Richard Neutra’s List House: Lessons from Significant Architecture

IMG_0440Editor’s Note.   Richard Neutra’s List House: Lessons from Significant Architecture by Steve Romkema looks at one of Metropolitan Grand Rapids’ prized architectural treasures and addresses some of the issues faced by owners of iconic mid-century modern buildings.  Will it provide for the needs of owners as the house and owners age?

A little bit here about Architect Richard Neutra.  According to Barbara Lamprecht in her book Neutra published in 2006 by Taschien, Richard Neutra was referred to as “America’s best known architect” in Progressive Contractor magazine, November 1934.  Neutra was born in Vienna in 1879, came to the United States in 1923.  He worked for acclaimed architect Erich Mendelsohn in Europe and later for Frank Lloyd Wright in the US before he settled in California where in 1927-1929 he designed the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles, recognized according to Lamprecht as “one of the most important houses of the 20th century” due to its revolutionary steel frame structure. Neutra is also known for the Kaufman house in Palm Springs.  Julius Shulman noted architectural photographer became famous photographing the buildings designed by Richard Neutra.  And Neutra designed only one home in Michigan and that was for Dr. and Mrs. Carl List on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids in 1962, the subject of this paper. Neutra died in 1970 after a prolific career.   Citation:  Neutra by Barbara Lamprecht.  Taschien, 2006

Richard Neutra’s List House: Lessons from Significant Architecture with Text and Photos by Steve Romkema.  

Exterior view showing garage at street level with glassed in porch above brick work.

List House at street level with glassed in porch above vertical brick work and garage. Photograph by Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern.

How will the needs of a rapidly aging baby boomer generation affect the current housing stock in the United States? This is the question that I, along with several of my classmates, set out to answer in a graduate level architecture studio at Lawrence Technical University. For over four month, we explored and researched single family residential architecture through the lens of aging in place. One aspect of our work is a firsthand examination of a significant work of mid-century modern architecture. The following is a combination of that work and a general review of the List House in East Grand Rapids.

List house DrawingBuilt in 1962 for Grand Rapids’ first neurosurgeon, the List House is a prime example of the leading edge of architecture of the time. Designed by renowned architect Richard Neutra, the home is modest in size.

Originally built for retirement, the home consists of three bedrooms and three baths. It’s situated on a sloping site along Reed’s Lake, and as a result the main living space is elevated a full story above street level.

Original blue prints

Original blue prints

That’s not to say, however, that the home is two stories. When occupying the main living floor the house has the feel of being a single level, with the exception of a slight elevation change when moving to the second and third bedrooms. Additionally, the street level is dominated by the garage and unfinished utility spaces. As a result of the elevated living areas the home is fairly nondescript and intimidating from the street.

Exterior with partial view of garage and brick kitchen extension.

Exterior with partial view of garage and brick kitchen extension. Photo by Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern.

The front door is not readily apparent, like many homes of the era. It’s only revealed once you traverse up the natural slope to the main living level and turn a corner. This journey does however take you past a small reflecting pond and reveals the exterior materials of Philippine Mahogany, vertical brick, and glass; all while staging your first view of the interior.

When the front door opens, you’re greeted with a view through the house to the nearly floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake that line the southwest side of the home.

Panoramic view of Reeds Lake from the living room. Photo by Steve Romkema.

Panoramic view of Reeds Lake from the living room/dining area. Photo by Steve Romkema.

There are multiple directions one can go upon entering the foyer. To the left is the kitchen, complete with minimalistic cabinets and built-ins.

List House Kitchen. Photo by Steve Romkema.

List House Kitchen. Photo by Steve Romkema.

Turning right takes you to one of the baths and a short flight of stairs leading to the second and third bedrooms. If you take a few steps forward and turn right, you’re greeted with a long, closet lined corridor that leads to the master suit.

Closet-lined hallway leading to

Closet-lined hallway leading to the master suite, Photo by Steven Romkema

Neutra House Living Room. Photo by Steve Romkema.

Neutra House Living Room. Photo by Steve Romkema..

