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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.
In late 2011, our friends at Triangle Modernist Houses in Raleigh, North Carolina selected Mid-Century Michigan as one of the recipients of the Macon Smith research grant. For this honor I feel extreme gratitude and deeply indebted. As a thank-you to Triangle Modernist Houses, I offered to explore some of the Alden B. Dow works in Midland that were missing photos on TMH’s already fantastic online archive.
The trip to Midland led us on a journey through a massive sprawl of some of Dow’s finest residential work. Driving from neighborhood to neighborhood in Midland is like exploring a mysterious treasure-trove of mid-century modern mastery, as Dow’s work is literally everywhere one looks.
The pilgrimage to Midland was successful for not only TMH, but Mid-Century Michigan as well, as it provided time to explore the archives of the Alden B. Dow home and studio, where primary documents on Dow’s two Grand Rapids’ projects were ready for review. A special thanks goes out to Daria Potts who works in the archives for her hospitality and help in providing original drawings, correspondence, and articles during my visit. The large manila envelope I left with is filled with photocopies of some of this valuable information, and will help round out the stories of Dow’s Grand Rapids homes when it comes time to present them here.
Settled on a quiet side street in East Grand Rapids lies a time-machine from 1954. It is nighttime, perfect for gazing into the inner architecture of this unit. With its interior lit up like a showroom, there is little to stop an admiring gaze through the long curtain glass façade. What meets the eye is a transparent jewelry box of forms and materials. Exposed brick, lounge furniture, wood veneer, and atomic light fixtures all evoke a sense of the future past. Trees growing from a planter bed inside of the house dissolve the visual barrier of interior and exterior. The separation between the living room and the outdoors becomes nearly indistinguishable.
Little is known about James Bronkema, the man who built the home. However, his legacy is rich in Grand Rapids, having designed and built nearly 200 buildings around the city. (His work is most concentrated in the Fultonwood and Riverside Park neighborhoods.) After creating a modern collection of private residences and sleek office buildings around Grand Rapids, Bronkema moved his design practice to California. There he joined the league of west coast modernists who were rapidly changing the look and lifestyle of post-war America through clever design and modern construction methods. There, Bronkema played an important role developing San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center.
Built in 1954, this four-bedroom home was commissioned by the president of a fire sprinkler company, whose special touch lives on in one of the unusual features of the house: a sprinkler system in the basement. Set into a hill, the house is comprised of four tiered, flowing volumes. The main level contains a large living room, library corner, kitchen, dining room, and breakfast nook. At the top of a set of stairs connecting the three main volumes of the house lies a landing, illuminated by a clerestory window. From here, doors which seem to blend in with the birch-veneered walls, lead to the sleeping arrangements and an office. Below the main floor is a long entry foyer which lies alongside the garage. This entry hall is flanked by built-in closets and cabinetry also covered in birch veneer, a common material throughout the main stairway. “You can tell this house was extremely well built,” remarks the current owner, David. “There has been little to no settling,” he mentions as he pops open one of the tightly-fitted cabinets, which swings out on hidden hinges. This entry hall, dubbed “the mud room” leads into the lounge and bar, which continue out onto the back yard. A descent from this lounge leads to the lowermost level, a true basement which houses a spare bedroom and utilities.
“I’ve always loved this style, even when it wasn’t in style,” David mentions. David, a classically trained architect, studied at Carnegie Melon University. “I was a student at a time when architectural education was split between the International style and Postmodernism. My education was rooted in the modern style, and I just loved it. I have always loved it.” Therefore, it is no wonder that he was drawn to this home’s modern design when he purchased it. David is now the third owner of the house. It was first sold in 1962 to an owner of an auto parts dealership, and then purchased by David and his wife in 2004. “It’s good to live with someone who also understands this style,” he chuckles in reference to his wife Elaine, who is responsible for much of the interior decor. Elaine is a master scout of local estate sales, having years of practice. Along the way, she has scored some important period finds, including a pair of signed C. Jeré brass sculptures, and an original production Verner Panton floor lamp. This lamp illuminates David’s reading corner, where an Eames lounge chair and ottoman sit. The Eames lounge was a gift to David from Elaine. It is here where David prefers to relax and read.
