If every Richard Neutra home were blessed with owners as mindful as Thor and Katie, history books would have richer stories to tell. When the couple purchased the List house in 2000 from the family who built it, they did so with an understanding of its importance as a landmark. With a small footprint, and an incredible view of the lake, it could have been regarded as a prime teardown location when it went on the market for the first time. After a rigorous interview process, the owners only offered Katie and Thor a rental agreement, likely sensing the home’s vulnerability. However, when complicated discussions regarding landlord versus tenant responsibility arose, the couple’s eagerness to move in was enough proof of their mindful intent for the List family to reconsider.
Built in 1962 as a retirement home for Grand Rapids’ first neurosurgeon, Carl List and his wife Eva, the scale of the home reflects that it was built for two. Its position on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids comes as no surprise, as it is nestled amongst an enclave of other mid-century modern homes on a tree lined cul-de-sac. Upon approach, the street view reveals a false indication of the overall experience of the house because of its orientation. Built into a hillside, the main living spaces hover above the garage, with other portions of the home hidden from view. The exterior is primarily Philippine Mahogany siding, vertical brick, and glass. At night, the exterior remains well lit, a request of Dr. List, who often worked late shifts at the hospital. A reflecting pool at the end of the driveway is an unmistakable Neutra touch.
The main entry of the home is accessed by a winding ascent through hillside foliage, which leads along a brick wall and over a bridge connecting to the main door. The remarkable masonry along the entry has mortar which seems to ooze out between the bricks. The original plans for the house, however, specified fieldstone. The compromise has never been truly understood, though Katie suspects it may have been due to budget restraints. In complete contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright’s preferred bricklaying technique where a strong horizontal continuum be emphasized, Neutra specified that the bricks be laid vertically, with the horizontal mortar scraped away. The vertical mortar appears drippy, erupting from the seams. According to oral history, Neutra supervised the bricklaying, demanding of the masons, “more ooze, more ooze!”
The entry foyer of the house leads in several directions, and casts an expansive and direct view out onto the lake through the glass wall in the living room. To the left lie the kitchen and stairs to the lower level, and to the right lie the bedrooms. The original plans for the home specify floor-to-ceiling glass in the living room, but were modified as part of the design process to include a base with vents which can be tipped open to allow natural ventilation during hot Michigan summers. Structural beams on the ceiling pierce through the glass wall, forming a continuous line between interior and exterior, melting the visual barrier between nature and a refined inner space. It is here that it becomes apparent that the structure is the decorative detail in this modern home.
“Any time a kid comes over, they think we have the coolest house. I have a theory that they like the outside being in. And of course, they like the swivel chairs, too!” Katie laughs. Between the built-in sofa and connected cantilevered hearth of the fireplace, there is plenty of space to sit down and enjoy the view. The sofa wall has a gap at the ceiling, letting natural light filter into the hallway of the master bedroom behind. In this open living/dining area, cabinetry lines the walls, and once housed a built in hi-fi. A sliding wall which hangs from one of the roof beams can be used to close off the dining area from the living area. Atop the cabinetry, lighting is tucked away, providing an even, ambient glow. A large glass sliding wall in the dining area leads out to a screened-in porch. A door from the porch accesses a deck that runs the length of the glass wall, safeguarded from the elements by the cantilevered roof.
Behind the fireplace is a small den adjacent to the master bedroom with bookshelves and a desk built in. Katie and Thor use it as a cozy family room and enjoy it for relaxing and watching movies with their son. One of Katie’s favorite rooms in the house, however, seems to be the kitchen. A typical mid-century galley kitchen, Katie describes it as “extremely well built.” “I like cooking in this here, but it’s not the best for working with other people,” she mentions. The cabinetry was precisely built around the vintage appliances, and therefore the stove, oven, and refrigerator remain original. This, however is a change Katie and Thor are willing to eventually make. “Have you ever cleaned 1960’s appliances?” Katie asks with wide eyes. “There’s a point when you’re living in a house, and it’s not a museum, and you must ask yourself, ‘what would Neutra have done if we were his clients?’” If they decide to update the appliances, the plan is to modify some of the housings by resizing original pieces.
“We’re very good about taking pictures and documenting it every time we make a change, and we have things labeled and packed away in the basement,” Katie explains. Despite their commitment to preserve, some of the original features of the house are starting to show their age and have needed to be either modified or replaced; for example, the bands of windows in the kitchen and dining room. “They used to be very California modern,” says Katie. “You could barely see the frame. However, this isn’t California, and you also couldn’t see out of them in the winter, as they’d completely ice over.” Another example are the glass light fixtures in the hallway ceiling leading to the master bedroom, which are meant to illuminate the closets the hallway is lined with. “We never put the light fixtures back, because they are so degraded,” says Katie. “I think there is lead in the glass, so it is rather gray, and sheds very little light, and so we can’t really see what we’re picking out in the morning.” One major change was made in the master bedroom when they first bought the house. Small, uninsulated MDF panels above the bed (which flapped open to allow a cross-breeze) had let water run in, ruining a bookend-veneered birch panel with built in twin headboards. This, however, wasn’t a great loss for the couple, who couldn’t imagine twin beds in the master bedroom. “I’d like to re-veneer that wall again. My husband, however, has other ideas in mind,” Katie adds.
Some changes to the house can be regarded as strong improvements, like the addition of air conditioning, and a retaining wall which was added to counteract erosion problems. The degrading wolmanized lumber walkways of the deck and entry were also replaced, yielding a cosmetic upgrade. Katie and Thor love improving their house one step at a time in alignment with their budget.
Though the basement level is a mostly unfinished Michigan basement used for cars, utilities, and storage, Thor has set up his woodworking studio below and is currently building a kayak. The original drawings also show one room as a bomb shelter, which eventually morphed into Eva’s darkroom. “We’ve turned it into our wine cellar and gift wrapping station,” mentions Katie. The main landing of the basement also houses a shower room, which Dr. List requested, as he looked forward to going for swims in the lake and needed an easy place for a rinse.
When asked about one of the house’s most unusual characteristics, Katie reveals an amusing secret, which might also be one of the house’s most historically interesting feature. Eva List left notes pasted all over the house. Documents are glued, taped, and placed inside cabinets, next to door frames, and on walls, and inform the occupants of everything from the year the house was built, to where to watch out for steep steps. Some of the other documents regarding the house are in an uncertain state. The original architectural plans and correspondence have been retained by the List family. “We would love to keep them with this house as part of its story,” the couple mentions.
In an area like East Grand Rapids, which has no historic preservation ordinance like neighboring Grand Rapids does, the List house stands as a hallmark in the battle for preservation. The house had no protection when it was sold, and it is therefore remarkable to consider it could have easily been sold to the highest bidder. As the only Neutra house in Michigan, its importance to the local history as well as the Neutra legacy is immense. Its carefully planned design is so well preserved that even the trees which were accounted for in the original plan still remain. Thanks to Katie and Thor, the List house is guaranteed to remain a superb example of the clarity of Richard Neutra’s ideals for years to come.