This beautiful early James Bronkema home at 245 Manhattan, completed in 1949 and currently for sale (watch for new listing), sits at the southeast end of a string of James Bronkema homes in East Grand Rapids, in the Cascade/Manhattan Park area. Like charms on a necklace, each home is unique, set on a picturesque ravine and constructed from 1948 to 1953. James Bronkema was happiest building luxury custom homes and believed that the exterior of a home follows from the design of the interior which should mirror the individual needs of the prospective homeowner – i.e. form follows function. When current owners Hilary and Brian found the home, it was yellow with blue shutters. In the renovation they were able to maximize and draw attention to some of the original features of the home while updating other areas of the house. Brian was able to do much of the work himself including designing and building interior and exterior light fixtures such as the globe on pillar in front of the house and the pendant lamps in the kitchen. But I am getting ahead of myself in this tour. Let me just say that a mix of materials such as the brick and original redwood of this home were trademarks of Bronkema who was born in Grand Rapids in 1924 and only passed away last February, living a rich 90 years. Actually he designed and built homes in Grand Rapids for approximately 14 years before he left Michigan. During that time he left a legacy of 150-200 homes and buildings of which only a moderate number have been identified. He started building at age 21, when he returned from a stint as a naval aviator in WWII. During the renovation, Brian had a gracious and interesting phone conversation with James Bronkema who lived in Palm Springs until his death. Some of the Bronkema trademarks are included in this house like the brick entry floor and the radiant heating which still works and makes the house cozy in the winter. Interior paint colors compliment the original brick entry floor and the fireplace wall in the great room which has a new mantle designed with handy built-in storage. As is typical with both Bronkema homes and mid-century modern in general, the large nearly floor to ceiling glass windows flood the room with light and the ribbon windows on the opposite wall add more light and interest to the room. Ribbon windows are found in the bedrooms as well. Other Bronkema features include the wide eaves overhanging the patio and the large brick chimney on the south side of the house. The kitchen is new (they were able to move cupboards and uncover a window to the backyard). A door from the kitchen leads to a handy washer/dryer and then turning left down the hall is a new workroom and playroom. The expansion turns the home into an L-shaped structure but does not alter the original exterior of the front of the house. One room that has had a total makeover is the renovated bathroom complete with new tile tub/shower surround, clever sink/counter combination at a nice height and very cool concrete floor, all designed and completed by the owners and tied together with the original ribbon windows like the other rooms. There is one room where you can see the original wood paneling in the baby’s bedroom and the serene color palette combined with striking art in the master bedroom. One of James Bronkema’s philosophies that he shared with Grand Rapids Press writers who wrote several articles about him, was that the beauty of a house should based mostly on the natural materials, the structure and the architectural features and not extraneous ornamentation. Here, Brian and Hilary leveraged the best of both worlds. They have tapped into their own artistry (Hilary designs jewelry and some of the art in the home and Brian completed the renovation projects as well as his own artful lighting designs) and used these to enhance the natural features of the home. What they created is a warm and inviting home true to the original design, but entirely their own. Now as they move to a new home, also in the family of EGR midcentury modernism, it will be fun to see what they do with their next house and how future owners make this home their own.
Editor’s Introduction to “Modern Furniture by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings for Widdicomb:”
In the summer of 2011, we found at two separate GR Salvation Army Stores two pieces of furniture we call “the Gibby’s” from the modern Widdicomb Furniture line designed by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings and produced sometime between 1946-1955. WIth the first piece we hesitated. That night after doing our research on Robsjohn-Gibbdings, we were horrified that we had passed it up. Next day we were at the Salvation Army store on Division when it opened. The second piece was found about two weeks later at a different Salvation Army store — coincidence? same estate? Now owners of two pieces by the well-known mid-century designer, we decided to have them refinished. Note of clarification: These photos are of the pieces after they were refinished. You will notice in the photos the detail in the drawers of the gentleman’s chest, the first piece, and the beauty of the grain on the spring-action doors as well as the detail of the drawers and shelves in the second. Auction sites confirm that these vintages are sought after by collectors. Last summer, at a church rummage sale, we found for $5.00 our third piece, this cool chair which we are now refinishing –amazing luck! Naturally, we find the history of T.H. Robjohns-Gibbings interesting and relevant. Melissa Fox, Grand Rapids Library Local History Librarian and West Michigan Modern contributing writer, reconstructed the Robsjohn-Gibbins/Widdicomb story in the display case, Local History Department, 4th Floor, Grand Rapids public Library. Check it out. PVP T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings by Melissa Fox. Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings (1905 – 1976) was born in London, England in 1905 and studied architecture at both the University of Liverpool and London University. He worked as a naval architect, designing ocean liner interiors. He also worked for renowned antique shop and decorating firm, Charles of London, which brought him to the United States in 1929 to launch the company’s New York branch.
