Blending generations of their family histories and their religious beliefs, Cary Frank and his partner John Cannon take the holidays to the max.
“It’s three generations and two family houses,” says Frank about the historic lakefront home in Union Pier and the Mies van de Rohe apartment in Chicago the two share.
And as the holiday time gets near, the two—owners of the Chicago based designed firm Cannon Frank—really kick their generational thing into high gear.
For Cannon—who remembers Christmas celebrated in the family home while growing up in Springfield, Illinois—and Frank—who celebrated Hannukah in Oak Park—it meant the merging not only of sparkling Christmas ornaments and a towering tree, but also Stars of David, menorahs and dreidels.
Each year the two, who have been together for 32 years, select a 40-foot blue or green spruce from Pat’s Tree Service in LaPorte, Indiana, and have the top 9 feet removed to use as a Christmas tree in their living room overlooking a native garden leading down the bluff to a large stretch of Lake Michigan beach. Cannon then uses the remaining limbs to fashion garlands and boughs to decorate both the home’s exterior and interior. Anything left over he uses for compost for his extensive gardens.
Cannon likes to use the top of the tree because its open branches can hold the 1,200 or so ornaments passed down from his grandparents to his parents and then to him as well as those he and Frank have collected over the years to decorate the tree. The two have so many ornaments they dedicate a closet for storage—a large space filled with boxes and a steamer trunk that doesn’t include their lights.
“I have been decorating and collecting all my life,” says Cannon as he shows delicately beaded copper ornaments made by Nairobi women that he and Frank bought at a charity auction. “When I met Cary, it was someone to share it with.”
The two string 1,600 white lights on the tree, which in the evening could glow so brightly that they added a 1,500-watt dimmer switch when renovating the home after a fire five years ago. “We do all white lights because there’s every rainbow color in the ornaments and having colored lights would be too much,” Cannon says.
Outside floodlights go from white to red during the season and thousands more lights are strung on the tall evergreens in the large yard surrounding the house—though this year instead of lighting up 28 trees the couple are limiting it to 15. “Every year we buy new white lights for the tree,” Frank says, “and we use the old strings outside because we don’t want to have one of the inside strings die and have to take everything down.”
The mantel atop of the painted and glazed brick fireplace (hand painted by their good friend Suzanne Frazier, an artist who lives in New Buffalo) are lined with menorahs belonging to Frank’s mother and grandmother. On the garage, Cannon set up a 5-foot Star of David illuminated with blue lights.
The home they share is a perfect backdrop for all this holiday splendor. Called the Harry Brown Home, it was one of two homes on the property built in 1916 by two sisters. Frank’s grandmother Huddel, the wife of Harry Brown, and her sister each bought one of the homes in 1931 and they’ve remained in the family since then. Frank’s cousins live in the other home.
Much of the furniture is original to the Brown family, including their wicker furniture, though Cannon and Frank have added their own as well. Buying a plank of 400-year-old elm they mounted it to an old table stand they had and use it in one of the hallways. They took an elaborate and very large armoire owned by Frank’s grandmother and had the dark wood repainted in a lively Parisian pastel blue and cream style by Frazier to go more with their beach home.
No matter the season, the Brown House is a perfect spot for entertaining and Cannon, who loves to cook, feeds anywhere from a small group to 200 (when they held a fundraiser for LAMBDA Legal that was attended by 450, they used the coach house on the property as a kitchen) for the many charities they support, including the Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor and the Robert R. McCormick Boys and Girls Club in Uptown Chicago (Frank serves on their board). They’ve also opened up their home and gardens to raise money for the Lakefront Supportive Housing and the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights—two foundations that strive to alleviate poverty and homelessness—and have home and kitchen walks each year as fundraisers. Cannon designed the center for Dunebrook in LaPorte County, Indiana, another organization they support that helps abused children, and he has served on the board of DIFFA Chicago (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) since its founding in 1984 and twice chaired the organization’s designer garage sale and also chaired the DIFFA Ball.
But it isn’t only their Union Pier home that gets the holiday treatment. In the city, they festoon a tree in different styles and shades of red lights including strings of red pepper lights, bubble lights, clusters of red berries, stars, frosted lights, old fashioned big bulbs and red LEDs.
“There are so many red lights that when you’re on Lake Shore Drive at North Avenue three miles away from where we live, you can see the lights in our windows,” Cannon says.
Every Christmas season, Frank and Cannon drape a 17-foot tree on their Union Pier property with old fashioned multi-colored lights, another reminder of holidays past. The two say that every time they hang an ornament or add a string of lights it brings back memories of other holidays.
“I had always wanted a Christmas tree,” Frank says, “but I never had one until John and I met each other.”