3:14 PM CST, February 8, 2011
"Did a bomb go off in here?"
Giuliana Rancic, house-hunting with her husband, Bill, had just stepped inside a stately shell of a mansion on a leafy street in Hinsdale.
It was an unfinished mess. Outside, a mangle of soil and gravel. Inside, the dusty debris of a project abandoned midconstruction. A wooden plank served as front steps to the makeshift front door.
The Rancics — she the stylish "E! News" host, he the winner of the first "Apprentice," together the stars of the Style Network reality show "Giuliana and Bill" — were filming their hunt for a new home as they sought to trade in their Gold Coast condo for a house in the suburbs, and Giuliana, shaking her head at the wreckage, gave a swift verdict: "No."
But Bill, whose many entrepreneurial hats include real estate developer, threw open his arms as if to embrace the challenge.
"I'm home," he said.
In May, the celebrity couple bought the five-bedroom, seven-bathroom house and Bill embarked on his first suburban renovation to make the never-occupied home their own.
When they moved in this fall — just in time to host family for Thanksgiving — they had transformed the space into what Giuliana described as "traditional chic," a fusion of the classic architecture with their modern sensibilities.
"I love clean houses," said Bill, 39, padding around his new kitchen barefoot and in jeans, while Guiliana, 36, who took charge of décor, lounged in stiletto boots. "Less is more."
Located a few blocks from Hinsdale's charming downtown and a short drive from Bill's family in the western suburbs, the three-story home drew the jet-setting city couple as a nest in which to settle down, host big family gatherings and, hopefully, start a family of their own.
The Rancics have been candid about their struggles to conceive, filming the intricacies of fertility treatments and trauma of miscarriage for their reality show. The house is in part a wish: Build it, and they will come.
"We tried not to let it get us down," Bill said of what it was like to construct a house for kids with none on the way. "Once we were in the house, there was no turning back."
In addition to the emotional wallop, the greatest challenge of the renovation was time — having the house ready for move-in before the couple's condo sold and in time for Giuliana's bed rest after in vitro fertilization.
Renovating a mammoth house would usually take eight to 12 months, said Jennifer Wallack, the interior designer, but the Rancics did it in about four.
The facade of the red-brick house, based on Federal-style architecture, didn't need much work. But most everything around and inside it did.
They ripped out the marble floors in the foyer and put in Brazilian cherry wood to match the rest of the house, then stained it with a dark wenge finish, Wallack said.
They converted a basement bathroom into an elegant wine cellar, dimly lit with limestone walls and kept at an optimal 61 degrees.
They shifted the wiring and plumbing in the master bathroom — the most costly and time-consuming part of the renovation, Wallack said — adjusting the existing layout to accommodate a copper tub.
Despite the time crunch, Bill said a remarkable team, headed by general contractor Bert Connolly, helped the process go smoothly.
"No one had an ego; everyone brought great ideas to the table," Bill said.
Among Bill's proudest ideas are the two massive front doors, carved of African mahogany, each one measuring 5 feet wide. He had them made based on a photo he took when the couple visited Buonconvento, a town in Tuscany.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," Bill said. "It's a little bit of Italy."
Italian influences pervade the house, a nod to Giuliana's birthplace and one of the couple's favorite travel spots.
Bill removed the stone balustrades on the backyard balcony and replaced them with iron railings inspired by the hotel in Capri where they married.
In the kitchen — the epicenter of the house, and Giuliana's favorite room — a large island is made of honed white Calcutta ducale marble, sanded down to look old and worn, typical of what the couple saw during their Italian travels, Bill said.
Bright and airy, the kitchen marries country quaint and high-tech sleek. The cabinets had an unpleasant greenish undertone, so Bill hired an artist to stain them white and distress them by hand. A white farm sink shares the room with top-of-the-line appliances, including a Sub-Zero refrigerator and Wolf stove.
Bill's favorite additions are the iPads he built into the wall in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house to control temperature, security cameras, lights and alarms. He can control those devices from his own iPad, so if he forgets to switch off the lights or needs to let someone inside, he can do so from anywhere in the world.
The kitchen's long farm table, rustic and wooden, exemplifies Giuliana's design philosophy: Spend little on things that look like a lot. Like much of the furniture in the house, she purchased it at wisteria.com without seeing it in person first.