In 1936 Robsjohn-Gibbings opened his own interior design firm, Robsjohn-Gibbings Limited, and was instantly successful, decorating some of the country’s most publicized homes for such clients as Elizabeth Arden, Thelma Chrysler Foy, and socialite Doris Duke, among many others.
Robsjohn-Gibbings had a strong knowledge of furniture history, and a special interest in furniture from ancient Greece. The influence from this can be seen in some of his designs, such as his Colosseum table. Showcasing his love of Greek design, and a milestone of his early career, was designing Casa Encantada, a 43-room mansion for socialite Hilda Boldt Weber located on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. Robsjohn-Gibbings designed two hundred exquisite pieces of furniture for the project, which have since become prized objects for collectors of modern art and design.
In 1944 his first book, Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale, in which he criticizes antique furniture and furniture collecting and makes a case for producing furniture that is a reflection of American life and culture. Robsjohn-Gibbings authored two additional books, Mona Lisa’s Mustache in 1947 and Homes of the Brave in 1954, the former is a criticism of modern art, and the latter a discussion of good taste and home architecture and design. These books serve as examples of his status as spokesman for American domestic culture, promoting the notion that domestic interiors should grow from both national and personal identities and should reflect the cultures and societies that produce them.
Though he was commissioned to design the first Widdicomb pieces in 1943, because of World War II and a shortage of materials and resources, the first Robsjohn-Gibbings designs for Widdicomb were not placed on the market until 1946. The furniture line was an immediate success. Pieces such as the Mesa Table, Strap Sofa, and WAP Cocktail Table are signatures from the collection, and remain highly collectable today.
In 1950 he received the Waters Award for Achievement in Design, was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design exhibition, and in 1962 he won the Elsie de Wolfe Award given by the American Institute of Interior Design.
Robsjohn-Gibbings retired to Greece in 1966, where he remained until his death in 1976.
Note: A little bit about the Grand Rapids Public Library Furniture Collection. The GRPL Local History Department has a Grand Rapids furniture history collection that includes original furniture catalogs including the modern Widdicomb furniture line designed by Robsjohn Gibbings. They also have an archive of furniture magazines and a closed rare book/retrospective on furniture history. Make a trip to the 4th floor of the Grand Rapids Public Library to check out M. Fox’s display and the furniture history resources.
Summary Note: Alison Paige McDonnell, Graduate Student in Architecture at Lawrence Technological University, studied the work of Grand Rapids Mid-century Modern architect Arleigh Hitchcock, specifically the family home he designed at 3164 Hall. The result is a thoughtful piece about designing homes to enable people to age gracefully without the need to move to different homes for different life phases. This article will challenge you to think differently about your own home. The largest percentage of the U.S. Housing stock was built in 1960 (54 years ago) or earlier according to a study by the National Association of Home Builders.These mid-century homes have lasted through generations of families. In Grand Rapids, Michigan many mid-century gems exhibit these qualities, but specifically a hidden treasure is nestled into the hills near Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids. This house utilizes a powerful skeletal structure that accommodates re-purposing space over the course of lifetimes and assists in the aging phases of the occupants’ lives, being advantageous in a design precedent of a forever home.
The population is rapidly aging and approaching life’s later phases.“The older population (65+) numbered 41.4 million in 2011, an increase of 6.3 million or 18% since 2000 & the number of Americans aged 45-64 who will reach 65 over the next two decades increased by 33% during this period,” (Administration on Aging, 2012). Anticipated numbers of those 65+ by 2050 is projected to be as many as 88.5 million, more than double that of 2011. 2050 is only 36 years from now which is not too distant in the future. Investigating homes that currently accommodate aging well will help in the design of new construction being added to the housing stock.
