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A Gut Renovation, With the Secret Service Watching
CHICAGO — Showing up to check on the construction progress, the owners of the stately old brick house being renovated on Greenwood Avenue could be forgiven for feeling a bit stressed.
There are blockades at each end of the block, and signs warn people that they need permission from federal authorities to go any farther.
Every carpenter, roofer and mason to set foot on the job site must submit to a background check. Each night they are required to e-mail their schedules for the next day. If they say they are going to arrive at 8 a.m. and they do not arrive until, say, 8:15, they are sent home without pay. When a worker cleans the portable toilets, a Secret Service agent stands at the door to watch.
Home renovation can be so much fun. What makes this project even more of an adventure is that the next-door neighbors — a very nice couple, two young daughters, a dog — are named Obama.
The gut renovation began in April after the house was bought for $1.4 million by Dr. George Moynihan, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Lara, who have three children. It is expected to run about $1 million, and they need to move in by next Labor Day.
The project includes an addition to the kitchen and work on a carriage house and the finished basement. CreditPeter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
The Moynihans, who were identified in real estate records but declined to be interviewed, gave approval to the builder and workers to talk to a reporter about the unusual circumstances of doing a home renovation next door to the home of the leader of the free world.
Before starting a project, the builder, Robert Berg, said, an owner might just “take the neighbor to Starbucks and sit down and talk” about the construction plans.
This situation is a bit more complicated.
“You want to move a gas line, a cable wire,” Mr. Berg said, “and we go through layers and layers, phone calls, meetings.”
The White House is not so interested in the interior of the neighbors’ five-bedroom home. But for exterior changes, all major plans are submitted to a White House liaison in Chicago, who shares them with the Obamas. “I’m assuming Michelle,” Mr. Berg said.
Mr. Berg said he was told by the White House representative that the Obamas “want their neighbors to have the home they want.” The Secret Service will adapt, he was assured.
A stained-glass window that decorates the stairway is being refurbished.CreditPeter Thompson for The New York Times
“But if a concern jumps out at them,” said Mr. Berg, the president of Foster Design Build in Chicago, “we hear about it.”
Concerns of the White House team are taken very, very seriously (Secret Service agents even demanded that no new photos be taken of the much-photographed Obama home).
The architect, Bill Murphy, initially conjured a covered passageway from the garage to the house “for those times that you pull up in the car with the groceries and it’s raining.” In the view of the security team, the passageway was a place for an intruder to hide near the president’s property. In the end, a high water table made the concept untenable.
The renovation of the three-story home, which was built in 1906, covers some 10,600 square feet. The home on the other side of the president’s, sometimes called the Goodman mansion, is perhaps twice as big. Of the three houses in a row, the Obama house is the smallest.
Through a back window of the Moynihans’ house, it is still possible to see the basketball hoop where the president has practiced his shot.
The renovation will also preserve the fireplace that Mr. Obama used as the backdrop for a televised address during the presidential campaign. “His people wanted a roaring fire in the background,” Mr. Berg said.
The cherry and mahogany woodwork is also being refurbished.CreditPeter Thompson for The New York Times
For the workers in hard hats and steel-toe boots, the proximity to the president makes this job a bit like a white-glove affair. “This is the cleanest job I’ve ever been on,” said Matt Sarkey, 35, a carpenter who was pounding nails on the roof.
No food, coffee or smoking is allowed anywhere near the site. During a tree trimming, a worker was stationed in the Obama driveway to sweep away leaves each time any hit the ground.
“We don’t want the president walking up and having a Burger King wrapper flying across his yard,” Mr. Berg said.
The workers are a mix of union and nonunion. “If we were doing the job for the man next door,” the builder acknowledged, looking over at the president’s place, “no way could you do this nonunion.”
In fundamental ways, the Moynihan project mirrors the universal renovation experience, Mr. Berg said.
“Building a home is a very emotional experience,” said Mr. Berg, in a white shirt, corduroy jacket and shades. “The clients are Type A people. They are engaged, and they are direct.”
There are blockades at each end of the block, and signs warn people that they need permission from federal authorities to go any farther.CreditPeter Thompson for The New York Times
A video camera on the job site allows the Moynihans to see progress on their computer. “They can be in the Cayman Islands or wherever,” Mr. Berg said, “and look down at their laptop and then yell at us to move faster.”
On plenty of jobs, Mr. Berg said, affluent homeowners never think to even acknowledge the people in hard hats. The Moynihans, on the other hand, are generous with praise.
When Mr. Moynihan came to inspect recently, he was particularly impressed with some excruciatingly delicate work by the mason, who was grounding the old mortar out of every single joint and brushing a new batch of chocolate “mud” with a careful hand.
The mason, Casey Bachula, an immigrant from Poland with shoulders as broad as Texas, had been struggling to do a masterly job.
Mr. Moynihan, delighted, proclaimed, “Casey is the man!”
The worker broke into a wide grin.
Construction on the home next to President Obama’s on Greenwood Avenue in Chicago is expected to run until next summer.CreditPeter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
Everybody on the project would be smiling if the building permit would be issued for a foundation, because the addition cannot proceed without it.
“O.K., Bob, how much longer?” Mr. Berg said the owners pressed him one recent morning. “How many more minutes?” A hard freeze could be coming any day now.
Last weekend was the fourth time the Obamas had returned to their house since the construction began next door, Mr. Berg said. They took their daughters trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. Before they arrived, the workers had to leave, and the grounds were swept until they were immaculate. (When Mr. Obama is there, Mr. Berg is allowed to stay in a trailer on the Moynihan front lawn.)
During one presidential visit, Mr. Berg said he peered out the window to see a weary-looking Mr. Obama walking toward his front steps.
“He looked tired,” Mr. Berg said, “and he looked very relieved to be going home.”
For their part, the Moynihans, like all clients, surely look forward to the day when they can move into their home.
Mr. Berg said he felt their anxiety. “They all give me hell,” the builder said with a laugh. “I’ve got scar tissue.”