees.
Despite this, and the fact that his grandfather, too, had been a builder in Poland, Walczak wasn't always convinced that he should follow in the family footsteps. He ventured out on his own for a bit to study finance and entrepreneurship at Boston University, and at one point thought he might become a doctor—"but things didn't work out so I went the business route. I'm a little queasy when it comes to blood, so it definitely was not the right industry for me," he says.
Returning to Chicago after college, Walczak became a real estate broker; however, this move didn't satisfy him professionally. "I saw my dad building anything from single-family [homes] to multi-units to restoring landmarks and I thought it was very cool," he says, "and I didn't just want to be on the sidelines not getting my hands dirty. I like seeing a project go from start to finish—for me there's more satisfaction in building a house or rehabbing a house or building condos and making people happy, than just buying and selling real estate." Walczak worked for his dad for a couple of years and then branched out on his own to found Stratum Builders, a Chicago construction and development firm, in 2011, where—as a truly sweet plot twist in this "American dream," as Walczak calls it—he now employs his dad as lead project manager.
Stratum now has five full-time employees, including an in-house architect and an in-house designer. Projects range from ground-up custom homes (Walczak says they're currently working on an eight-bedroom "dream house" for a husband and wife) and spec projects (like a 5,200-square-foot house, also in the works) to condos, renovations, and historically sensitive rehabs.
It's that last category that has garnered Stratum the most attention; in May, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks awarded Walczak's restoration of his own home, an 1894 Romanesque Revival in Wicker Park, one of 14 citywide Preservation Excellence Awards (honoring "significant contributions to the preservation of the City's historic buildings and places"). When Walczak closed on the property, in Jan. 2011, the 4,600-square-foot structure had nearly 20 building violations on it. "If a building has that many violations and the owner refuses to do anything, the city would actually demo it, but because this was landmark they couldn't," he explains. "The previous owner gave up on it and he had to sell it; we went in and we did that project in four months." Below, a breakdown of that project:
? FRONT FAÇADE: "We couldn't do anything to the stone," Walczak says, so they cleaned the façade—"a power wash, and we scrubbed down by hand every single piece of stone on the façade and basically beautified the building." The team also cleaned out all the curved-glass windows, replaced the broken ones, and restored the original doors. "They were crooked, they were bent out of shape, the windows were broken, and we stripped them all down, took hundreds of nails out, and rehung them on the original frame, which we also fixed and restored," he explains. "We brought those to a specialty carpenter who deals with this kind of stuff and they repaired them and reglazed them." Though there were no photos of the home in its original state, the team researched "what the neighborhood had and what these old houses had," and worked with the landmarks commission to recreate the staircase the way it would have looked 120 years ago. "We basically modernized a building that was 120 years old so it became your 21st-century, brand-new house with a good structure and old bones on the outside," Walczak summarizes. "It has curves, it has beautiful stonework. They don't do that kind of stuff anymore. I wish we built these kinds of buildings now, but at least the true craftstmanship that actually went into building this house now shows."
? INTERIORS: "We demo'd the entire house on the inside," says Walczak, "so there was nothing left except for three exterior walls. We ripped out the back, so the back wall was obviously blown out." All-new plumbing, electrical and mechanical wiring, dry wall, and finishes replaced what had been a decrepit, decaying space. Walczak, who had previously lived in a "bachelor pad"—"very modern, clean lines, floor-to-ceiling windows, lots of glass, open staircase"—before he met his wife, appreciates the more traditional feel of this home. "Our new house has triple crown moldings, 10-inch baseboards, wide plank floors," he says. "It's not like your 'tacky' traditional—it's more, well, traditional with a modern, clean touch on it."
? WINDOWS: "We took out every every single indiviudal sash and treated them, repaired them, and grooved them. We put in double-pane glass windows so the building would be energy efficient," Walczak explains. "We basically built a brand-new house on the inside of a structure that was 120 years old." The effect of the generously proportioned windows can be felt throughout the interiors, including here, in the light and spacious dining room.
? KITCHEN: The newly remodeled kitchen features a stately coffered ceiling, paneled cabinetry, and a large island. "It's a great house, and I can't imagine living elsewhere," Walczak says. "I think it's going to be a family home for a very long time." The project has also been nominated for a Richard H. Driehaus Preservation Award, a statewide honor from Landmarks Illinois and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. This year's winners will be announced in fall.