The most natural path is to head straight to the main living area. The space is long and skinny, allowing natural light to pour through the full height windows and flood the entire room. At one end, adjacent to the kitchen, is the dining area with an adjacent screened in porch.

Living Room and Study. Photo by Steve Romkema

Living Room and Study. Photo by Steve Romkema

Anchoring the other end is a large fireplace that serves as the focal point of what is typically referred to today as the living room.  Tucked behind the fireplace is the office with a direct connection to the master suite.

In recent years the home has been occupied by a family of three, bringing into question the ability of the home to support a wider range of occupants. As a result, concern is created when evaluating the house not based on its original intent, but through the lens of aging in place. In doing so the home needs to be seen as a lifelong partner that not just meets needs of a particular moment, but also has the ability to support its occupants over the course of time.

The List House is an excellent example of mid-century modern architecture.  It’s challenges as a lifelong partner highlight issues around culture, maintenance, and climate that can be addressed with a new approach to residential architecture.

Culture plays a significant role in how homes are utilized.

The original construction documents call for separate beds and headboards in the master bedroom, something the current owners have no interest in.

List House Floor Plan with built-ins

List House Floor Plan with built-ins. Photo by Steven Romkema

The solution here is relatively simple: remove the headboards. However, this is not always the case. While the home is large enough to handle the larger number of occupants, space allotted to individual rooms has created some desires. The ability to find furniture that fits the home has proven to be difficult for the current owners, even though they own their own furniture store.

The biggest culprit is the living room even though it has some furniture built in.

View of living space with built-ins

View of living room and dining area with built-ins.  Photo by Steven Romkema.

 In a perfect world the current owners would extend the room a couple of feet to allow the space to function with the larger furniture available today. Similar issues extend to other areas like the kitchen, which  has limited sitting space and appliances that have outgrown their intended spots.

If homes are to serve in the long term they need adapt not just to their occupants, but also to the items that come with them.

As the home ages it, like all buildings, will require a certain level of maintenance. The issue is that materials used in the original construction may not be available today. This is often the result of new discoveries associated with these materials. Take for example materials like asbestos and lead, which are now prohibited. Recent painting at the List House brought this issue to the forefront. The window frames, which appear to be aluminum, are actually wood coated with an aluminum paint no longer being manufactured.

Fortunately, after an extensive search, the homeowners found a painter who just happened to have some leftover from a past job. This situation brings to question the materials used in long-term homes. If a house is to adapt to changing needs it must provide everything needed to adapt from the start.

List House BookWhile the current owners are happy with the home and don’t have intentions of making significant changes, they do feel the pressure from the outside not to change anything, given the 53 year-old house is one of the few Neutra designed outside of Southern California. As a result, features typical of Southern California homes have been incorporated into the List House, proving to be problematic in the local climate.

For instance, the owners reluctantly replaced a few windows that would ice over in the Michigan winters with the best match available today. Even though the new window frames were only a fraction of an inch larger than the non-functioning originals, the owners received criticism for this. There are other issues associated with the design of the house, most notably insufficient overhangs which allow driving rain to infiltrate, creating problems. Regardless of their intention to alter these, the owners feel they are limited with what they’re able to do with their home, given its status as a prized work of architecture. Even if the issues arise from poor design decisions.

The owners possess massive amounts of documentation around the design of the home, but even so, it’s difficult to understand why specific decisions were made.

What is apparent, however, is the home was designed to fulfill the needs of a specific set of occupants. As such, the home creates what are fairly simplistic issues surrounding furniture, materials, and a sense of destruction in altering the current house. However, these issues can be addressed through a new architectural typology; one that provides the occupants the ability to easily manipulate space to fit the needs of any moment.

About the Author

Steve Romkema

Steve Romkema

Steven Romkema recently completed his Master of Architecture at Lawrence Technological University. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and also studied at Michigan State University. Born and raised in Saint Joseph, MI, Steven and his wife, Andria, have strong family ties to the Grand Rapids area. Recently they relocated to Rockford after previously spending time in Lansing, Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Saturday, September 12 Pop-Up Tour of the Eppstein House by Frank Lloyd Wright 2-4pm

West Michigan Modern invites you to hit the road for a tour of the Eppstein House in “The Acres” in Galesburg, Michigan from 2-4pm Saturday, September 12.  The house is currently for sale and vacant and in need of a good owner.  It is located at 11090 Hawthorne Dr, Galesburg, MI 49053.  A link to the home listing is found at the end of this article.

