This is a brief tale of a sculptor and a small modern house. My friend Jennie was doing a quick survey of a Grand Rapids Goodwill Store when she spotted the welded metal sculpture with a price tag of $7.99. The sculpture’s square stand was engraved with the artist’s name. Jennie purchased it on a hunch that it might be “something.” She later discovered that artist Robert E. Kuhn who passed away on July 8, 2000 was a prolific American sculptor. My first words when she recounted her story (and this will surprise no one who knows me) were “Kuhn designed the coolest little modern house in 1946 and I have a photo.” Later that night I sent her two articles from the Grand Rapids Press about Kuhn. By then Jennie had already placed this wonderful sculpture on a glass top table in her northwest side home for her friends and family of four boys to enjoy. Perhaps one of the boys will be inspired to create their own welded art someday?? The first newspaper article was dated October 19, 1946 and told the story of the modern house that was “something ‘different’ in houses” tucked away in a little Wyoming neighborhood. The house was constructed using a combination of materials including stucco, cement block and brick. There is no basement. “The house featured knotty pine ceilings, asphalt tile floors throughout with the lighting inset in the ceiling.” Clerestory windows in the main rooms flooded the small home with light. The photo shown above was taken in 1956 a few years after Kuhn had left Grand Rapids. Note the great wide chimney, the modern door with three lights and the built-in planter. This early Grand Rapids modernist home was designed at the same time Frank Lloyd Wright’s master builder Harold Turner was building a Usonian house of his own design on the Thornapple River. Also at this time, James Bronkema had returned from the war was designing spacious brick ranch homes and beginning to experiment with new materials and modern design. The Grand Rapids Press article ends with the intriguing statement, “He (Kuhn) plans to build many more houses in the same modern style with designs even more radical than that of the Whiting st. house.” But did he? I was surprised that he never lived in the home but perhaps it was too small for his family. The photo above is 1990’s vintage and shows that the house was well groomed but beginning to look different. The second newspaper article dated March 16, 2004 was written by Gail Philbin to draw attention to an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. It was entitled “Kuhn’s World: First retrospective of sculptor’s work takes place in his native Grand Rapids.” It tells more of the story of Robert E. Kuhn who was born December 27, 1917 on Grand Rapids west side and attended St. James Catholic school. His artistic talent was nurtured there and he went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1936-1939. He was hired as a Depression-era WPA artist and worked in Washington D.C. However, at least by 1945 Kuhn was back in Grand Rapids and was listed as a painter in the City Directory. He lived with wife Helen and their four children in a house on Breton Road in East Grand Rapids. Kuhn spent several years as a toy salesman to support his family and the GR Suburban Directory backs this up. About 1951, he was once again listed as an artist and made a pivotal trip to Mexico where he exhibited his paintings and learned to weld steel. Now a sculptor as well as abstract painter he moved back to Washington D.C. and his career took off. By 1957 was represented by galleries in New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago and Neiman Marcus in Texas was asking to sell his sculptures. At this time his self-declared output was approximately 110 pieces per year. He became disenchanted with gallery representation in the 1960’s and bought an old church in Tanners Creek, Virginia in the Blue Ridge mountains which he converted to a home and studio. Kuhn filled the grounds with his steel-welded sculptures and abstract paintings and became a recluse. To see more of Robert E. Kuhn link here http://www.robertekuhnpainterandsculptor.com/#!__world-and-eye Also he was known for getting stopped by local police for driving his vintage yellow corvette too fast along the local country roads! When Kuhn’s vision failed he turned to collage. Surprisingly one source for buying his sculptures became the J. Peterman Catalog. Today the little house is still there, a small modernist home standing out among more traditional designs, waiting to be discovered and sensitively restored. Citations: 1. “Artist Designs Unusual House,” p. 11, Grand Rapids Press October 19, 1946. 2. “Kuhn’s World: First retrospective of sculptor’s work takes place in his native Grand Rapids” by Gail Philbin, Grand Rapids Press, March 16, 2004. 3. “Robert E. Kuhn, a Recluse Whose Art is Anything but Reserved, “ Washington Post, December 6, 2012. 4. Various Internet sites on Robert E. Kuhn.
Pop-Up Tour, December 6, 2015 from 4-7. Albert Builders Home for sale at 1507 Pinecrest SE, East Grand Rapids. Tour is free but registration required. To register link here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/pop-up-tour-1507-pinecrest-tickets-14596186587
The house at 1507 Pinecrest is a 1960 Albert Builders home designed by E. John Knapp, of the architectural firm of Obryon and Knapp. The house is located in the Heather Downs Subdivision platted in 1959 by Harold Albert and son J. Brock Albert. Harold Albert was one of three brothers who grew up in Kennebunkport, Maine and after college moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Silas came in 1919 and Samuel and Harold followed. They started a real estate business that blossomed into one of the largest firms in Grand Rapids. They invested in land and offered building, financing, insurance and real estate services. Harold Albert’s daughter Marilyn recalled an incident where two of the Albert Brothers were driving around the undeveloped fields of one of their platted subdivisions one night after dark. They literally ran into each other’s cars. Homes in the Heather Downs Subdivision were priced reasonably for the time and the area at under $28,000. They were heavily advertised in the Grand Press. “Heather Downs in Breton Downs”…”A private community within a community”…“Enjoy a pool at no extra cost with a special area for horseshoes, volleyball”…”Exclusive membership lets you in for many sun-filled, fun-filled summers.” 1507 Pinecrest is actually one of the first two homes built in the subdivision in 1960 at the same time the community pool and pool house were constructed. The prolific partnership of Albert Builders and Obryon and Knapp yielded over 300 designs built in metropolitan Grand Rapids and replicated in other communities such as Rockford, Spring Lake/Grand Haven, Muskegon. As owner Melissa said, “We found a house in the Heather Downs neighborhood of East Grand Rapids. Built by Albert Builders and designed by Obryon and Knapp, our house is part of a collection of homes with similar mid century features, such as low pitched roofs, split level floor plans, and ribbon windows. Obryon and Knapp designed many models for Albert Builders, many of which can be seen in Heather Downs. The designs are distinct enough that each one feels unique, but they have enough in common that they make for a pleasing neighborhood.” The home’s design is based on an innovative four-foot modular section developed by E. John Knapp. The modular concept was customizable for the homeowner and easily priced by the Albert Realtors’ sales-force. In point of fact, although in our research we have found many “twins” and “triplet” homes, this Obryon & Knapp design appears to be unique. Finding the house was an adventure. In the late summer 2013, Melissa, husband Tom and daughter Lucy began their search for the right mid century modern house. At the time they lived in a large beautiful Heritage Hill home but were in mid-quest. As Melissa said, “We have always been drawn to mid century design and architecture - the clean lines, efficient use of space, and the connection of the interior of the home with the exterior. These are the things we started to dream about when our historic home began to feel too large and overwhelming.
It sounded lovely to have fresh, bright spaces and tidy rooms, especially when we had an endless list of projects we knew we would never have time to tackle and owned more sofas than we had persons to sit on them.” Finding the right mid century home was a challenge in a market of high demand and limited inventory. Melissa is an ace researcher and a local history librarian so she used all of her skills to locate the perfect house, working by day and searching GRAR by night. “Throughout this time, we were house hunting. In Grand Rapids there are several areas that were developed during the mid century and we looked at homes in a few of them. We also enlisted the help of our friend, and mid century expert, Pamela VanderPloeg of West Michigan Modern to help us in our search. It was fun to grab coffee and meet at a house and tour and discuss it. In some ways, I wish our search had gone on a little longer, so we could have toured more homes.” 1507 Pinecrest appeared online on a Wednesday night and on Thursday morning, the realtor unlocked the door to reveal a beautiful kitchen and a window wall in the living room looking out into the backyard’s fall landscape. Melissa called Tom to tell him that the house search was over. Coincidentally, that same evening I gave a presentation on Albert Builder homes at the East Grand Rapids City Hall complex and the owners of the home, who were in the audience, were surprised but happy to see in my slide show the photos I had taken of their home earlier in the day! It’s no surprise that there four families bidding on this house. The home is on four levels set into a gentle slope. At the southernmost point on the lot is the one story garage. To the north is the heart of the house, a two-floor section with a recessed entry. Melissa describes the house. “The exterior of our house has professional landscaping, done by the previous owners, and includes a beautiful blue stone patio, several ornamental trees, and huge peony and hydrangea plants. From the driveway is a brick paved walk leading to the front entrance, which opens directly into a modern kitchen with a large center island and three floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the front yard and patio.” In this case the architect has recognized the importance of the kitchen by placing it at the entry, giving it light and making it a hub of family activity. Melissa described the way the kitchen leads to both the combined living and dining space on the main with its wall of glass, and to the lower level family room. “Seven stairs down brings one to the family room with a fireplace and a stretch of windows at the garden level. There is also a small bathroom and a laundry room. The warm and bright feeling carries throughout the house as many of the rooms have large windows with views of the yard. The living and dining room in particular have a wonderful connection to the outdoors, making it a very relaxing space.” There is also the bonus of a nicely proportioned deck with a wisteria-covered pergola and a professionally landscaped backyard and small shed for garden equipment. Above the kitchen are two bedrooms with one being used as Lucy’s playroom and a full bath. The third section of the house which extends north contains the master bedroom and bath. Melissa described the upper levels of the house. “Seven stairs up from the first floor is the master bedroom and bathroom level, and a small desk area. Seven stairs up from there are two more bedrooms and a bathroom. The bedrooms all feature exposed beamed ceilings, large closets, and original wood floors. The two upper bedrooms each have a set ribbon windows, making them feel warm and bright.” The master suite is very roomy and was actually designed so it could be divided into two bedrooms if necessary, making it a four-bedroom house. Although they had found their mid century home, in Melissa’s words, “The process of moving is always daunting, but when we sold our 1910 prairie style house in favor of something smaller we embraced the chance to weed our belongings and sell the many things we no longer had room for. It was wonderfully freeing to watch those extra sofas leave for new homes, driven away in the back of anonymous pickup trucks.
For the 45 or so days between leaving our historic home and moving into our new home, we rented a 1950s ranch which we referred to as the home-tel. Our time there was brief and had its challenges, but we loved the house itself with its original kitchen and bathrooms, cozy family room, and large basement, a perfect for space for riding tricycles and scooters in the winter months. It was a great transition period for us and helped us learn to live smaller, and because it often felt like we were camping, it was a fun adventure too.”
As we continued to pare down our belongings and settle into our new home, we also settled into the mid century lifestyle with a record player and a new interest in classic cocktails, but also with the features that classically come with a mid century neighborhood - a nearby school and playground, and a pool. It was a wonderful summer, walking from our house and around the corner to the pool, in the same way folks have celebrated summer here since the 1960’s.” The next chapter to this story is that after a year in the home, Melissa, Tom and Lucy are moving. Tom’s been transferred to his company’s London office where they are now looking for a flat in wonderfully named areas like Primrose Hill and something “on Thames.” And so 1507 is for sale. You can see this delightful Albert Builders home at the West Michigan Modern Pop-Up Tour on Saturday, December 6 from 4 to 7pm at 1507 Pinecrest SE. Although the tour is free, registration is required – see registration link at the beginning of this post. Also, link here to the online Collection of Albert Builder Plans, donated to the Grand Rapids Public Library by the Albert Family when the Albert Builders Office closed http://grpl.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16055coll8
There are many stunning modern homes with that special mid-century combination of materials – glass, wood, stone, brick – that you will never see from the road. Architects and builders leveraged the unique topography of the dunes creating subdivisions that are convenient to Lakeshore towns and yet are tucked away for privacy and a sense of wilderness. I received a message from Matt telling me that his neighbor has a home that would be a great feature on West Michigan Modern. He was right. We recently toured the home that is technically a two-story but – using a phrase borrowed from my friend Ashima – “lives much bigger.” It soars upward from a high point in the dunes in search of a view of the big lake. The epicenter of the house is a two-story living room with a second story loft-style opening over the carpeted floating stairway. The walls are like swiss cheese with square and rectangular openings. Our son, who has always a great eye for design, remembered how fun it was to play in this interesting space with his friend whose parents were the second owners. The current owners Joyce and Gene also appreciate the architecture of the home which has “great bones.” They find the wooded dunes a perfect setting for outdoor adventures, beach or sledding, making acorn people for the grandchildren and enjoying cozy nights with family and the many friends who like to visit. Joyce and Gene are from Chicago. They look forward to living full-time in this house after they sell the Prairie style house they own in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. To find this house, you need good directions. The location is Grand Haven, a city of about 29,000 and the home of the Coast Guard Festival, Musical Fountain and loads of interesting architecture. The house is perched on 1.8 acres high atop a vegetation-covered dune in a small neighborhood of custom homes that hug large scenic lots. They share a common Lake Michigan Beach. Although the land was actually platted in 1928, this home was designed by architect Phil Lundwall and completed in 1972. The exterior is vertical rough sawn cedar peppered with various sized glass openings. At over 3,500 square feet, the home takes full advantage of the natural elevations and provides four levels of living space including the walkout basement and loft with a bonus – a small square roof top deck.
From the online photos, I didn’t recognize the house but knew that when we lived in Grand Haven we had friends who lived in the development. As our Jetta climbed the hill, we could barely see the house at the end of the road even though in late October the leaves are sparse. The entry to the home is low-pitched. The spaciousness of this home’s open plan is hidden behind a stunning wooden door not shown here but original to the home. We also admired the modern garage door warmly lit from within. Owners Joyce and Gene welcomed us into an entry with glass side light, polished parquet floors (original), a Nelson bench and tiered free-standing light fixture. The mobile and red door give the front hall a distinctly Calder flavor. To the left is a guest bedroom. Each room of this stylish house including this one decorated in a Japanese style is unique and furnished with well-coordinated authentic mid-century furniture and accessories. From lighting to art and window treatments, nothing is wanting. Straight ahead from the front door is a low and narrow hallway. The nicely aged parquet path opens – Frank Lloyd Wright style – into the grand space. This house has its own unique vertical style and we took a minute to let the house come into focus, appreciating the natural and ambient lighting in the living room calling attention to the beamed ceiling with tongue and groove boards. Joyce and Gene have added most of the lighting to match their modern style. The focal point of this grand living space is the 2-story fireplace. Called dry-stacked, the fireplace has no mortar visible between the stones. Mortar behind the stone holds them in place. The fireplace is new and replaced a more utilitarian country-style pellet stove set on a tile platform. There is glass on three sides of the living area. Turn left from one set of glass sliders and enter a cozy nook which serves as a media center. White walls and white beamed ceiling provide a bright backdrop for tubular metal chairs and a massive media cabinet. A horizontal glass band brings in light and a peek at the trees outside. Another broad opening leads from living room to dining room and kitchen. The kitchen has bright white walls and white beamed ceilings and cupboards. It is part of an addition completed for the second owners by a neighbor who formerly worked in Lundwall’s office. Sliders from the kitchen eating area lead to one of several deck areas overlooking the wooded lot. The backdrop for the kitchen eating area is a large glass window Joyce and Gene installed to replace smaller windows that were leaking. The kitchen and dining floors feature the original parquet tiles – glowing solid oak hard wood squares that are about 1/2 inch thick matching the parquet in the entry hall. Joyce was sure the newer, roomy kitchen replaced a galley kitchen now a super efficient kitchen/office and storage space. Thanks to the addition there are now two cool eating areas. The dining room like the kitchen eating area has a backdrop of glass. Joyce has furnished it with a stunning vintage Danish table with hinged extensions that slip under the table when not in use. The table partners beautifully with a Hans Wegner buffet seen on the other side of the partition in the kitchen/office photo. (Note: Wegner also designed furniture for the Danish king!) The Paul McCobb china cabinet is filled with Red Wing dishes in the Smart Set pattern. The living room has a lovely transparent tree-house feel. Sliding doors on opposite sides of the room lead to decks with panoramic views and refurbished vintage outdoor furniture. After purchasing the house, Joyce and Gene were forced to make a big investment in the house replacing the glass in the sliders, transom and miscellaneous windows and other structural repairs including the roof and siding. They discovered important maintenance work had been deferred. This forced a postponement of improvements planned for the house with the exception of the fireplace described above. When asked if they’d given the house a name (as in Mr. Darcy’s ”Pemberly” in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice) Joyce said, “No…maybe Money Pit?” But seriously, for Joyce the relationship with this house was love at first sight. Gene was a little more cautious initially when they purchased the home in 2007. Since then they have put their heart and soul into their dream house. They have made it a showplace for their extensive collection of authentic modern furniture and design accessories. In the living room high-backed chairs designed by either Vladimir Kagan or Adrian Pearsall were rescued from a fraternity house and re-upholstered. Across the room, a three-piece hanging fixture lights the metal wall sculpture, a backdrop for the “Eames” knock-off. The “tell” is the number of feet on the chair’s metal stand – this one has just four. (For more information on how to tell an original Eames chair see this guide http://manhattan-nest.com/2013/03/25/real-vs-fake-the-eames-lounge/.) Joyce knows her mid-century furniture! She is a dealer of antiques and has a shop in the Lincoln Antique Mall in the Chicago area where her inventory reflects varied time periods — not all modern. The popular shop rents out furniture and accessories for use in movie and TV productions, for example on the set of “Chicago Fire.” One of my favorite groupings is set against a band of four tall windows and adds an interesting horizontal feel to the room. The airplane coffee table with “tail” like end tables works well with the Pearsall sofa. The floating stairway leads to the second floor. There are three bedrooms upstairs, each one decorated in mid-century treasures. To start with the former master bedroom couldn’t be cozier – in a good way. It’s tucked away and has loads of storage behind a stretch of accordion closet doors. Many mid-century homes have folding accordian-style doors but these are in perfect original condition and meld almost seamlessly with the dark boards of the ceiling. There is a newer master suite on the second floor of the addition. Here, as in other parts of the parts of the house, Joyce has wisely used the orange to good advantage to coordinate with her mid-century accessories and to accent the rich, dark beamed ceiling. She even knows how to use those tall quirky mid-century lamps I always want to buy but don’t. A single pane vertical window and skylight bring in light. And she designs the wall opposite the cool platform bed with a beautiful dresser, Danish pendant lamps and clocks now refaced with mirrors. Joyce calls the repetition of the three clocks a visual alliteration. Vintage Danish light fixtures are also an attraction in the master bath. One of the great features of this house is the location of the laundry on the second floor, conveniently located near the bedrooms. Exploring this house is like a treasure hunt. The hall on the second floor ends at a bookcase and ladder you climb to reach a small third story loft furnished with a desk. Quiet and out-of-the-way, this could be an inspiring place to work. But that is not the end of the discoveries. Pull the ladder from the wall and climb through the skylight to the small square rooftop deck. It was evening so we didn’t make the climb but Joyce assured us that it’s spectacular up there. Wall cutouts are dramatic when viewed from the living room, but they have a slightly dizzying effect when experienced from the loft looking down to the second floor and from the second floor to the main floor. Many interesting vantage points. We followed the stairs down to the lower walk-out level which follows footprint of the main floor. There you find a wine (and beer) room and a recreation room serves as a storeroom for vintage furniture in-waiting like the Z-Chairs and Pearsall tables. Joyce hopes to add a dark room because she has two careers – antique dealer and photographer who in her own words “hasn’t made the switch to digital.” Husband Gene has had an interesting career. He is a third generation plumbing contractor whose family has specialized in working with the complex plumbing in the old skyscrapers and high-rise buildings in Chicago. So how did Chicago owners Joyce and Gene find this house? Joyce’s cousin married a “wooden shoe” (aka Dutchman) and lives in the next development south on the lakeshore. The cousin encouraged them to look at a house for sale in the neighborhood. It wasn’t until a realtor showed them this particular home that Joyce and Gene were ready to buy. And the rest is history. They love winter in this house. When the leaves are gone and the snow starts blowing an amazing vista of lakeshore and land is revealed. So why did they choose a house in Grand Haven? They love spending time in this picturesque, clean and friendly town. By the way, Joyce and Gene have known each other since age 15 and now their grandkids visit and ask “Can I never go home, can I live here forever?” For now, while they own two homes, they do rent this house on HomeAway.com in the GH section. Their listing number is 900675. Grateful thanks to Joyce and Gene for their gracious tour. My appreciation to Matt, the neighbor, for introductions. Preview of coming attractions: Watch for an upcoming post featuring an interview with architect Phil Lundwall and more photos of his designs. All text and photos copyright Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern 2014.
Writers Note: Black and white photos are original from 1947-1948 and were provided by the owner. Color photos are from recent visits to the home. Devon Gables photo is from a postcard. The numbers in parentheses represent the referenced sources listed at the end of this posting. Text and color photos except postcard in this post are copyrighted 2014 West Michigan Modern. THIS STORY is about an extraordinary home currently for sale at 7510 Valhalla Drive on the Thornapple River, south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. To tell the story, we have to go back to the beginning. For original owner Edna Hargrave, the Usonian-style home designed by Harold Turner and built on a steep bank of the Thornapple River was more than a house–it was a way of living. L. F. Jessup, Building Editor, writing in the December 21,1947 issue of the Grand Rapids Herald clearly questions whether this type of modern house would be popular with most homeowners, but he is taken with its beauty stating that it was “the manifestation of ‘the brave new world’ that was promised after World War II.” (5) The home completed for Edna and Edward Hargrave in 1947 was designed in an “organic style of architecture advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright” according to Jessup. (6) In the mid-forties the building site must have been considered remote and very much follows Frank Lloyd Wright’s advice to homeowners to find a site that seems impossible to build on.(10) Before he designed the Valhalla House on the Hexagonal grid, Harold Turner, Danish-born cabinet maker built some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most complicated Usonian homes. Scholar John Sergeant in his book Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses writes that Turner built the Hanna House on Stanford University property, the Armstrong House in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, the Christie House in new Jersey, the Rebhuhn House in New York and the Goetsch-Winkler house in Okemos, the Wall house in Plymouth and the Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills (shown above), Michigan. (1) Turner’s first FLW house was the Hanna House built while he was living in San Jose, according to the 1940 Census. (11) Turner worked for a Stanford professor who recommended him to the the Hanna’s who later became well known for their educational research. At the urging of Paul Hanna and Wright’s invitation, Turner stayed at Taliesin for some weeks observing and working until okayed by Wright to proceed as contractor for the Hanna project.(10) Here Turner is shown surveying the Hannah property. In the years from 1938 through 1945, Turner lived where he worked constructing Wright homes. When Turner built his own home in Bloomfield Township on Lone Pine Road, he designed it as a small farm using the Taliesin principles of self-sustenance with facilities to grow and store the food on the site and according to Sergeant said he used Japanese prisoners of war at the time. (1) When Turner was working on the Thornapple House he lived part of the time with the Hargraves and part-time in a prefab building on the site. (6) Here the home is shown in process with insulation showing in the ceiling. The Grand Rapids Herald writer described Turner as a modest man in his early 40’s or 50’s. (6)) His connection to the Hargraves was a family one. Edna Hargrave was the sister of Turner’s wife Laura according to the current owners. Although from the suburban Detroit area, in 1945 Edna and Edward lived at 101 Prospect SE in Grand Rapids and were the owners of the “Mug and Muffin” located at 75 Division N. (2) The Hargraves decided to buy 11 acres with 600 feet on the Thornapple River to enjoy as they prepared for retirement. (5) Once retired they alternated weeks living in the Thornapple House with weeks spent in Bloomfield Hills with the Turners doing the bookkeeping for the Turner’s well-loved local restaurant Devon Gables. It is unknown how they decided on this Usonian style but the Grand Rapids Herald article described their contentment with all aspects of the house. “Now that they are occupying their dream house, the Hargraves feel as they could never live anywhere else and that they never really have been adequately housed before. They expressed regret that they will not have more years to live in their new home.” (5) Here Edna is photographed as she contemplates the view. Views from the south facing window wall are spectacular. According to Edna maintenance was minimal in the house. “It’s a joy to keep house here…” Mrs. Hargrave, exclaimed according to that early Herald article. “The contrasting textures of the wood, brick, glass and concrete are pleasing and restful. The need for redecorating is virtually eliminated and for a change of scenery we have the ever-changing panorama of the landscape always visible from every part of the living area.” (6) Along the south-facing glass wall, you find an inside garden. This provides the humidity in the dryer winter months. From the beginning the narrow garden had a practical purpose. Author John Sergeant writes that Turner talked of the use of cypress in Usonian houses stating that “he found cypress to be a moist board, requiring particular care in detailing and benefitting from the moisture of house plants or an internal flower garden.” (1) The original window wall was made up of many smaller glass panes. An early solar house, the glass south wall admits sun rays in winter to augment the radiant heating system. “I am susceptible to colds, “ said original owner Mrs. Hargrave. “but last year I didn’t have a cold and despite the large expanses of glass in the living area we were comfortably warm even when it was 28 below zero.” (6) Current owners Ashima Saigal and David Fridsma agree. Today the house features large panes of glass as opposed to small and the windows provide a dramatic view of the outside and the Thornapple River below. David said “It can be winter and 10 degrees out and if it’s sunny, we have to open the doors.” (7)
The Hargraves enjoyed their beautiful retreat for many years. Edward died in 1966 and Edna died February 22, 1980 both in the Bloomfield Hills area but chose to be buried closer to their beloved Thornapple River House and their gravestones can be seen in Grand Rapids at Woodlawn Cemetery.
The Thornapple River House on Valhalla Drive in Caledonia Township south of Grand Rapids, Michigan has changed very little since Edna and Edward Hargrave moved in just before Christmas, 1947. Writer’s note: at the suggestion of the owner, the four of us climbed up on the roof to see the sharp angles of the amazing roof and of course a view of the river. The hexagonal grid typical of many Usonan homes with its 60 and 120 degree angles makes it possible for this house to hug the cliff and take advantage of glorious exterior views from the glass interior. Turner’s incredible skill as a cabinet maker made him a Master Builder of FLW Usonians. He was one of few who could build Wright’s designs. And for his crew of workers, Turner said he preferred four days of work from older skilled craftsman (including cabinetmakers) than five from younger. (1)
Today nature is still king in this picturesque spot on the river. And the house fits on the land as though it were always there. The House has a large trapezoidal living area with three walls of glass on one side of a thick brick wall which intersects the house and emerges on the east end to anchor the house into its natural surroundings. The brick wall is a structural element and creates the strong horizontal line.
The walls are of brick, glass, wood and the ceiling is “random width cypress panels with warm mellow finish.” (6) The floor is of polished red concrete. The Usonian style is so apparent in this home. In the 1948 issue of Architectural Forum curated by Henry Russell Hitchcock, Wright discusses the important characteristics including concrete slab foundations over a bed of insulating stone/gravel with radiant heating, a strong relationship between the interior and the exterior, “big living rooms and commodious fireplaces, all eventually leading toward the great single room…the open plan…a great Usonian house is always hungry for ground, lives by it..becoming an integral feature of it.” (4) So now I realize the FLW must have “coined” the term we toss about liberally today “great room.” In the great room of this home, the ceiling is stunning! The light reflects off the ceiling of mitered cypress chevrons and is mirrored in the floor – glowing slabs of red polished concrete. Another characteristic of the Usonian homes found in here are the piano-hinged doors. Located on both the east and west sides of the house, they provide a very elegant entrance on the east into the home and egress on the west to the riverbank terrace. It is this feeling of transparency – bringing the outdoors in – that may influenced the current owner’s statement that “the house lives big.” (7) There is another way light is used in the home. Both the kitchen and the sleeping ends of the living area have lower ceilings at about 7 feet. Clerestory windows on both ends provide a view of trees and sky. One thing about this house that was stressed by Edna Hargrave and echoed by Ashima, is that atmosphere of the Thornapple River House is very peaceful and serene. In fact, since they moved to a new home, Ashima has returned to the Thornapple river House to meditate and has invited others to join her in the open space. In the open plan space, only movable partitions and screens separate the bedroom areas from the living room. There are no walls on this side of the brick wall.
The original bedroom was configured using the movable partitions. Today with the house empty of furniture, you spot the bedroom area on the east side of the living area by the built-in chest of drawers. There is also inset in the wall designed to serve as a built-in night stand which you can match to the older photo. The kitchen is located on the opposite end of the living area. Below is a photo of the original kitchen. According to the 1948 Grand Rapids Herald article, the finishes in the kitchen included a Monet metal sink and oil-treated plywood counter. Appliances were recessed into the brick wall and the ceiling light was a light socket in a triangular recess. Today the kitchen area has the same footprint and Ashima and David both feel that the galley kitchen will make a fun and creative remodel for new owners. The existing kitchen is the product of an earlier remodel. In fact Ashima and David had plans drawn for a sensitive renovation and expansion of the house before they decided that due to the needs of their own family, it was time to put it up for sale. Behind the kitchen and on the other side of the brick wall is the utility hall. The doors that lead to these functional areas of the house blend into the wood panelling.
The bathroom, laundry, dressing room are located here. There is lots of storage in the high shelves and cupboards of this area of the home. I noticed the unusual striated plywood (sometimes called combed) wall surface in the utility hall. I saw a similar style in another house – the Levy House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Parkwyn Village in Kalamazoo. Apparently this product/technique was used in Eichler homes as well. There are other things to see in this home. The Thornapple River House is a gem and deserves an appreciative owner who wants something rare and yet totally vital today in a setting that few homes can match. Prologue: There is much more to the Turner story. When Harold Turner had finished building homes for Frank Lloyd Wright by the end of WWII and finished building the Thornapple River House, he continued to design and build homes mostly in Bloomfield Township on and near many of the small picturesque lakes in the area and some as well in Southfield and Grand Blanc. One of the Bloomfield homes was written up in an article entitled “The Boomerang House” with text by Robin Cohen and photography by Beth Singer in Echoes Magazine of Classic Modern Style (no longer in publication). The photos of this home are impressive and I hope that I will be able to obtain permission to share them in a follow up article. I was able to get a copy of the article from TIm Sullivan of HomeLab who builds homes in Palm Springs and lives the rest of the time in Birmingham, Michigan. The article sums up the characteristics that described Turner’s style are “…low horizontal forms…wood and other natural materials …interior walls and ceilings of pecky cyprus…walls are raw exposed brick…built-in shelving and furniture….inside spaces “expand into outdoor spaces…butted glass windows at the corners.” It is clear that working for Frank Lloyd Wright made a great impression on Turner’s own designs. Turner and his wife Laura continued to run the Devon Gables restaurant until about 1967 when it was sold. He lived until 1974 and left a legacy of beautiful midcentury buildings of his own design to be lived in and enjoyed. I finally realized that if I waited to complete this posting about the Thornapple RIver House until I was finished researching Harold Turner, well it would be a long time before posting! So consider this “Part 1.” Look for “Part 2 – More of Harold Turner” sometime in the spring to learn more about Turner’s work and his own designs. I have included some windshield photos of other Turner homes in Bloomfield Hills below. CITATIONS: 1.Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses; Designs for Moderate Cost One-Family Homes by John Sergeant 2. Grand Rapids and BIrmingham City Directories. 3. “History,” Valhalla Rental House http://www.usonianhouse.com/home/history . 4. “In the Nature of Materials” by Henry Russell Hitchcock. Architectural Forum, January 1948. 5. “Modern Dream House on the Thornapple” Grand Rapids Herald, December 21,1947. 6. “Thornapple House is Way of Life,” by L.F. Jessup, Building Editor, Grand Rapids Herald, September 19, 1948. 7. “A Space Craft” by Karin Orr, Grand Rapids Press, Date unknown. 8. U.S. Social Security Death Index for Edna Hargrave, Edward Hargrave, Harold Turner 9. Frank Lloyd Wright in Michigan by Dale Northup. Algonac, MI: Reference Publications 1991, 2nd Rev. Edition. 10. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House: the Clients’ Report by Paul Robert Hannah. New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1981. 11. United States Census 1940.
Authors Note: After writing this post about the Harry Weese cottages in Northern Michigan, friends Chris Byron and Tom Wilson loaned us their copy of the book Historic Cottages of Glen Lake written by Barbara Siepker with photos by Dietrick Floeter and published by Leelanau Press in Glen Arbor in 2008. Barbara is the former owner of the Cottage Book Shop, a lovely bookstore you should visit if you are in Glen Arbor. The shop is in a former Glen Lake cottage that was moved to its current spot. When I reached out to Barbara, she agreed to let me share more information about the Weese cottages from her book. Right now the book is out of print but I am happy to say that the book will be reprinted this winter! Here is the updated and expanded story of the Weese cottages on Glen Lake. The details about the cottages are taken from Historic Cottages of Glen Lake by Siepker. The Weese Cottages. There are hidden architectural gems to be found all over Michigan but especially in picturesque spots on beautiful lakes. We found cottages designed by Harry Weese on Big Glen Lake on a beautiful sunny fall day. The photos of these perfect little modern cottages are taken with my I-Phone. We were able to find the cottages thanks to a tip from our Muskegon modernist friend Larry, and the Cottage Book Shop. Harry Weese studied at MIT and at Cranbrook under Eliel Saarinen and became a Chicago architect and preservationist. Weese’s father Harry E. Weese purchased 1000 feet (ten lots) on Glen Lake in 1925 for his family of five children. (incidentally two other brothers Ben and John became architects as well). The elder Weese later said that it was the best investment he ever made. It changed family life bringing joy and healthy outdoor activities for all. The senior Weese worked for the Harris Trust and Savings Company in downtown Chicago and the family lived in Kenilworth, Illinois. Ten years after buying the land, the family made the decision to build a cottage rather than buy an Airstream travel trailer. And by the time they were finished, there would be three cottages all designed by Harry M. Weese and all built by Joe and Frank Gersch of Cedar Michigan. The first built was the log cottage Shack Tamarack. As you approach the cottages, the “Shack Tamarack” sign beckons you from the road). This cottage was designed while Weese was an architectural student at MIT and built in the summer of 1936 of Tamarack logs cut and stored the previous winter. In her book, Barbara describes this cottage as a “two-story round log cottage with notched corners, boulders used for support piers …(and) two-story living area with fieldstone fireplace, dining area, kitchen, seven bedrooms, screened porch, yellow pine floors.” There is also a log carport. Furniture, including the dining room table and benches from white pine planks and bunk beds, was also Gersch built. From then on the family spent their summers on Glen Lake and the senior Weese would commute weekends via Lake Michigan ferry between Manitowac, Wisconsin and Frankfort, Michigan. Even with the seven bedrooms in this cottage, it wasn’t big enough for the family and friends and that’s why a second cottage was planned called Cottage Number Two. The design was inspired by Weese’s bike trip through Sweden in 1937. “The main room of the cottage has sliding windowed walls that access a terrace. The living room has black cherry vertical lap-siding on one wall and paneling on the other. A freestanding fireplace unit, assisted by insulated walls, heats the cottage. The ceilings are Celotex.” The third cottage, the Pritchard Cottage, was designed for a banking colleague of the senior Weese and, according to our Historic Cottages author, was based on Harry M. Weese’s lake experience and was a bit more experimental with “a single skin of two-inch planking for structure and finish. Sliding glass doors along the living area and hall bedroom corridor open onto a screened porch…it also features a dramatic one-way sloping roof.” With IKEA like efficiency, the dining table pivots for storage under the kitchen counter when not in use. Interesting details include that Pritchard specified a cost under $2000 including the lot, furniture and curtains and he didn’t want to see it until it was done. This cottage which is nearly original was returned to the Weese family 30 years later to complete the three-cottage compound overlooking Glen Lake. Photos of the interiors of these cottages are included in Siepker’s book. Another note of interest is that Harry Weese painted a watercolor of a boat while at Glen Lake and this is included in the book Art of the Sleeping Bear Dunes also published by Leelanau Press. And the story gets more interesting. Harry’s sister Sue shared an article with Barbara Siepker published in the July 1945 issue of Arts and Architecture edited by John Entenza. The article features drawings and photos of Cottage Number 2 and the Pritchard Cottage. John Entenza used his publication Arts & Architecture during the post-war years to promote the Case Study Houses. These were innovative modern homes designed by upcoming young architects who leveraged the latest new technologies and design ideas. Arts & Architecture Magazine had Charles Eames as an Editorial Associate, Julius Shulman as staff photographer and the Editorial Board included Richard Neutra, Ray Eames, Harwell Hamilton Harris and other noted architects of the day. More about Weese: Harry M. Weese became a Chicago architect and preservationist and supervised the restoration of important historic buildings like the Adler/Sullivan Auditorium Building. Weese supervised the restoration of the Field Museum of Natural History and Orchestra Hall in Chicago and Union Station in Washington. He designed the Time-Life Building in Chicago, and completed the biggest project of his career, the Washington D.C.’s 100-Mile Metro system. Other known cottages by Weese are those on the Chicago River front designed in 1988: http://arcchicago.blogspot.com/2010/04/buildings-weve-grown-to-love-harry.html Citations: 1. Historic Cottages of Glen Lake by Barbara Siepker with photographs by Dietrick Floeter. Glen Arbor: Leelanau Press, 2008. 2. New York Times Obituary by Herbert Muschamp, November 3, 1998. 3. “Two cottages by Harry and John Weese: Vacation Houses on a Michigan Lake” in Arts & Architecture Magazine, edited by John Entenza, July 1945.
This unique and really amazing home is for sale. The address is 2310 Shawnee in the Indian Village neighborhood on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. You can link to the listing to see the details and lots interior photos: http://mobile.grar.com/public/mobile/ePubDetail/Default?mlsin=14049456 . The owner graciously gave me a tour of this home. This is a one of a kind home designed by Peter Van Putten for his own family in 1968. Peter Van Putten, AIA, joined the firm of J. & G. Daverman Co. in Grandville in 1954 after receiving his undergraduate degree from in architecture from the University of Michigan in 1953. In 1977, the house was first put on the market and the real estate listing described the home as having imported vinyl flooring, lighted tennis courts on nearly an acre of land, indoor pool, sauna and bathhouse and a home that made “exhilarating living…a mini-estate in the city.” Since then there have been a number of owners. Today as you approach the home, you notice the tall outdoor globe lights (original). The landscaping is good too –updated but apparently not significantly altered. The roofline is the home’s most distinctive exterior feature. The double front doors lead many to guess that the home is a duplex but it’s not. This house is surprisingly large: four or five (counting the office) bedrooms, 3.5 baths, several large common living spaces on two floors and many other amenities. From the interior side the entry doors appear to be enormous. The main living areas flow seamlessly with a back drop of glass window walls under the amazing vaulted ceiling. On the opposite spectrum, two understated and low profile cabinets create a nice partition separating the room from the foyer. The owner shared some of the homes alterations made by previous owners. In the original plan, a door led from the main room into the master bedroom. The wall next to the front doors used to be a full glass curtain wall. One earlier owner unfortunately added colonial style balusters on one of the two stairways leading to the lower level. Wood paneling in many of the rooms was painted over long ago. We speculated on some of the original finishes but there aren’t any plans to consult so questions remain. When they bought the house it was in foreclosure but they fell in love with it and thus began their adventure with the home. At that time there was no kitchen –this one is new. They have found other mysteries, for example, a ceiling of small tiles behind the dropped ceiling panels in the lower level bathroom. And by the way the lower level has a lot of living space including three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry and a family room with fireplace. One of the bathrooms was once filled with changing rooms, and a storage area is the former sauna. An enclosed breezeway leads past a small courtyard with a beautiful Japanese maple to a gorgeous indoor pool currently framed on one side by a wall of several sets of new glass sliders. But the original wall consisted of glass panels that slid and turned and enabled owners to completely open up the pool house to the outdoors on that side. You can still see one of the these doors – see glass panel framed in darker orange. The backyard view of the home is dramatic with the glass, the roof and the full facade decking, not to mention the extraordinary pool house. The current owners actually dug out the backyard that sloped up against the house to expose more of the lower level The former lighted tennis court has made way for friendly basketball games adjacent to the pool house. This house has great features and lots of opportunity. It is a very unique and special home.
Join the Docomomo and the Michigan Chapter! Docomomo stands for the docomentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement. It is an international, national and regional organization. “Docomomo promotes the study, interpretation and protection of the architecture, landscape and urban design of the Modern Movement. It promotes the exchange of knowledge about this important legacy which extends from the planned city and the iconic monument to the house next door.” Over the past several years, the Michigan Modern project of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office has brought national and local interest to the strong body of work of Michigan’s midcentury architects and designers. And during this past year, a Michigan chapter of Docomomo was formed. Now people who join Docomomo US, indicate that their chapter is Michigan and 50% of their dues is given to the Michigan Chapter. This portion of the dues goes to Michigan events and advocacy. To join Docomomo link here http://join.docomomo-us.org/ To follow the activities of Docomomo Michigan like Docomomo_MI/US on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Docomomo_USMI/1383079621938888