(Left) Current Home at 3164 Hall A lifelong residence will consider the phases of life. Activities in each phase of life are adequately allotted for in the design through space planning and circulation patterns. Similarly, the house must respond to the cyclical nature of a human lifetime and re-purpose itself when the cycle begins again. In general the phases of life would be divided as follows in regards to inhabiting a home:
The first phase would be first time home ownership, ages 25-35 (Eisenburg) and lasting through the early years with children until approximately age 45. Average first time homebuyers spend $142K, & look for about 1600 sf, in Grand Rapids, (www.treadstonemortgage.com/blog/2013/02/who-are-the-first-time-home-buyers/).
The second phase of life accommodates growing kids or an in-law and often initiates a remodel or addition which can cost from $45K for a bedroom to $145K for a two-story addition,(Cost vs. Data). “More and more parents are moving in with kids (not necessarily because of financial reasons) and are as much retrofitting a house. We’re seeing more of that. We’re setting up full baths on first floors next to a study. Grandparents are coming to stay with their kids for a long weekend. They want more flex bedrooms on the first floor,” Jason Minock, Toll Brothers VP.
The third phase would consider end of life accessibility, caretakers or children returning home as cohabitants. “Retirement developments offer one-bedroom units, a few offer two-bedroom units to accommodate a live-in caregiver. Most developments offer barrier-free units,” Interview, Grand Rapids Housing Commission, February 2014). Society is facing a need for more housing to suit this phase of life, the aging American.
(Left) Arleigh“Bud” Hitchcock Arleigh ‘Bud’ Hitchcock was the architect of the mid-century East Grand Rapids gem located at 3164 Hall Street. He designed this home as his personal home in 1958 while working as the Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Home Research Foundation. Was it through this research and the connections to great architects such as Kazumi Adachi, Alden Dow, and R. Buckminster Fuller that contributed to the longevity success of 3164 Hall? The Home Research Foundation’s objectives were “to serve as an information, reference and display center where all those interested in the home field may study and compare the most comprehensive display of homes ever built,” (The Unique Homestyle Center). Hitchcock was thoroughly submerged in great plans of the time choosing 17 to build in a prominent area in Grand Rapids (now the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.) Sadly, the project never came to fruition, but Hitchcock’s home is certainly representative of research that reached fruition and could still be implemented today.
(Right) Original Home. The first phase and original design of this Hitchcock house had a large fence framing the property and leading to the entry.The East Grand Rapids Design Committee no longer permits fenced front yards,thus when the renovation was completed in the late 90’s, the fence was removed and not reinstalled.
Hitchcock was not unfamiliar with life’s phases. Phase 1 in his life was overcoming a proverbial unconsciousness that was a result of two near death experiences – an overdose on ether at age 9 during a tonsillectomy and almost drowning when he was 12. He designed his first house (3120 Hall Street) for he and his small family at 28 years of age as a veteran of WWII, with knowledge from a Bachelor of Science in architecture degree from the University of Michigan. Phase 2 for Mr. Hitchcock was a mixture of success as a manager in the Grand Rapids Furniture Industry working at Herman Miller and as the director receiving the accolades that corresponded to interactions with great architects, donors and socialites at the Home Research Foundation. 3120 Hall Street did not have the capability to accommodate his family and his lifestyle thus 3164 Hall emerged. Phase 3 for Mr.Hitchcock began with the loss of a lot of money in his late 40’s, a near death car accident at age 50 and the divorce of he and his wife Pat at age 57. At this point the Hitchcock family vacated their residence. Would the house have adapted with the family beyond 1981 had these incidents not occurred? Scott Hitchcock, Arleigh’s son, returned to the home about 5 years ago while the current residents were living there. “Scott pointed out some neat features that he remembered as a child,” (owner)“and especially loved returning to this house.” (Left) Original Building Plans. The master suite is separated from the other private spaces (3 bedrooms and a bath) by the large open living area. On the lower walk-out level, a guest suite mimics the master suite upstairs and another large open living area faces the back yard.