Entrance to The Acres

Entrance to The Acres

The Eppstein.  Photos and text (excepting identified source material) by Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern.  The Eppstein house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in The Acres, also known as the Galesburg Country Homes, established as a co-op in 1949 by a group of scientists from the Upjohn pharmaceutical company.  They retained Frank Lloyd Wright to design the four FLW Usonian homes  in the neighborhood:

  • David Weisblat Residence
  • Eric and Pat Pratt Residence
  • Samuel and Dorothy Eppstein Residence
  • Curtis Meyer Residence

A fifth house, the Günther and Anne Fonken House was designed by Taliesin School fellow Francis “Will” Willsey.   One unique feature of these homes is that each is sited on a 1-acre circular lot.

Curved block wall

Curved block wall

The Acres owners were originally partnered with their colleagues, a group of scientists (also from Upjohn) who founded the Parkwyn Village settlement of Frank Lloyd Wright homes on Asylum Lake in Kalamazoo.  The homes were all to be built in the Acres but some of the scientists believed that the Galesburg site east of Kalamazoo was too far to commute and created Parkwyn Village. (Source: Parkwyn Village.)SIde Perspective

Homes in The Acres are the Usonian style based on Wright’s recognition that there was a need for a moderately priced house with ‘a pattern for more simplified and…more gracious living.’

Wright was involved with every detail from master site plans, house plans, furniture and landscape designs. “Upon receiving Wright’s plans for their house, the Eppsteins reviewed them, and made several suggestions they felt made the house more livable,including enlarging the children’s bedrooms, and both enlarging the kitchen and including a window (the initial plans had no window) and a desk. Wright agreed to these suggestions, and construction soon began.”  Eppstein House – Michigan Modern Website

Built-in living room furniture

Built-in living room furniture

The finished house was constructed of textile blocks, big windows and skylights, built-in furniture, and a mix of shallow and grand sloping ceilings.  The floors were of polished concrete that you see above and were stained a dark red.  The Eppsteins scored the concrete in four foot squares using a circular saw.

Varying ceiling heights and natural materials

Varying ceiling heights and natural materials

Wright designed the house to be connected closely to nature.”  Parkwyn Village – Kalamazoo Public Library  The original owner of the Eppstein House wrote a wonderful description of the work she and her husband did on this house (“Why we lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright House” by Dorothy Eppstein Why we lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright House .

Pattern Blocks

Pattern Blocks

They formed all of the blocks at Asylum Lake in a community effort with the owners of the Parkwyn Village owners.  They cured all of the patterns blocks used in the house.  Interestingly they are cut-out to look like the letter F.

Mr. Eppstein built much of the furniture himself.  According to Mrs. Eppstein, he did it all with a radial saw set up in the open carport. They took carpentry classes at Galesburg High school and they sewed drapes of tan burlap bag material costing .50 per yard.  The house was move in ready by 1953 but Mrs. Eppstein said it took twenty years to complete the house including the bedroom wing and the last section was a family room with fireplace.   Over the past few years, the Eppstein House has undergone extensive repairs including new structural beams, and restoration of the mahogany fascia.  There is a new kitchen

Newer Kitchen

Newer Kitchen

but the home is in original condition with the polished concrete floors, fireplace, and the hand built furniture.  The living room is a wonderful room with fireplace and a lot of light. Although it sits low behind a semi-circle block wall, it overlooks the community property and beautiful grounds.   For many summers all of the residents of The Acres enjoyed swimming in the lovely built-in swimming pool on the property. Eppstein House CoverThis house is for sale and needs a new owner.  Link here for listing:  Eppstein House for Sale .  Come and see for yourself West Michigan Modern Pop-Up Tour of The Eppstein House on Saturday, September 12 between 2 and 4pm.  Walk through this interesting Frank LLoyd Wright Usonian home.


