In 1957, Grand Rapids, Michigan was introduced to the work of prominent modern architect, Charles Goodman with the Alcoa Care Free home. Intended as a showcase piece for the Aluminum Company of America, the Alcoa Care Free home was a collaborative project exploring new uses of aluminum in home building, through what Alcoa dubbed in their sales brochure as the “greatest change in residential building materials in centuries.” Though the exact number is disputed, around 27 Alcoa Care Free Homes were built around the country and opened to the public for a six-week showing period. The intent was to promote Alcoa’s then new “Residential Building Products Sales Division.” Out of the examples remaining today, Jon and Lissa state their Care Free Home in Grand Rapids may be one of the best preserved.
Jon and Lissa, both advertising executives, have lived in their Alcoa Care Free Home since December 2011 along with their two small children, Quinn and Enzo. For the young couple, it was love at first sight. “I remember calling the agent to see it, though I wasn’t really sure if we’d want to buy it. But when we saw the house, we fell in love with it,” Lissa says. “We knew we absolutely had to have the house,” adds Jon.
With 7,500 pounds of aluminum used in walls, roof, window framing, and hardware (even nails), Jon and Lissa’s home was designed to require minimum maintenance for home owners, which helps contribute to its fantastic condition; aluminum does not rust or corrode over time. Along with decorative and structural aluminum, wood, glass, steel, and brick compose the home as main building materials. Local builder, Keith Pratt was chosen by Alcoa to construct this particular example, which was targeted to be priced under $25,000. Due to improper expectations set by Alcoa, the finished product costed closer to $60,000, which later led to a class action lawsuit between several builders of these homes and Alcoa. Though Alcoa had intended to sponsor the construction of 50 of these homes, and to later segue into a larger-scale project with multiple architects, the project was, unsurprisingly, cut short. The original sales brochure for the home lists 24 models built throughout the country, with Michigan home to three of them (the other two found in Birmingham, and Flint.)
With a symmetrical layout, the Alcoa Care Free Home is a classic mid-century modern ranch, with large expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass capping off either end of its peaked structure. A soaring, vaulted roof clad in cypress creates a sense of vastness for the 1,900 square foot main floor, where walls of tongue-in-groove teak add a sense of warmth and enclosure to the space. Interior clerestory windows between the bedrooms and entryways achieve what Goodman described as an “atmosphere of Space.” (Exciting new ways to build with aluminum. Better Homes and Gardens, October 1957.) Throughout the home Goodman chose a playful jewel tone palette of purple, teal, green and gold. These colorful finishes are found in cabinetry, doors, paneling, and fixtures. Exposed aluminum components are both colorfully anodized and bare metallic, adding a dazzling glint to the interior.
As a testament to their home’s authentic, unaltered condition, Jon admits, “We haven’t done a thing yet, honestly, except for painting two of the bedrooms. We have copies of the original brochures, which we’ve inherited with the house.” Using the brochure as a rough blueprint for their interior design ethos, Jon and Lissa have made use of the space as Goodman intended. For example, the couple’s bed is freestanding within their room because “this is how they had it in the brochure,” says Jon. The “family room” adjacent to the kitchen has not only a cozy place to lounge by the fire, but also leaves a large plot of open floor for the kids to play, just like in the brochure. “There is no furniture here, because it is usually just littered with toys,” adds Lissa.
Despite the Alcoa Care Free home being a mass-produced icon, every example had its own features, as each of the builders took a bit of liberty with the design. Their particular home, for example, has three fireplaces, (one in the living room, one on the patio, and one in the basement,) whereas some models have none. Their home also has air conditioning, which the house came equipped with. Whereas most Alcoa Care Free homes have a kitchen that backs up against a wall in the house Jon and Lissa’s is a freestanding room centered in the home, with stairs to the basement in the adjacent wall.
The kitchen, perhaps one of the most memorable rooms in the house, is a turquoise green galley that divides the living area of the home down the middle. A well-preserved example of the GE Wonder Kitchen, its modular metal structure features matching oven, drawers, cabinets, and “cabinettes,” compact storage units with tilted glass sliders, mounted just above counter height. A pass-through on the family room side allows for supervision of the children’s play area. Overhead, a row of lighting keeps the kitchen bright, while the vaulted wooden ceiling soars above.
“We love to cook,” Jon says “so we thought it would be a pain coming from a house with a big open kitchen to this narrow galley kitchen, but it’s really not. While some key appliances, like countertop stove and refrigerator have been replaced, the kitchen looks mostly as it did when the house was first built. “Even if the oven stopped working, it would stay there,” Jon comments. “It’s just too cool to mess with. I’m sure we’d find a way to repurpose it if that were ever to happen…We’d use it for storage or something.”
Because of the scarce nature of their home and its specific parts and finishes, Jon and Lissa have concerns about the challenge of preserving such a special house. To them, it is much like owning a vintage automobile, of which only a handful were built. For example, many of the aluminum features in the house are irreplaceable due to their custom stamping and production. “We have a couple of closet doors that have been dented through the years, and I don’t know what to do about them. I want them fixed,” Jon says “but I don’t know what to do to have them repaired.” Originally, the vertical windows that grace the side of the house once had blue anodized aluminum trellises, which have been removed. For now, they remain safely stored in the shop at the back end of the carport. “I might want to put them back up, but my wife may have other ideas,” Jon says with a chuckle.
Though preservation is at the forefront for the couple when it comes to maintenance and upkeep of their home, projects and visions for improvement are still ideas they entertain. The three bedrooms at the end of the house, for example, all face out to a courtyard and carport through floor-to-ceiling glass walls. “We don’t like looking out on to the carport,” Jon admits. “We intend to get a bricklayer out here to build a screen wall out of the same brick to create a continuous walkway. It might look nice with climbing plants.”
Because of Jon and Lissa’s attention to detail, and pride in ownership, the Alcoa Care Free home will remain under good care for as long as they own it, and their love for their house shows. “It’s not huge, but it’s enough space,” Jon insists. “What I really like about it… is that it’s a well planned out space. And taking good care of it is just part of owning something of this nature. You just don’t screw with a house like this!”
About the Architect
Charles M. Goodman (1906–1992) studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology until 1928, and trained as an architect at the Armour Institute of Technology until 1931. He is perhaps best known for designing and developing the Hollin Hills neighborhood of Alexandria, VA, an enclave of over 300 modern homes sited amidst a wooded backdrop. Another notable work is the Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C. Though Goodman worked as a government architect at the beginning of his career, most of his modern residential works were developed after he founded Charles Goodman Associates in 1946 in Washington, D.C. By 1956, over 32,000 of his houses were built around the country.