Melichar Architects wins Community Leadership chamber award

Renovating any structure can be a challenge, but the bar is raised considerably when that structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Diana Melichar, founder and CEO of Melichar Architects in Lake Forest, welcomes such challenges with enthusiasm and skill, as seen in her firm’s design for a major renovation of the Barnhouse at Ragdale, the historic artists’ retreat in Lake Forest.

Melichar actively participated on Ragdale’s Renovation Task Force Committee when the 120-year-old Ragdale House underwent a major $3.2 million restoration a decade ago.

Preservation, restoration and adaptive reuse are among her passions — she served for five years as a commissioner of the Preservation Commission in Highland Park, and once turned a Lake Michigan water pumping station into a two-family residence.

“This approach to modernizing buildings is not only good for communities, but ‘green’ by not tearing down and rebuilding,” she says.

Each year, the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce presents the Community Leadership award to a local business that has exemplified a commitment to community participation and involvement. These businesses have been recognized as a great friend and valued resource to both the chamber and the community-as-a-whole. The award for 2024 was presented Jan. 25 to Melichar Architects.

When the Ragdale Foundation, which operates the artists’ community, wanted to renovate the Barnhouse, it tapped Melichar Architects because of the firm’s knowledge and sensitivity to the site and experience in presenting projects to the historic commission for approval. Work began in December and will conclude in late 2024.

“An understanding of a building’s history is crucial to the success of a preservation or restoration project,” Melichar says. “When we work with historic buildings, our goal is to honor the original architecture and preserve the character that makes the building special, all the while bringing the functionality of the rooms and spaces up to today’s standards.”

Renovations such as these are part of Melichar Architects’ extensive and diverse portfolio of residential and commercial projects for clients in the Chicago area, the greater Midwest and several other states.

“A lot of architectural firms specialize in one or two areas,” she says. “Our specialty is that we can work in any style or method of construction.”

Ragdale was designed in 1897 by renowned Arts and Crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw as a summer retreat for his creative family. The Shaw family included two architects, two poets, a sculptor, a painter, a weaver and a cartoonist, and they often welcomed artistic peers, including Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, to join them.

Nearly 150 residencies and numerous fellowships are offered annually to creative professionals of all types, making Ragdale one of the largest interdisciplinary artists’ communities in the country.

One of the buildings on its extensive campus is the Barnhouse, built in 1897, at the same time as the iconic Ragdale House. The Barnhouse was nestled next to an 1839 brick farmhouse — the oldest in Lake County — and the two structures were integrated. Both this original farmhouse and the Barnhouse extension are on the National Register.

Originally built as a working barn to serve Shaw’s farm, it was inherited by his daughter Theodora in 1937, when the property was subdivided among his three children. Theodora's husband, architect John Lord King, converted the barn into their family home. The property was sold, and further changes were made in the early 1950s.

Ragdale Foundation purchased the building in 1980 to serve as offices, rooms for artists and a central dining facility. The foundation made a substantial renovation in 2004 when a concrete block garage was demolished and replaced with the Chandler Studio, the first of now four accessible artist’s studios on the campus. The conference room and kitchen also were renovated at that time.

Ragdale’s Barnhouse as it appears today.

Now the Barnhouse is in need of exterior restoration and interior renovations.

“The Ragdale complex comprises a lot of architectural history, and the Barnhouse plays an important role in the property,” Melichar says. “We are honored to be a part of this next journey, as the foundation continues its mission to provide a destination for artists’ important work.”

The new project will provide en-suite bathrooms for artists, says Roland Kulla, the project manager, as well as double the size of the kitchen and expand the dining room.

“The profile of the original barn columns will be restored,” he says. “In addition, the Barnhouse windows will all be restored, a new roof added and air conditioning installed for the second floor.”

The Ragdale Foundation recently completed a $6.5 million campaign to raise funds for the Barnhouse and several other of its buildings. The foundation received a gift of $500,000 to fund the kitchen and dining portion of the Barnhouse project.

Original Barnhouse in 1938, left, and the 1839 brick farmhouse, right.

Melichar, a Lake Forest native, founded her firm in 1993. Women make up about half of architecture school graduates and about a quarter of licensed architects, but only about 17% are principals in a firm.

Melichar is registered as an architect and interior designer and certified as an aging-in-place specialist by the National Association of Home Builders. She leads a team of five architects and architectural designers.

Melichar Architects’ rendering of the expanded dining room in the Barnhouse.

Melichar is active in her community and is an advocate for climate action and green energy. She has won numerous awards for her work, including for new construction, preservation, restoration and adaptive reuse.

”We’re sensitive to the environment and are thoughtful in the materials and products we select for our buildings,” she says. “We look to long-term solutions rather than disposable construction.”

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