Gazette Article by: Arthur Nielsen, Jr.
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2002
House of the Season: The Nielsen Family House
Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen engaged their very good friends Mr. And Mrs. Lewis B. Walton as architect and interior designer. The excellent working relationship between the families lasted throughout their lifetimes. For inspiration and practical ideas, the Waltons suggested a trip to the Tidewater region of Virginia to tour the wealth of outstanding American homes that had been built in that area. This journey proved so inspirational that it was followed by a trip to England to widen the perspective on other possible architectural styles.
These journeys had the unintended result that Mrs. Nielsen quickly fell in love with the Georgian style of architecture featured in the Tidewater region, while Mr. Nielsen expressed a strong preference for the Tudor style of the English countryside. Since no compromise appeared possible, the house plans were put on hold.
The design skill and diplomacy of the Waltons combined a Tudor exterior, with space for privacy and expansion to accommodate a large family, with a Georgian interior, which provided light and delicacy to the space as well as an appropriate setting for the Nielsen’s American 18th century antiques. The blend was unique and satisfied both Nielsens.
An avid tennis and squash player, Mr. Nielsen had a tennis court installed even before ground was broken for the house. As winter approached, he announced that he was planning to build a squash court as well. An alarmed Mrs. Nielsen remarked, “It looks to me like you’re only interested in building an athletic club! What about the house?” She wanted a beautiful garden just where the squash court was planned.
Mr. Walton and Mr. Nielsen finally developed a splendid and unique plan for incorporating a squash court into the house design. From the outside, one wing of the house appears to be a four-car garage. From the inside, three of the spaces can easily be converted into a squash court. At the push of a button, a 12-ton wall is lowered and becomes part of the court. The telltale at the bottom of the front wall tilts upward, allowing the protective canvas for the cars to be rolled up and stored out of sight.
Mr. Nielsen was educated as an electrical engineer and was delighted in filling the house with other remarkable features. It was one of the first residential homes to have central air-conditioning and heating that could be controlled individually in each room. Water coolers were situated around the house. The pantry contained a huge bank-style safe to store valuables. And the most used feature of the house was the intercommunications system that combined a remote control radio and phonograph player.
Mrs. Nielsen’s contributions were equally important, centered on her love of entertaining and cooking as well as for designing her garden. She was largely responsible for collecting 18th century antiques and furnishings and collected objets d’art from her extensive travels.
During the height of the cold war, Mr. Nielsen became apprehensive about an attack on Chicago. With the son of the original architect, Mr. Nielsen designed a bomb shelter that was thirty feet under the ground, covered by a six-foot thick concrete roof. The shelter is capable of generating its own air, electricity and water supply. Special essential features include a system for cleansing clothes or articles contaminated by radioactive particles. There is a complete kitchen and separate sleeping area, and of course, a very ingenious escape hatch. Fortunately for all, it was never needed. It did, however, provide Mr. Nielsen and his houseman, Louis Strobel, an enjoyable evening once a week when they went into the shelter to test the controls, oil the motors and ensure that the facility was in first class shape.
The Nielsen family is grateful for the opportunity of building and living in this unique and beautiful home for over a half century from 1937 to 1998.