The current owners of 3164 Hall St. believe that their house is a home that they’ll have for a lifetime.They each owned their own homes before they were married and bought this one together in 1993. This period was their phase 1– newlyweds, no children and a house that could grow with their family. In phase 1 the only renovations they performed were eliminating the floor to ceiling windows due to safety fears with children in mind. Phase 2 brought along 3 children, success in a local law firm and an addition to the home. The house was arranged such that an expansion to the entry, informal eating area (hearth room) and master suite was achieved in one swift move. An in-ground swimming pool was also added in the backyard. As phase 3 approaches, they anticipate keeping their home. With 2 children in college and the last on her way, the owners are facing their empty nest. When asked about downsizing, “it’s not something we’d consider. ”They like the space and the zone heating helps to keep utilities under control but still allows them to use certain public and private spaces. When asked about renting out space, “we wouldn’t do it because of privacy” but they do anticipate the kids coming home quite a bit. The owner could even see one of her children owning the house later in life. (Left) Renovated Building Plans. A hearth room added to the kitchen, master suite was increased, laundry moved downstairs, and the entry increased. On the lower level, the guest suite was divided into 2 bedrooms separated by a Jack and Jill Bathroom and large storage area replaced by laundry with new storage beneath the addition.
(Left) Main Entry and the choice to go up to the main level or downstairs
While the residents at 3164 Hall did not anticipate living here as long as they have (over 20 years), the house has made it feasible. When asked what could be improved in the design of the house, the owner responded, “being able to fully turn off a part of the house would be nice, but it’s not something we’d consider now. ” The only main criticism of her house was the size of the garage and that it is located under heated space. “The garage was built for cars so long ago, it’s hard to get a normal car or minivan in there. Reconfiguring [the garage] for heating and cooling would be nice,” she stated however this also is not a deal breaker nor would they remodel just because of this. While the home’s highly used spaces are on one floor, there is a staircase between the floors and from the main entry, one has to go up or down. If accessibility were an issue for this family, adjustments would have to be made. These criticisms could certainly be adopted in designing new homes for the aging population.
Studying mid-century homes in Grand Rapids, MI that have been successful in housing families for decades could be the key to future designs and modifications. Some of the key ingredients to 3164 Hall Street’s successes are the ability to change the skin of the building (full height window glass to windows and wood), the ease of additions of open public and private spaces in one swift move as merely an addition to the structural grid, and finally locations of public and private space that allow the house to be semi-turned off. Using criticism from the occupants at 3164 Hall, one could make initial design implementations that would really be successful in all phases of life. For instance, an easier to heat garage and potentially an entry that opens directly onto the main level without stairs to aid in accessibility at an older age. Residential Architects and Designers can use Arleigh Hitchcock’s success at 3164 Hall as a starting point for designing a home where a family can age in place for multiple generations.
1) “The Unique Homestyle Center” of the home research foundation incorporated, summer 1957, Technical Advisers National Association of Home Builders, Washington D.C.
2) “Interview with Arleigh Hitchcock,” Scott Hitchcock, 1993, Obtained on Cassette from the Grand Rapids Public Library.
3) “Homestyle Center”, Miller, Allen, Peninsular Club Magazine, October 24, 1956.
4) “Lost in the Grand Design”, Wozniak, Curt, Home & Design Legacy-Grand Rapids Magazine, August 2005, P26-27.
5) Interview with Marijo and Matthew Zimmerman, McDonnell, Alison, January 2014.
6) Interview with Pamela VanderPloeg, Director, West Michigan Modern, McDonnell, Alison, January 2014.
7) “Change in Woman’s Roles During the Industrial Revolution,” Grimes, Patty, Russellville Arkansas, NEH Seminar, 2006.
8) “Finding Aids of the Arleigh C.Hitchcock Homestyle Center Collection #354”, Grand Rapids Public Library, Michigan Room, Oct 2009.
9) “Births: final data for 2008,” Martin M.P.H., Joyce A., National Vital Statistics Report, Vol 59 #1, Dec 8, 2010.
10) “The Changing Demographic Profile of the United States,” Shrestha, Laura B. & Heisler, Elayne J., Congressional Research Service, March 31, 2011.
11) The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History 1880-1990, Costa, Dora L., The University of Chicago Press, January 1998, P6-31.
12) “Hitchcock House,” Exterior view, entrance.; Arleigh C. Hitchcock, 1951, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/u/ummu2ic/x-ls002599. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed, January 24, 2014.