"I'm good at weeding through all the crap and finding things that look expensive," Giuliana said.
The Rancics kept some of the home's classic features — an old-fashioned "lady's office" beside the kitchen and dignified "butler's pantry" with soaring wooden armoires —- but changed others to suit their needs.
In a space the original owner had intended to make a music room, Bill built a "cigar and scotch room," a dapper dwelling with navy-blue walls, white wainscoting and a sleek, white Calcutta marble bar, behind which are a humidor and an impressive collection of liquor. Bill, who shortly after college started a successful cigar club called Cigars Around the World, said he smokes cigars only once in a while, but likes the room for entertaining.
In the basement — heated with energy-efficient radiant floor heating — the Rancics converted two rooms into a spacious gym with rubber floors, a couple of treadmills, weight machines and free-weight area. Beside that is a chocolate-hued movie theater with stadium seating, upholstered in Chesterfield saddle leather.
"We're homebodies, so it's nice to have everything under one roof," Giuliana said.
As important as the inside of the house was the outside.
Giuliana wanted a strong entrance, said landscape designer Tony Butterworth, so they built a horseshoe drive made of clay pavers, which leads into a dramatic limestone pathway stretching toward the house. In the center of the path is a long pool of water, with three gurgling fountains, and on either side they planted boxwoods, hydrangeas, tulip trees, crabapple trees and white roses.
"It's going to be very crisp; they didn't want the front to be very busy," Butterworth said.
The enormous backyard, measuring 8,664 square feet, presented a new challenge for Bill, who hadn't dealt much with large yards in his city projects. Bill enlisted Christy Webber, a landscaper responsible for many city of Chicago projects and best known for installing Millennium Park — an ironic decision given that he and Webber had bitterly feuded several years back over one of Bill's projects. But the reunion proved auspicious.
Webber remembers being appalled by Bill's initial landscaping plan, a "very suburban" design consisting of a blanket of sod with evergreens around the perimeter. Bill also dreamed of installing a SportCourt, an outdoor basketball/tennis/volleyball court, in the back — a plan that got nixed once Webber got Giuliana more involved.
"It was really surprising to me that a man was going to make all of these decisions," Webber said. "Ninety percent of the time it's the women who are calling the shots."
Webber and her team helped Bill see a new vision: to use every inch of the space and make the backyard as functional as possible. Like much of the rest of the house, Italy served as inspiration.
Instead of the SportCourt, they agreed to build a bocce ball court in the back on compacted gravel. An adjacent fire pit makes for a laid-back hangout spot.
The more formal front of the yard is anchored by a cedar wood pergola marking a large dining area for sit-down dinners. Another pergola shades a spacious grilling station with long counters made of Jerusalem gold marble.
Limestone pathways are interspersed with block planters made of Belvedere concrete slabs, which look like naturally weathered stone. Some of the planters are growing salvia, which blossoms purple, while others are left open for growing herbs and vegetables. A tulip tree grows in the middle as a centerpiece. Dispersed throughout are pines, colorful redbud trees and junipers to soften the perimeter and give it a Tuscan feel.
"The one thing I've learned about marriage is compromise is king," Bill said.
Living in the suburbs has been an adjustment for the Rancics, who still travel much of the time and haven't quite become part of the fabric of the Hinsdale social scene. Bill said he misses living in the city, though Giuliana said she has always been a suburb girl.
"I'm a creature of habit and I like simple things," Giuliana said. "I love strip malls and chain restaurants."
Once they have kids, they say, they'll feel more anchored in their suburban community. Until then, they say they're thrilled with the finished product, and don't mind the extra rooms.
"It's a warm house, it's a house that kind of puts it's arms around you when you walk in," Bill said.
Bill Rancic offered three tips for completing a renovation in a tight timeframe.
>> The most important thing is to get a good team of passionate, committed people who you trust. Rather than bring in problems, they should come with solutions.
>> As the owner, you must be present so that you can check progress and details along the way. At the end of the day, you're ultimately the one who's responsible.
>> Check your ego at the door and don't interfere with the process of those who know better than you. When you're building something you've got to be the conductor of an orchestra, letting the specialists do what they do best.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC