Anyone who’s ever loved a historic home knows the plot: love at first sight, followed by pain, investment, change, and finally, hopefully, happily ever after.
That’s the story behind the renovation of The Ragdale House, an artists’ colony in Lake Forest that was designed as the summer home of Arts and Crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. In 2011, the 1897-built house closed for a $3 million renovation that included new heating, wiring and plumbing. Its reopening will be celebrated at a May 5 gala, “A Toast to Ragdale” (tickets: ragdale.org).
Visual artist Roland Kulla, a Ragdale board member, has been living at the house for the past six weeks as the dizzying array of final decorating decisions are made. Kulla has been doing forensic work, peeling off early wallpapers and having them matched, then doing the finish painting and wallpapering. He’s been busy picking out drapery fabric and deciding which furniture stays, and which goes.
“I’m the dictator of style,” Kulla laughs.
Dictator, perhaps, but also donator. All in all, Kulla has given $100,000 worth of work and time to a house he loves.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ragdale is one of the most complete examples of a turn-of-the-century retreat. In 1976, Shaw’s granddaughter, Alice Judson Hayes, turned the house into an artists’ retreat. The house is now run by The Ragdale Foundation and, under a long-term agreement with the city of Lake Forest, leases the property. It’s the fourth-largest interdisciplinary artists’ community in the country. Past residents include Jane Hamilton, Audrey Niffenegger, Alex Kotlowitz, Sara Paretsky, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Nancy Horan, Gail Tsukiyama and Alice Sebold.
Artists, writers and composers apply for a two-to-four week stay at the rate of $35 a day, which includes all meals, and most importantly, the time and space to do creative work. To be accepted, artists must submit a work plan, work sample, resume and letter of recommendation to a panel. The first group of lucky artists to experience the renovated Ragdale will enter in early June.
Kulla’s first residency at Ragdale was in 2000 (“It took me three times to get in to Ragdale,” he says of the application process), but once accepted, he was hooked.
“I’d never had a time when I had no excuses,” he says of his first residency. “I worked twelve hours a day. Ragdale takes away all distractions. If you get up at three o’clock in the morning thinking, `yellow,’ you can do that.”
At Ragdale, Kulla, a former social worker, finally had a space that offered enough room for his large canvases, and northern exposure, which literally enabled him to see his work in new light.
“Ragdale confirmed I was an artist,” he says.
Kulla now shows in galleries around the world, including New York and Berlin. His work features urban landscapes, especially bridge structures (rolandkulla.com).