LL Rear and side of homeTHE LOVELL-LARAMY HOUSE.  Text and photos by Pam VanderPloeg copyright 2015.  The Lovell-Laramy house, 1958, was designed for Mary Laramy and Ida Lovell by E. John Knapp and built by Lovell’s brother Paul.  Current owners VIcky and Bruce became the second owners after they purchased it from Mary Laramy.

LL Exterior Facing Backyard

Exterior Facing Backyard

This mid-century home is furnished with a mix of antiques and eclectic furnishings. It has gracefully survived what my friend calls “re-muddling.”  The structural and design details are intact and cherished by the current owners.  As with many modern homes, the street side masks the full impact of the architect’s vision – the lovely transparent feeling of the floor to ceiling windows in the main living area. On one side of the house larger windows are visible but a sense of privacy is retained. 

Side exterior with glimpse of floor to ceiling glass

Side exterior with glimpse of floor to ceiling glass

On the street side shown below, high front windows let in light but shield the rooms from the road.

LL Garage faces street

E. John Knapp’s daughter Marcia on the street side of the house with garage and high awning windows

 When I stopped by the first time, it was just on a feeling that the owners might be there.  Bruce was in the driveway and the open garage door gave me a glimpse of his beautiful hand-built canoe nearing completion.  Although I had given them no advance warning, they graciously invited me in to see their home.  I was absolutely thrilled to discover how lovely this home is inside and out.

The changes Bruce and Vicky made have increased the home’s livability such as a third bedroom in the basement.  They enhanced the openness of the living area by removing what I understand was a sort of small partition wall/storage unit. Other changes were inevitable like new flooring in certain areas of the house and for safety a new stair railing shown below.

Hallway Downstairs to Main Entrance with Colorful Original Slate Flooring

Hallway Downstairs to Main Entrance with Colorful Original Slate Flooring

You enter at the street level and leave your shoes beneath the bench Japanese style before entering up the stairs with their colorful slate finish.  At the top is one of Knapp’s trademark built-in units, this one for books.  During his student days, Knapp attended a Detroit Institute of Arts exhibit with a replica of a Japanese living room.  Knapp shared his enthusiasm with his professor who loaned him a book on Japanese design which greatly influenced his later work along with the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

LL As with Japanese houses a place to leave shoes before entering house

LL As with Japanese houses a place to leave shoes before entering house

The second visit was arranged when architect E. John Knapp’s daughter Marcia was visiting from Missouri.  On this pre-arranged visit,  Bruce and Vicky brought out the architect’s plans and drawings that came with the house.

Knapp's Original Drawing

Knapp’s Original Drawing

When Knapp had completed his first preliminary sketches, he asked the two women to meet him on the site so he could show them the location of the house on the lot and the views from different parts of the house.  Knapp recalled that he brought a large stepladder to the site and set it where the top step matched the floor of the main living area. Ida Lovell was the head of the art department of the GR public schools.  He had her go up the ladder first because he felt she was sensitive to the atmosphere he was aiming for. 

Laramie was the principal of Stocking Elementary School.  She caught on that Dad was teaching them about their new house. From the ladder they could see in all three directions.  Their first reaction was how beautiful the views were including the mowed lawn of the golf course with all the trees they had planted.  That golf course is gone now but at that time, 1957 about, they made the decision to put windows on 3 sides to take advantage of the view. 

LL Colored Glass in Main Living Area

Colored Glass in Main Living Area

Lovell and Laramy wanted a window wall but they didn’t want to see the house next door so Knapp suggested using a cost-effective colored glass system that he had used in one of his church designs where colored plastic was sandwiched in between clear glass in the large windows that faced toward the neighboring house!   Also when they were on the ladder they realized, they didn’t want the fireplace to block the view.     So Knapp put the chimney in the middle of the house with the fireplace part of an expansive brick wall.  

LL Expansive Fireplace Wall in Living Area

Expansive Fireplace Wall in Living Area

On the kitchen side they had a big brick grill which the current owners decommissioned after a particularly unsafe adventure with it involving a lot of smoke.

Kitchen Side of Brick Fireplace Wall with Grill

Kitchen Side of Brick Fireplace Wall with Grill

The roof was held up by a center beam in the living room.  Knapp described doing his own engineering for the beam so that no posts were needed in the center of the room.  Although Knapp remembered that his plan had been to use 2 x 6 lumber for the beam,  20 footers glued & nailed together (20 ft. wasn’t long enough), the homeowners report that close inspection shows the beam to be constructed of 2 x 4 lumber.  Knapp also recalled that they used nails to clamp them together because they didn’t have clamps that were big enough. 

Close up of ceiling and beams

Close up of ceiling and beams

After Lovell and Laramy lived in the house for 6 months, they called Knapp and told him they were having  a party at their house for teachers.  They wanted him to come and give a talk about architecture, art, design, fabric.  He described to the audience how he designed the house and the influence of Japanese design and Frank Lloyd Wright had on his work. 

LL Exterior Closeup

LL Exterior Closeup

At one point he projected slides of drawings he’d had daughters Laura and Marcia do of vertical and horizontal lines on paper with some of the boxes colored in with their crayons and according to Knapp the teachers really enjoyed that part.  For his part Knapp considered Laramy and Lovell two of his favorite clients and loved how the two educators were using their new house.  To have parties and meetings and share that spectacular view.  This the architect called “life After Construction.”

LL ANother View of Living Area

Another View of Living Area

Another memory shared by Knapp is that during construction, he assured Lovell and Laramy that they would not need drapes for their wall of windows.  They disagreed and went about picking out drapes from a company called Infinity Fabrics (this company has a story that will be shared in another post).   When Knapp visited, much to his surprise, he found no drapes.  The women told him he was right after all.  The drapes would have ruined their spectacular view!   Bruce and Vicky said those drapes were probably the ones that were still on the windows when they bought the house.

The two bedrooms are cottage-like with post and beam ceiling and wood floors. 

Guest bedroom with original wood ceiling and replacement Bamboo Screen Doors

Guest bedroom with original wood ceiling and replacement Bamboo screen closet doors

New bamboo screens replaced the original wood folding doors on closets.

Master Bedroom adjoins Guest Bedroom

Master Bedroom adjoins Guest Bedroom

The bathroom’s original tiles and sink are framed as are other rooms in house with Frank lloyd Wright style piano hinged doors.   LL Piano Hinge Doors

Hallway flooring is the original cork

LL View of Hallway & Kitchen Partition Wall leads to Office/Den

LL View of Hallway & Kitchen Partition Wall leads to Office/Den

and the kitchen features the vaulted ceiling, original cabinets and door pulls 

LL Kitchen with Original Kitchen Cupboards & Pulls

LL Kitchen with Original Kitchen Cupboards & Pulls

Shown below is the original light fixture and built-in storage units.

LL Original Storage Shelves and Light Fixture in Laundray

Original Storage Shelves and Light Fixture in Laundry

It is evident that the owners treasure their beautiful home.  They did not approach the home as mid-century modern enthusiasts. However, as many others have done, they fell in love with the house immediately and made it their own.  They have maximized the site by retaining some original plantings, creating new gardens and restoring an original overgrown water feature.

Views of the gardens and yard

Living room views of the gardens and yard

LL Owners with Architect's Daughter

Bruce and Vicky with Marcia, E. John Knapp’s daughter

Here Bruce and Vicky pose with Marcia as we wandered through the large yard with its flower and vegetable gardens, pergola and pleasant seating areas where resident chickens wander.

A wandering chicken

A wandering chicken and view of the vegetable garden

Rarely do you have the chance to tour a house so beautifully preserved in the context of the stories of the home’s beginnings.  We thank Bruce and Vicky for welcoming us into their home. And we thank Knapp for sharing his memories of the design process.  And one last fun detail.  Bruce showed us the corner of the garage where just barely visible are the names the owner, architect and builder etched in concrete so that this information would never be forgotten.   LL Etched in Concrete


West Michigan Modern Free Pop-Up Summer Gathering July 16 – Ticket Required Due to Limited Space

West Michigan Modern Pop-Up Summer Gathering Thursday, July 16 – 6:30-8:30 pm  at the Varsity Grill at 400 Franklin SE, Grand Rapids (SE corner of Franklin at Madison).  Join West Michigan Modern at this free event.  Free  –  Ticket Required  RSVP WMM Pop-Up Summer Gathering      Varsity Grill