13) “Grand Rapids, Mich., Building New U.S. Home Style Center,” Home and Garden News, The Geneva Times, Friday July 6, 1956, P14.
14) Interview with Jason Minock VP Toll Brothers, McDonnell, Alison, February 2014.
15) Interview with Grand Rapids Housing Commission, McDonnell, Alison, February 2014.
16) www.treadstonemortgage.com/blog/2013/02/who-are-the-first-time-home-buyers/, February 20, 2013.
17) “Characteristics of First-Time Home Buyers,” Eisenberg, Elliot F. Ph.D, Housing Economics.com, January 23, 2008.
18) Cost vs Data, Regional City Values, Grand Rapids, http://www.remodeling.hw.net/cost-vs-value/2013/east-north-central/grand-rapids-mi/
Author Biography: Alison McDonnell is a graduate student at Lawrence Technological University pursuing her Master’s in Architecture. Alison was born and raised in Rockford, MI (just north of Grand Rapids), earned her Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree from the University of Michigan and practiced residential architecture in Vail, Colorado for 5 years. Alison now resides in Sparta, Michigan, was married on her birthday in June 2014 and looks forward to aging in place with her new husband Jesse Flegel.
During my research of Grand Rapids mid-century modern residential architecture, I have found several homes designed by Wayne McClure in a wide variety of locations from the northeast side to East Grand Rapids, one near Christian High and one in Kentwood. There are even negatives of a parade home he designed in the Robinson Film Collection at the Grand Rapids Public Library. And slowly, I have been patching together a “collection” of the homes built by McClure, as well as similar catalogs for his contemporaries–Grand Rapids mid-century architects and builders. I felt very fortunate to meet the owners of this home when they attended my presentation May 1 at Wealthy Theatre. Following the program, the owners Chad and Michele checked the original blueprints. This home was also designed by architectural engineer Wayne McClure and built in 1957 in the Riverside Gardens neighborhood. You enter the home through the bright yellow front door tucked under a protective overhang. Chad and Michele bought the home from the original owners and features such as the floor to ceiling, very vertical brick fireplace wall by the front door, are intact. Two steps lead down to the living room at the garden/patio level with large glass windows designed to fill the space with light. The dining area is adjacent to the living room. The steps leading down to the living room are 1950′s slate and the front door has a ripply glass sidelight. So many things could have been changed in this home and normally would have been altered over the years like a kitchen pass-through which is a fairly narrow rectangular opening that formerly could have been closed off with accordion wood screens. The kitchen does have a new bamboo floor. However, the kitchen cupboards and pantry have not been changed. One fun feature is the set of narrow cupboards under the windows with the sliding doors. Also the formica counters and backsplash are the yellow 1950′s boomerang pattern that the first owners installed. This was a luxury custom home at the time. The cabinets were built on site and the same wood is repeated in the cupboards in two of the bathrooms. To reach the next level in this multi-level home, there is a half flight of stairs to leading up to a family room with extensive cherry paneling (that has not been painted over!), a brick fireplace wall with a floating hearth and large windows opening up a panoramic view of the neighborhood, a well-planned neighborhood–once a golf course–with curving streets and trees. There is evidence in the floor of a possible bar located in this room – think 1950′s/1960′s cocktail parties with Frank Sinatra playing in the background. The room also has a built in wooden platform sofa (and mid-century houses are all about built-ins) that is now recovered. There is still yet another half flight of stairs up to the next level. Those stairs have decorative balusters leading up to the balcony/hall connecting three bedrooms and office. During the re-carpeting, the owners left the edges of the beautiful solid wood treads exposed. The bedrooms and office have beamed ceilings and ribbon windows. Hardwood floors protected for so many years by the old carpeting have been uncovered and polished. Wood trim and original closet doors tie the rooms together. There are two bathrooms on the upper level. The first has the tile counter, sink and cupboards – again original with the home and in beautiful condition. The second is the new master bath with a stunning tiled shower and a modern sink not shown here simply because my photos did not do it justice. The views from each floor are worth noting. The family room looks out to the approaching and intersecting streets. The living room has a view of the patio. The master bedroom (not shown) on the upper level, overlooks a modern church designed by Edgar Firant, an award-winning church architect who studied with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Chicago before establishing a practice first in Arizona and then in Grand Rapids in 1959. A fun feature of this home are the many clocks of mid-century modern design, some of which are shown in these photos. It’s really remarkable that this home, although it could have been completely altered over the last 57 years and as stressed in this narrative, is pretty much just as it was built in 1957. The home has been treated well, and the owners clearly appreciate the design features while making those careful changes that suit their own lifestyle and design sense. One thing that is kind of interesting is that this home has never had a carport. The home is well-sited on a corner lot and the house including the attached garage has a fluid and balanced line. An expanded patio with new concrete pavers, original low brick walls and just the right amount of landscaping to bring it all together. Thanks Chad and Michele for the opportunity to see and learn more about your beautiful home!
