The Breton House: A Tale of Two (of the same) Homes written by Melissa Fox with photos and research collaboration by West Michigan Modern, Pam VanderPloeg, Editor, c. 2015. Early black and white and some color photos provided by the homeowners.
The first time I saw the Breton house was in a photograph at Pamela VanderPloeg’s presentation GR Modern: Home Architecture 1945-1970 at Temple Emmanuel during the summer of 2013. The next time I saw a version of it was later that fall when I was house hunting and found its double, the house next door to the house we were viewing on Pinecrest in East Grand Rapids. I remember driving along Pinecrest that day and seeing 1505 Pinecrest and thinking, Wow, where did that come from?
It is a stunning home, well designed and super modern, with a double box shape and flat roof and spartan appearance. And it stands out on a street of homes constructed in the mid-century yet more conservative and traditional in design. I ended up purchasing the home next door, designed by the same architecture firm, Obryon & Knapp, but nowhere near as unique as 1505. For more on 1507 Pinecrest and Albert Builders link http://westmichiganmodern.com/2014/11/27/pop-up-tour-of-1507-pinecrest-designed-by-e-john-knapp-an-albert-builders-house/
Fast forward a month or so and Pamela and I were in a small group touring a house on Fultonwood, one of those amazing Bronkema designed homes. A bit into the tour a man joined the group and seemed a friend of the Fultonwood homeowner. We later learned he was the owner of the Breton house, the twin of the Pinecrest house, and that it been sold to him by the current owner of the Fultonwood house who was giving us the tour. It was very six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Anyways it was a treat to meet him and we all agreed we would like to see his home sometime too. Which we did months later. And when we did tour the Breton house, my former neighbor, the owner of the Breton home’s twin 1505 Pinecrest Ave SE, came along.
This particular scene, with the owner of the Pinecrest house visiting the Breton house is a return, in reverse, of how these two homes came to be.
1505 Pinecrest SE was constructed in 1961 by Albert Builders in the Heather Downs community of East Grand Rapids. In 1961, the house with its stark, box-like shape would have stood out as unusually modern, even in this mid-century neighborhood. Around 1963, Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Koernoelje were invited to a party there and immediately fell in love with the Pinecrest home. One can imagine both Mr. & Mrs. Koernoelje noting the home’s open floor plan as the guests floated from room to room, their attention drawn to the family room’s wall of glass and the dramatic floating staircase, the focal point of this multi-level house. There are many gorgeous mid-century modern homes in West Michigan, but not many are as stylish nor as unique as the Pinecrest house. With its flat roof, original shade of stone grey paint, and lack of large windows on the front side, from the exterior anyway the home is probably on that far end of the modernism scale, the either love-it or hate-it zone. They fell on the love-it side of the scale and contacted Albert Builders immediately to have one of their own built about 5 minutes away, in Grand Rapids off Breton.
The Koernoelje house was completed in 1965. The home was designed with mostly indirect lighting and had all of the modern conveniences such as air conditioning, underground sprinkling, a central vacuuming system, and was very well insulated. Albert Builders promoted modern conveniences in the homes they built, especially their high-tech kitchens. This house drew the attention of the media and on March 8, 1967 the Almanac, an East Grand Rapids newspaper, published a feature story on the house in an article entitled, Better Living – To Each a Home of
His Own Choice… The story contrasted three different styles of homes. The home on Breton represented contemporary design. The house featured many built-ins and was furnished with appropriate modern furniture selected by the homeowners. Mrs. Koernoelje apparently had a preference for simple housekeeping and was quoted as saying “I don’t like dust-catchers.” The original bathrooms were tiled floor to ceiling, and Mrs. Koernoelje said that in hindsight she would have tiled the ceilings too. It was cool in the summer thanks to an air-conditioning system, and according to the article in the Almanac, the home had a feeling of “airiness.”