The Varsity Grill was designed by E. John Knapp, AIA architect, who started his career with experiences in the Eero Saarinen Office working on the GM Tech Center following his education at Lawrence Tech in the Detroit area. Built in 1954, the Varsity Grill has been handsomely restored by the ICCF as a community gathering space. Knapp designed hundreds of popular developer homes for Albert Builders and many unique and beautiful custom mid-century homes and commercial buildings in West Michigan.  Join West Michigan Modern, mid-century modern enthusiasts, homeowners and special guests including E. John Knapp’s daughter at a Summer Pop-Up Gathering at the old Varsity Grill from 6:30-8:30 pm – the first public event here.  Stop by to say hello, see this cool little building, view a slide show of beautiful modern buildings by our favorite mid-century architects and builders and enjoy vintage vinyl tunes.   Free but limited space – so ticket required.  RSVP WMM Pop-Up Summer Gathering      



FRONT EXTERIOR with formal landscaping and dune grass

THE SURF HOUSE OVERLOOKING MUSKEGON LAKE BY CARL ZILLMER, AIA, OBRYON & KNAPP. Text and photos by Pam VanderPloeg copyright 2015, West Michigan Modern.   With summer around the corner, it’s time to think about warm sunshine, Lake Michigan breezes, sand dunes and beach houses.  This late 1950’s Muskegon home was designed to take maximum advantage of sunlight and lake views in true California Contemporary style.  I’m calling it the Surf House because the owners make a surfing pilgrimage to Costa Rica every winter, and years ago, owned a surf shop in Muskegon.  The home is located in Muskegon’s Bluffton neighborhood near Muskegon Lake and Pere Marquette State Park on Lake Michigan.  Driving up to the Surf House for the first time felt like stumbling upon a lovely driftwood sculpture with its weathered board and batten siding.  



As you approach the front door of the Surf House you are greeted by a large Charlie Chaplin print visible in the foyer beyond the bright orange door. This is a theatre rich area and Larry shared some of the local Buster Keaton lore with us as we entered the main living space of the house. 



The Bluffton neighborhood  was the summer home for actor Buster Keaton’s family.  The area was home to a Pigeon Hill, a large dune gone today due to sand mining for industrial uses from the 1930’s on.  This dune was a landmark and the summer backdrop for Buster Keaton’s family performers at the Lake Michigan Park Theatre built in 1898 to compliment the beach pavilion owned by the Muskegon Traction and Lighting Company, the city’s trolley service. The Keatons returned annually, built a cottage and established an Actor’s Colony that lasted until about 1938.  Buster Keaton’s father at least once rode an elephant around the streets. Today the dune is gone, the theatre is gone but Pere Marquette Park is there for all to enjoy. 



The Surf House is built on an extraordinary site perfect for outdoor living with its generous deck and breathtaking view of Muskegon Lake clearly visible inside and out. 



Larry and Lynne can also enjoy a glass of wine and the Lake Michigan sunset from adirondack chairs on an unobtrusive deck nestled into the dunes on the other side of the house.  



Mid-century homes are often referred to as California contemporary and that was actually the inspiration.   In the late 1950’s, the original owner, Larry’s uncle, moved back to Muskegon from the California coast and brought back with him his appreciation for the Eichler homes and a dream to recreate the style in West Michigan.  Larry and Lynne bought the home from Larry’s uncle and made it their own. The Surf House has a classic combination of horizontal design and post and beam construction.  The hopper windows shown here ventilate the living area with lake breezes.  



The Surf house,  which would look just as comfortable on the Pacific Coast, has floor to ceiling windows guaranteed to make you forget you are actually inside in a room enclosed by walls.  Dining and living come together here in this light filled space with amazing views during all four seasons.



This is a good time to mention that the house has been beautifully and faithfully maintained.  Improvements and renovations have been completed gently over the years in the spirit of the original design which can be challenging at times.