What is this scooter riding mid-century modern enthusiast up to? Aletha VanderMaas has loved good design as long as she can remember and the 1950′s and 1960′s have always had a strong pull – the homes, the styles, etc. That’s why she and husband Greg went looking for and found a mid-century modern brick ranch home in Grand Haven that had all the right features, beamed ceiling, brick interior walls and fireplace, open floor plan, connection between the indoors and outdoors with the reasonable mid-century ceiling heights and right-sized for their family. They bought it and began the transformation. It was a big change from their cozy Alger Heights bungalow (that purchase inspired by her grandparents Grandville bungalow) and it was such an enormous project that Aletha knew it was important to document their progress on her blog and Facebook page. That’s how research colleague Melissa Fox and I found and visited their home last December, and that is how we began to put together our Grand Haven research project and the plan for a 2015 home tour. When the house was ready, Aletha invited me to see her home. So on a gray day in December 2013, when there was a break in the winter snow storms, we drove to Grand Haven to see the transformation of a house with good bones that now had a new life. To see more photos that demonstrate how a home built in 1959 can be beautifully updated with research, hard-work, and style be sure to link to Aletha’s blog “MidModMich” at http://www.midmodmich.com/ . When we first visited, they didn’t know who had designed but it wasn’t long until Aletha was able to talk with relatives of the original owner and determine that it was New York architect Krisjanis Grants. Grants designed another GH home, a memorable mid-century home for the Hatton family sited on a dune with gorgeous views on the south end of Grand Haven. It is also believed that Grants designed this Spring Lake home with the distinctive round room shown at right. Almost without exception, the mid-century modern homes the study has identified in Grand Haven are in beautiful condition. And happily there are homeowners in Grand Haven who understand the importance of these homes to the architectural history of the area, and sensitively preserve and renovate them. An example is this home by Grand Rapids architects Wold and Bowers and owned by Patty and Paul on the south side of Grand Haven. Paul actually lived as a child in New York’s Levittown development, one of the first large scale housing developments 1947-1951. Levittown leveraged the new materials and technology developments available to builders saving time and cost for families during the post-WWII housing shortage. Grand Haven’s modernist homes are found in small modernist pockets in the city, on quiet cul-de-sacs where you find an eclectic mix of homes, and also in more expensive lakeshore areas where dramatic roof lines compliment brilliant blue skies and multilevel homes fit well with dune elevations. You’ll find a geodesic dome, atomic ranch style homes from the 1950′s mixed in with traditional cottage styles and also occasionally the more unusual such as this one said to be designed by Chicago’s Keck & Keck (below). And that is why the Grand Haven mid-century modern inventory is a great research project — it has a local and a national scope to it– and finally that’s why Aletha has been scooter-bound to look for the mid-century homes that are yet to be discovered and to meet the owners who may be a source of information about them. Aetha has been to Palm Springs Modernism Week, and attended the Dwell on Design event in LA where she was able to tour the Eames house, so she definitely knows what to watch for when scouting stylish mid-century modern homes. Also Aletha is an event planner by profession as CEO of Pearl’s Design, an busy event planning company so for West Michigan Modern this collaboration means research, discovery, photography, documentation, and publication, all that we usually aim form, with one fantastic bonus–an event for all to remember. Watch for updates!