Today we would call that an “open plan,” a highly desired floor plan style that is sought after by today’s homebuyers. The original interior also featured walls of a cream color with painted greypaneling, and the floor finishes were a sharp contrast – carpeting in blue-green, apricot, and “tweedy” gold on the floating stairway. Kenneth Koernoelje loved sailing and there was speculation that this influenced the soft grey and cream colors of interior and exterior. Today the Koernoelje house remains an icon of modern style. Current owners Stephane and Carolyn moved here from Toronto and filled the home with their collection of modern furniture and art. With two young children, the multi-level house offers great functionality and flexibility. This house is both beautiful and practical. For example there is an unusual modern metal screen at the top of the stairway at both the Pinecrest and Breton homes. This decorative feature provides privacy by blocking the view of the bedroom hall from visitors entering through the front door. The things that attracted Carolyn and Stephane to the house reflect the ease of living in a well maintained modern home, the floor plan and use of space, the location, and the quality of finishes and sensitive remodel that had been done by the previous owners. Stephane and Carolyn wish they could put the house on a truck and move it with them, as they are relocating to Indiana. They will miss the house, and also the peaceful setting and daily visitors, the deer, wild turkeys, and birds. On the day of our tour, the yard was lush and green. Stephane and Carolyn met us at the door, eager to show us their lovely home. When Stephane and Carolyn first moved here from Toronto they fell in love with the Breton house. With two young children, the multi-level house offers great functionality and flexibility.
The dramatic cantilevered stairway at the entry leads down a flight to the two very distinct halves of the open plan main level and up a flight to the bedroom level. For Stephane and Carolyn, the stairway provides a perfect focal point for art and light fixtures and separates the two parallel halves of the main floor which are a contrast in natural lighting. On the living room and dining room side the length of the room has floor-to-ceiling glass, bringing the outdoors in. These rooms front a beautifully landscaped backyard. The only original dark wood-paneled wall, located in the dining area, has been painted a light color to provide a backdrop for more beautiful art. The seating group is positioned to enjoy the outdoor patio with its mix of concrete, rocks, ground cover, steps and an iron gate. The lovely grounds are a perfect frame for this geometric house. On the family room and study/office side there is a high bank of ribbon windows. We like these,” said original owner Mrs. Koernoelje, “They make for varying furniture placement, give plenty of light, yet complete privacy.” Between the two halves of this level is the kitchen, which has been tastefully updated. The original kitchen was planned to be an efficient connector between eating area and dining room and today separates the dining area from the children’s play area.
Ribbon windows also line both sides of the bedroom level, which is arranged around a large central landing. This house is great for a young family. The attractive rooms of the main floor do double duty as a place for entertaining friends and also for children’s play and quiet activities close to parents. One accesses the garage and utility room, including laundry, via a hall leading from the main floor living room. The efficient use of
space on the interior of the house is reflective of the minimalism suggested by the exterior. Still the interior of the home is warm and peaceful, with Stephane and Carolyn’s baby sleeping and their young son running around, the home is clearly as well suited for parties as it is for family life. It’s easy to see why the Koernoelje’s needed one of their own.
Walking around this house with my neighbor was particularly interesting, both of us oddly familiar with it, though not quite. He walked slowly through the house, commenting here and there on similarities and differences between his home and this one, and on projects he was planning to tackle as he renovated his house. My familiarity with this house, these two homes was from the exterior as I had never been inside either of them. Walking and driving by, and looking out at this house from my own, I thought often of the way that house must have landed on Pinecrest like a strange other place sort of dwelling. I thought too of the wonderful parties that must have happened there. It has all those elements that delight
mid-century enthusiasts, the glass and open floor plan and indoor outdoor living. For me though the really special thing about this house, in addition to its sort of building block shape, is the play between privacy and openness. The front of the house is very private, the only real opening is the large windows by the door, which are hard to see into because of the way the house is positioned on the lot. The back of the house is so open, at least on that main level. If there wasn’t a fence between our yard and that house we would have seen everything our neighbors did in the kitchen, dining, and living room. What must it have been like, in 1961 to look from my house to that house? Those original owners must have felt so exposed. But that is what is so great about the back of these twin houses – they are so open to the outdoors, but also very much like a department store display window, especially if someone has the right furniture and design sense.
It’s wonderful to have not only one, but two of these houses in West Michigan. And even more that they are nearly original, both a perfect set of light grey boxes, set just so on their lots, inviting yet not so very. Author note: Melissa Fox is a librarian and avid reader who most recently worked at the Grand Rapids Public LIbrary Local History and Special Collections Department. Melissa and her husband Tom and daughter Lucy are currently living in London. Melissa is a contributing writer and correspondent for West Michigan Modern and is writing her own blog about her London adventures.