“This was an executive-level home when it was built, and it’s perfect for entertaining. It even has central air. When we found it, it was preserved and had never been remodeled” David explains from the living room. What is remarkable about the interior of the house are the varying architectural elements. On the main floor, redwood, exposed brick, flagstone, cedar, birch, carpet, and linoleum all act in harmony with proportion and volume to demarcate areas meant for different uses in this largely open floorplan. A central brick “core” houses many of the utilities, including the fireplace, indoor barbecue, and ovens. This wide core, typical of Bronkema’s work, pierces through the roof as a solid structure. The main wall of floor-to-ceiling glass creates a sense of vastness. The foundation of the house lies several feet inside of the living room, allowing two Norway Spruce’s to take root and reach the ceiling. Commenting on the condition of the house when he bought it, David recalls, “The neighbors used to call this the Chia Pet house because the indoor planting bed was so overgrown that the windows were completely blocked off. Elaine and I wondered for years what to do about curtains. After a while, we realized the windows are perfect without curtains.”
This visually rich interior space is the perfect setting for all of the mid-century modern furniture and fixtures found throughout the home. Many of the pieces came with the house, such as the Saarinen-inspired tulip table by Burke, which is located in the kitchen’s breakfast nook. Of the few changes made to the interior, the most were were made here in the kitchen. Naturally, David and Elaine took great care and sensitivity to preserve the vintage look when they remodeled. For example, original features remain, such as the original double-ovens built into the brick wall. (Shortly after the photo shoot, the ovens were updated.) Also set into this wall is the indoor barbecue grill with commercial grade exhaust hood. David chose to update the grill with a gas flame. The cabinetry was also updated with vintage metal Geneva cabinets electro-statically repainted in their original pink color. “With all this metal, this kitchen just gleams at night,” David adds.
Outside of the home, David and Elaine have added a deck, ponds, and a waterfall. They also took great care to subtly incorporate these improvements using the natural slope of the hill. These additions have added dynamic spaces to the outdoor environment. Below the added deck lies the original patio area which enters into the lounge on the lower level. These two separate areas give the backyard a sense of demarcation, effectively creating outdoor “rooms,” which act as extensions of the house. They flow freely into the interior through vast expanses of glass, further blurring the lines of interior and exterior.
It is fortunate that this home has been so well cared for during its lifetime. David and Elaine clearly have a great appreciation and understanding of why such exemplary models of modern architecture need to be preserved and enjoyed, and their domestic lifestyle attests to their enthusiasm for mid-century modernism. While Bronkema may not be well known in the history of modern architecture, his contribution to Grand Rapids’ local architectural history is compelling and needs to be further explored. Mid-Century Michigan looks forward to reviewing more of his work and legacy.
Located on a deeply wooded lot lies a prismatic gem designed for living. Hiding below hilltop-level, is a modern masterpiece designed by Gunnar Birkerts, a Latvian born, German-trained, architect. Flooded with natural daylight seeping in through zigzagged panes of glass, this home was designed to connect with nature. Visible from the street, its window-lined pyramidal roof is clear indication of something unusual.
Placed directly off a busy drive, a smooth entrance leads between two retaining walls into the lot. These brick walls, painted the same stark white as the main structure, give the design a strong sense of continuity. The house sits behind a short, but steep hill. The undulation of the earth keeps the home deeply shrouded and blocks off quite a bit of street noise according to the current owner.
Commissioned by a Herman Miller executive, Birkerts began this project in 1964. Following his Finnish inspiration, Eero Saarinen, Birkerts had emigrated to Michigan in 1949 after his graduation from the Technische Universität in Stuttgart, Germany. Less than two years later, Birkerts found himself working in Saarinen’s office. Birkerts later founded his own architecture practice, which is still active today.
Composed on a radial grid, this house is full of angles and designed for maximum privacy. The only hint of an interior glimpse comes through a curtain glass wall that sits below an overhang in a trapezoidal entryway. Immediately behind this iron-gated glass aperture lies another white wall, directly inside the house. This barrier further obstructs outside views, yet acts as a seamless transition from outside to inside, repeating the look of the exterior walls. It is from within, however, that this house is most striking. Features like an indoor-outdoor courtyard, clerestory windows, and doors that fit flush with the walls when fully open, only add to this house’s character.
To be continued…
I invite you to have a look at our Facebook page, to which I’ve uploaded various photos of architectural landmarks I’ve visited in my worldwide travels. There you will see architecture from several notable greats, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alden B. Dow, and Louis Sullivan, just to name a few.
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