RIverside Gardens, developed by Charles Sligh who sponsored bus trips to the site to sell lots, was once a golf course in the 1920′s. A picturesque neighborhood, Riverside Gardens is full of moderately hilly tree-lined streets like Sligh Street which starts at Monroe and Riverside Park on the Grand River and ends at the Fat Boy restaurant on Plainfield. In this neighborhood you will find English cottage homes designed by Alexander McColl on the same streets as early modernist homes by James Bronkema as well as many solid1950′s brick ranch-style homes by a variety of builders. Tucked a few blocks away from the home James Bronkema built for his parents on Sligh is a street with newer 1960′s style homes. It is a cul-de-sac with two houses designed by Robert Wold of Bowers and Wold. One of these homes, at the end of the street, is perched on a hill overlooking the neighborhood and was built for the Carr family. Following construction, Carr thoughtfully saved and catalogued extra pieces, parts, materials that could be used by future owners when repairs were needed. And the house has been beautifully maintained.
One of the first things you notice is that it still has the original California-style carport distinguished by the decorative concrete block. A narrow walk leads from the street to the front door and inside the front door, the foyer is filled with light. The open stairway is a major design feature in this multi-leveled home, and leads up to the bedrooms and office or down to the walkout level. There is a mix of materials in the foyer so typical of the mid-century modern home including the tile floor, an abundance of glass, wood paneled walls and the interior brick walls. From this central hub you get a preview of the rooms on the various levels. To the right you follow a narrow entry to the living room and immediately you get a hint of the window wall looking out onto the natural beauty of the site. The focal point of the living room is the brick fireplace which is a partition wall separating living room from dining area. The beamed ceiling is dramatic and consistent throughout the house with the beams painted the same color in all of the rooms on the main and upper floor. The window walls continue in the dining room space. A door leads from the dining room to the stylish vintage St. Charles kitchen. The cabinets are original. The current owners added new flooring which is complimented by lower cabinets on legs. The generously sized kitchen looks out to the decorative concrete wall of the carport. And the beamed ceiling continues in this space. Leaving the kitchen (maybe a bit reluctantly) and heading upstairs, there are three bedrooms, a set of connecting bathrooms and the office. Clerestory windows in the bedrooms and office are a source of light in each of the upstairs rooms which also feature hardwood floors. Built in closet dressers and roomy linen closets are nice storage features. Again the care which has been given to this home is evident in the Jack and Jill bathroom which features the original decorative wall and floor tile. The skylight brings light into the space. The open stairway leads back down to the main level and ultimately down to the walkout level–a combination library/family/media and entertainment room.It is a friendly and comfortable space that brings the outdoors inside. Sliding glass doors lead out to the patio set on the hill overspread with ground cover and touches of purple iris. Here is a panoramic view of a neighborhood that has aged gracefully. I have admired this home for a long time and was lucky enough to be able to make two visits to this home after the owners came to my presentation at the Wealthy Theatre. It’s been wonderful to learn more about the home, observe the talent of the original architect and get to know the owners, one of whom is an architect who worked on a major Bronkema renovation. These two have clearly loved this modernist gem.
On Tuesday, June 10, these friendly folks boarded a Trolley in the parking lot of the Aquinas Browne Center and headed off on a tour of mid-century modern architecture sponsored by the OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) at Aquinas College. OLLI runs an amazing program schedule designed to enrich lives on a wide variety of historical, cultural, social and local interest topics and they often have waiting lists! I was lucky enough to lead this tour. We stopped first to view Temple Emanuel with its soaring butterfly roof and the dramatic clerestory windows that flood the interior with light. Temple Emanuel was designed by internationally renowned architect Eric Mendelsohhn. We then headed down Fulton to see the work of the late James Bronkema, who designed homes considered iconic GR treasures today and viewed some other favorites designed by other architects in the Marywood and Michigan area. We wound through the Golden Triangle and around Reeds Lake to Hall Street to see the homes of Arleigh Hitchcock, O’Bryon & Knapp, Jordan Sheperd and Alexander McColl among others. The goal of the tour was to share a little bit of the history, identify typical design features, and most importantly to look and see. Happy outcome – new fans of the style inspired to go out looking on their own for these iconic and beautiful modern homes. There were lots of questions and it was rewarding to share details and anecdotes with these patient listeners — yes I did reveal that it was my first experience guiding such a tour! We were also lucky to have good weather and Ellen, a veteran 15-year Trolley driver, at the helm. Thanks to Carol at OLLI at Aquinas for organizing the tours! Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern