A MID-CENTURY RETREAT
Why has mid-century modern, or #mcm in the parlance of our times, made such a resurgence? For Chris Barker, the bass player better known as “Chris Number Two” to his Anti-Flag fans, the answer is the combination of aesthetic forms and function. “Of course, I liked Mad Men, but the thing that I like about mid-century modern is that it’s utilitarian. You’re supposed to put your feet on it. You’re supposed to use it. I grew up in an Italian family, with a room with plastic slip covers and furniture no one was supposed to touch. I don’t want anything I’m nervous about in my own home.”
Chris and Jane Hallinan’s current mid-century home is a far cry from their previous home in upper Lawrenceville. Longtime city dwellers, they both loved the urban appeal of their industrial rowhome. Jane biked to work at the Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh office, and they could take Judy the Pug on a myriad of different walks. They had coffee shops, vegan food, and entertainment at their fingertips, and most importantly, they could walk to several of Relish’s donut delivery spots [author’s note: we’re all sorely missing those donut drop-offs].
They also had a streetlight shining in their bedroom window and felt the neighborhood starting to change in ways that compromised its charms. When ground broke on a large condominium project, Chris’s itch to move became stronger. As brick dust from their industrial, exposed walls continued to fall on his collection of mid-century modern furniture, he longed for a home that would be a better match stylistically. Jane took some convincing, but eventually, the house-hunt began in earnest.
“I’m not a hippie about most things, but when it comes to houses, you have to feel something,” he explained. In searching for a home, they really searched for the home, not a specific area, and when they found an Allison Park listing with a wall of windows, a forest view and a greenhouse, they felt something. Once they stepped into the door, there was that anticipated feeling. For Chris, it was the wall of windows, and for Jane, it was the second-story greenhouse. They were sold, and so was the house.
“When I make big life changes, I tend to have some knee-jerk reactions. We went from a Lawrenceville row house to all this space and two acres of land. There was no middle ground.” Their big jump to the suburbs was not without its pains. They miss the offerings and walkability of Lawrenceville, but what they’ve gained is a house that’s true to its bones and a home that feels like a retreat. Most of the home is original to its 1957 build date, with a few minor exceptions. With each dog walk, they’re also proving to their neighbors that the area is more walkable than people might expect.
As a touring musician, who can spend up to half the year on the road, home becomes a very intentional retreat for Chris. “[Home] is about creating an environment almost like a bunker. The isolation of this place speaks to me because I’m around people all the time. There’s eight of us in a bus, or in an airplane, or in a van every minute I’m out there [on tour]. Quiet is what I’m looking for in my home.” Tour life also explains Chris’s need for order and tidiness at home. Their space is organized and styled, but above all, it’s lived in.
For Jane, an interior designer by trade, the notion of retreat and escape were also a priority. “I’m so active in the design community, often traveling and attending trade shows and working on design events, so I wanted a place for retreat at the end of the day. I advocate for work-life balance at my job, so I enjoy coming out here to enjoy my hobbies and create a separation from work.” At first, the switch to a car commute was a huge adjustment. “Even though I’m farther from the office, the distance helps me remove myself from work, and I keep adding more outdoor hobbies to reduce time on my computer and phone.”
When it comes to creating this home together, their styles have merged naturally and collaboratively. What Jane brings to the table is professional design training and experience, and Chris brings a passion for design. Chris wholeheartedly admits, “I can be a bully, so I understand I fall in love with something and feel like it absolutely has to be here. It’s tough to compete with that sometimes, but I do bow to her expertise often. I understand she looks at design challenges and space every day and can [judge pieces] by space whereas I go by my gut.”
Jane adds, “There are compromises. He gets guitars and record players in every room, and I get all my plants. A lot of what I do is so visual, and what he does is so audio, so it blends well. It’s always been a collaboration. We also know we can move anything.”
What records and guitars are to Chris, plants are to Jane. She jokingly refers to the greenhouse as the plant hospital or the plant ER. “I’m in no way pretending to be a plant expert, but I’m learning.” Their natural setting has had a huge impact on Jane, who says her hobbies have increasingly been tied to nature.
Their new home affords them the ability to compost, to garden, to watch a variety of beautiful birds and deer. They’ve added a trail camera and even spotted a red-tailed fox. With an apiary license acquired, she plans to add bees in the spring, a bat box, and is working toward a Certified Backyard Habitat through the Audubon Society.
In prioritizing their stewardship for their plot of land, Jane is creating a retreat for more than just the couple. The premise of the certification is that each backyard is an opportunity to help offset the effects of climate change and create a beneficial location for birds, insects, butterflies, and animals. The process includes removal of aggressive weeds, restoring/adding native plants, pesticide reduction, storm-water management, and wildlife stewardship.
Jane is also approaching these systematic changes with bees in mind. “A new important focus of mine is having a pollinator garden. It’s challenging with shade, but it’s a good challenge.” She also applied to be a master gardener through Phipps Conservatory with the goal of influencing the design world as well. “My goal is to bridge experienced gardeners and people who look to Instagram for plant advice and marry the two.” That Jane sees the possibilities in that overlap is no surprise.
Marrying design and nature is at the core of the mid-century movement, born of a time when architects began to modernize the suburbs, open interiors and blur the lines between the home and its surrounding environment. Decades later, Chris and Jane are living and preserving those design values. They’ve let their house and land be what it was intended to be. As more and more condominiums displace those who care about their neighborhoods, we as a city owe the same level of reverence to our architectural history and land.