“This place had a story already. I feel like we’re just the editors of it,” says Graham Kostic of the historic property in Barrington Hills, Illinois (a small hamlet about an hour northwest of Chicago), where he lives with his husband, Fran Taglia, and their 14-month-old son, Romeo. Listening to Kostic—when he’s not transforming a home and raising a child, he serves as the choreographer for the local high school’s fine arts department—you feel a near-immediate inclination to settle in. Because he’s not simply rattling off real-estate listing details but rather recounting an enchanting tale—one in which the protagonist happens to be a house.
Named Hilltop House for its elevated position on the land, the structure was built in 1932 as part of a sprawling family estate. “The other house faced the sunset and was for entertaining; this one faces the sunrise and is where the family came to relax,” says Kostic. It has passed through only five owners in the years since. “I think the few homeowners have felt like stewards of something very special and paid a lot of attention to keeping its original integrity,” he adds.
He leaned into the place’s innate magical realism, starting by naming the meandering rooms in true storybook fashion. There’s the Hobbit Hall, with a large barn door to the garage; the Rabbit Hole staircase, which connects the nursery to the family room; the Birdcage, a nod to the music room’s canary yellow color and chandelier; the Tea Patio; and the Club Hilltop, a room in the turret that used to store the original lady of the house’s winter wardrobe and is accessed through an unassuming closet door off the main bath. “My nieces and nephews loved finding the secret-access door, and Romeo has never even been up there yet!” shares Kostic.
As in any good fable, animal characters abound. At Hilltop, it’s swan motifs that pop up throughout—in the scrolled ironwork; topping the banister; on a rocking chair in the nursery; and on a coffee table in the music room, where grand double doors can be closed to make the space feel that much more intimate for pre-bedtime family wind-downs around the piano. When Taglia plays, Romeo often joins in on the miniature one below. “He scoots over to pull himself up and bangs out a few keys,” says Kostic, laughing. “He loves the applause, and we love that he loves music.”
That they would find themselves in a house that comes alive with the morning sun seems predestined. Whenever Kostic and Taglia traveled prebaby, they would always book hotel rooms with the best views, and the couple was first alerted to the availability of Hilltop House while on a trip to Nashville for the solar eclipse. All that cosmic energy is something Kostic purposefully wove into elements of the design: The sun mosaic in the foyer, crafted by a company in Greece, is the first thing guests see upon entering; sun-surface mounted lights and mirrors shine in the main bathroom and dining room, respectively; and the wood figurines with the sun and moon found at a market in Dresden, Germany, hold court in the kitchen. The key to preventing it all from feeling too theme-y? Kostic suggests incorporating a motif throughout, but in subtle ways.
Many of the design elements have been conceived with family—and Romeo specifically—in mind. For the kitchen, Kostic wanted a cozy gathering spot for shared meals, so an alcove that was once a cavernous pantry became a shoebox-size dining nook featuring a table that once belonged to Taglia’s grandmother, with Battle of Valmy wallpaper lining the walls. In the dining room, “Fran added wood stars to the ceiling, and I brought in a big lounger, because it’s the perfect sunny place to sit in the winter,” says Kostic. “Romeo just loves it in there.”
Moving to a house with ample acreage and pristine landscaping has given them a new passion. “It’s a proud thing to watch the greenhouse seedlings in the spring grow to wild things in the garden midsummer and yield a strong crop into the fall,” says Kostic. It also crystallized their design credo: Bring the outside in. “I love the idea of the interior decor being a celebration of the flora and fauna, and the symphony of light and color and beauty that surrounds the home,” he notes. Inside, blooms thrive in all seasons. There’s Josef Frank’s tulip wallpaper in the main bedroom, Christopher Farr Cloth’s oversize peonies in the nursery, a Randolph Street Market painting of a manicured garden in the foyer, and a growing collection of Wendt & Kühn Blossom Child figurines that Romeo is especially enchanted with.
Even the nursery offers its own serene portal to a bounty of natural wonders. The view from the crib is all trees and clouds, and in the afternoons when pockets of sunlight pour in, Romeo crawls around catching the leaves’ shadows. While the news of his arrival inspired the couple to secure and elevate their many curio collections behind glass, as well as hide some of the more overtly dangerous pieces (“Less than what our parents think we should do, of course,” quips Kostic), they didn’t alter things too much.
For Kostic, fostering Romeo’s curiosity is important, and he hopes that the magic he’s tried to conjure in the space will help do just that—in much the same way that Hilltop has stoked the duo’s own creativity. Taglia was finally able to set up a woodworking shop, where he’s built everything from a garden fence to wood toys, and Kostic has been dabbling in watercolor flower painting, with plans for a pottery studio. “We’re excited to see how Romeo explores his home as he gets older,” says Kostic. “It’s definitely a place that I dreamed of when I was younger and reading books with characters who lived in houses with turrets and secret staircases and cabinets.”