When the house was built, in order to maximize the open space but keep it flexible, the architects implemented a unique solution.  They created massive, decorative and utilitarian movable shelving units to allow for rearrangement of the main living area to suit the owners needs.  



The shelves can be used to define a more private setting as in the seating area shown here.



From the vantage point of the original kitchen,  you can see the harmony of the structure — beams, brick, and glass create a unified and pleasing image framed by the original wood cabinetry.  



The home has a convenient and efficient galley kitchen open on one side to the dining area and including a view of the lake to make it feel more expansive.OKM KITCHENThe kitchen is original but for a few practical changes for example re-working the counter and cabinets to accommodate a new larger refrigerator.



Past the kitchen and laundry room is the bedroom wing. In both bedrooms newer drawer units replace older built-ins and shoji screen doors are a good compliment to the beautifully maintained paneled walls and beams.



Note the panels that pull out to expose fresh air vents. These are necessary as the windows with their scenic views do not open.



The beautiful turquoise bathroom tile is also original.



On our first visit, Larry  described his plan to refinish the beautiful decking.   He had done a lot of research!  On our second visit the deck planking had a beautiful new finish.



On that visit as on the first visit Larry wanted to show us more area modern houses.  In Muskegon you need a guide to find them because they are usually singletons in more traditional neighborhoods. He surprised us with an additional “tour”  in his Lyman power boat on Muskegon and Bear Lake to see some beautiful homes that show their best sides to the water.  



On our first visit Larry brought out blueprints and that enabled us to identify both the Grand Rapids architectural firm of Obryon and Knapp and the design architect Carl Zillmer,  an AIA architect working as an associate with the firm.  Former partner with the firm,  E. John Knapp remembered hiring Carl Zillmer after Knapp met him at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and discovered Zillmer was looking for work.   Knapp invited Zillmer to come over to the office to meet the other partner OB (Obryon’s nickname).  They hired him on the spot. Zillmer’s wife remembered driving to Muskegon so Carl could show her the house.  And Zillmer’s son Eric, reminiscing about his father, recalled his image of his father, the architect, who was a vision of true classic mid-mod style:  “gingham short sleeve button-front shirts,  casual-dress slacks, and always a knit, square-end tie.”  Carl Zillmer was the son of Grand Rapids architect Emil Zillmer who designed the International style home featured on West Michigan Modern in February 2015.

We looked at the original landscape plans drawn up for the Surf House conceived by Willard Gebhart.



Gebbart also designed the Muskegon Causeway Memorial Park.  He graduated from Cornell’s Architecture School and developed a national reputation with his designs for various Washington DC sites such as the British Embassy and the Folger Shakespeare Library and a number of private homes for governmental officials. Even with national success, Gebhart continued to live on his farm in Hart, Michigan about 35 miles north of Muskegon.  

OM Exterior Low Res 1We can’t express adequately our appreciation to Larry and Lynne for sharing the Surf House and guiding us through the neighborhoods.  The close knit neighborhood is appropriately protective of the natural beauty of the area.    There is an eclectic mix of homes in this area including some mid-century modern gems. In fact there are a significant number of beautiful midcentury modern homes in a variety of styles in Muskegon and they are well worth seeking out.  Happy approaching summer to all!  


ELIEL AND EERO SAARINEN DESIGNED THE FENTON COMMUNITY CENTER. Text and photos by Pam VanderPloeg, March 2015.  On Saturday, March 14, 2015 Deborah Goldstein, President of the Michigan Chapter of DOCOMOMO-US, welcomed visitors to a lecture and tour of the Fenton Community Center in Fenton just south of Flint.  Lecture The Michigan Chapter of Docomomo US is dedicated to raising awareness of Michigan’s modern design heritage to encourage recognition, preservation and reuse of these resources (   Brian Conway, Director of the State Historic  Preservation Office, the guiding force behind the MICHIGAN MODERN project, provided the audience with a slide show detailing the history and principle buildings of Eliel Saarinen and the collaboration between Saarinen and his son Eero.

 Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish architect, came to the United States with his family and developed a practice here after he received second place in the 1922 Chicago Tribune design competition.  Eliel Saarinen designed the buildings and planned the Cranbrook, where he served as the first President and head of the Architecture Program.   Son Eero Saarinen was the designer of the St. Louis Arch, the New York TWA Terminal buildings, and General Motors Technical Center among other notable structures. The Fenton Community Center, was built with funds from Horace H. and Mary A. Rackham. Mary had ties to the area which was  primarily a farming community.  They believed the community needed a cultural and educational gathering place.  Original photos are found on the Cranbrook Archives website including a rendering and model of the original building.  

Vince Paris, Director of the Fenton Community Center, led participants on a tour of the facility and described the extensive maintenance and improvements being conducted through a successful partnership between the Center’s Board of Governors and the City of Fenton.

The new addition was designed to bring harmony between old and new. The brick of the fourth side of the historic exterior is now visible as an interior wall in the addition.  The adjacent oversized wood doors were the exterior stage doors (seen here through the glass because the addition has not yet been cleared for occupancy).  The doors had a removable set of metal stairs to transport scenery and provide access to the backstage area.  Infrastructure improvements have uncovered intriguing mechanical systems and an innovative foundation design of concrete piers on what was discovered to be a layer of peat approximately 16 feet below.  A tornado hit the building in 2007 and took off the roof. This has since been repaired and the flat roof style maintained.   Recently the carpet in the lobby was removed, uncovering the original tile floor.  The lower level floor has a duplicate tile floor.   The lobby leads to the auditorium and the doors feature the original hardware.  

The auditorium includes original stunning floor to ceiling windows, extensive paneling and a performance stage.   There is an auditorium photo in the Cranbrook Archives:

Some future challenges will be restoring the massive folding partition walls that move on a ceiling track. These have sustained water damage and can no longer be opened and closed. There is a clever use of plywood in the building with a beautiful herringbone veneer pattern visible in the screens, the wall panelling and the wainscoting.  

The fireplace located in the back of the auditorium has a distinct horizontal prairie style and features decorative brick, wood and metal trim.  The wall surface above the fireplace is now a wood frame covered by fabric painted over the years. Hidden underneath is the same panelling seen throughout the auditorium.  The original parquet floor will be beautiful when refinished.

Inside the cabinets of the old kitchen adjacent to the auditorium are the remaining pieces of the china S FC ORIGINAL SYRACUSE CHINAcommissioned for the Center from Syracuse China who closed its New York manufacturing facility in 2009, after 138 years and moved manufacturing operations oversees.

 Walking around the building there are other outstanding features including two floors of windows.  The lower level doors that are surrounded by windows were added in a later renovation.  The stepped side wall framing the exterior stairs seems like a Saarinen trademark noted in other buildings.  With its generous and beautiful grounds, the Center was designed with outdoor functions in mind  At one time the Boy Scouts restored the fountain.  Now the Center has a plan to raise funds to replace missing parts (some of which have been located at Cranbrook) and restore its beauty.   

The Fenton Community Center is located on a prominent and pleasing site.  S FC BUILDING W CLOCK TOWERAs you walk up the hill from the back and round the corner of the building you have a great view of the new addition and of the Fire Station across the street complete with iconic tower and historic clock.  The old Fire Station had been located on the Center’s site and when they moved to their new building they took the clock with them.

 The Board of Directors and the City have made an important investment in the future of Fenton by preserving the Fenton Community Center and have insured its lasting value with a critical new addition.  For more on the history go to the Fenton Community Center website:

Breton House: A Tale of Two (of the same) Homes

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.

Breton House

Breton House

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? 

Pinecrest House

Pinecrest House

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

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. 

Pinecrest House 1960's

Pinecrest House 1960’s

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. 

Breton House Constructed

Breton House was constructed in 1965

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

Mrs. Koernoelje favored modern furniture.

Mrs. Koernoelje favored modern furniture

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.”  

Tweedy gold carpeting on the foating stairway

Tweedy gold carpeting on the foating stairway

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 Screenwith 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.  TBackyardhe 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. SH FROM STIARWAYStephane 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 SH Dining Table 2the 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 SH GARDEN 5room 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 SH LIVING ROOMperfect 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.

Kitchen connects to the playroom

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

Hall to Utilitiesspace 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

View Outdoorsmid-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.