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. RSVP requested at RSVP WMM Pop-Up Summer Gathering The Varsity Grill was designed by E. John Knapp in 1954 and has been handsomely restored by the ICCF as a community gathering place. Join West Michigan Modern, Midcentury Modern enthusiasts, homeowners and special guests E. John Knapp’s daughters. Stop by to say hello, see the building, view a slide show of favorite modern buildings, enjoy vintage vinyl tunes and light refreshments. Parking lot adjacent to the building and across the street.
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 http://actorscolony.com/ 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.The 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. http://westmichiganmodern.com/2015/01/26/international-style-house-designed-by-emil-zilmer-1937/.
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.
We 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. 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 (https://www.facebook.com/mi.docomomo). 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. http://cdm9024.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/searchterm/Fenton
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: http://cdm9024.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p9024coll2/id/345/rec/4.
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 commissioned 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. As 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: http://www.fentoncommunitycenter.org/About-Us.aspx
The Breton House: A Tale of Two (of the same) Homes written by Melissa Fox with photos and research collaboration by West Michigan Modern, Pam VanderPloeg, Editor, c. 2015. Early black and white and some color photos provided by the homeowners.
The first time I saw the Breton house was in a photograph at Pamela VanderPloeg’s presentation GR Modern: Home Architecture 1945-1970 at Temple Emmanuel during the summer of 2013. The next time I saw a version of it was later that fall when I was house hunting and found its double, the house next door to the house we were viewing on Pinecrest in East Grand Rapids. I remember driving along Pinecrest that day and seeing 1505 Pinecrest and thinking, Wow, where did that come from?
It is a stunning home, well designed and super modern, with a double box shape and flat roof and spartan appearance. And it stands out on a street of homes constructed in the mid-century yet more conservative and traditional in design. I ended up purchasing the home next door, designed by the same architecture firm, Obryon & Knapp, but nowhere near as unique as 1505. For more on 1507 Pinecrest and Albert Builders link http://westmichiganmodern.com/2014/11/27/pop-up-tour-of-1507-pinecrest-designed-by-e-john-knapp-an-albert-builders-house/
Fast forward a month or so and Pamela and I were in a small group touring a house on Fultonwood, one of those amazing Bronkema designed homes. A bit into the tour a man joined the group and seemed a friend of the Fultonwood homeowner. We later learned he was the owner of the Breton house, the twin of the Pinecrest house, and that it been sold to him by the current owner of the Fultonwood house who was giving us the tour. It was very six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Anyways it was a treat to meet him and we all agreed we would like to see his home sometime too. Which we did months later. And when we did tour the Breton house, my former neighbor, the owner of the Breton home’s twin 1505 Pinecrest Ave SE, came along.
This particular scene, with the owner of the Pinecrest house visiting the Breton house is a return, in reverse, of how these two homes came to be.
1505 Pinecrest SE was constructed in 1961 by Albert Builders in the Heather Downs community of East Grand Rapids. In 1961, the house with its stark, box-like shape would have stood out as unusually modern, even in this mid-century neighborhood. Around 1963, Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Koernoelje were invited to a party there and immediately fell in love with the Pinecrest home. One can imagine both Mr. & Mrs. Koernoelje noting the home’s open floor plan as the guests floated from room to room, their attention drawn to the family room’s wall of glass and the dramatic floating staircase, the focal point of this multi-level house. There are many gorgeous mid-century modern homes in West Michigan, but not many are as stylish nor as unique as the Pinecrest house. With its flat roof, original shade of stone grey paint, and lack of large windows on the front side, from the exterior anyway the home is probably on that far end of the modernism scale, the either love-it or hate-it zone. They fell on the love-it side of the scale and contacted Albert Builders immediately to have one of their own built about 5 minutes away, in Grand Rapids off Breton.
The Koernoelje house was completed in 1965. The home was designed with mostly indirect lighting and had all of the modern conveniences such as air conditioning, underground sprinkling, a central vacuuming system, and was very well insulated. Albert Builders promoted modern conveniences in the homes they built, especially their high-tech kitchens. This house drew the attention of the media and on March 8, 1967 the Almanac, an East Grand Rapids newspaper, published a feature story on the house in an article entitled, Better Living – To Each a Home of
His Own Choice… The story contrasted three different styles of homes. The home on Breton represented contemporary design. The house featured many built-ins and was furnished with appropriate modern furniture selected by the homeowners. Mrs. Koernoelje apparently had a preference for simple housekeeping and was quoted as saying “I don’t like dust-catchers.” The original bathrooms were tiled floor to ceiling, and Mrs. Koernoelje said that in hindsight she would have tiled the ceilings too. It was cool in the summer thanks to an air-conditioning system, and according to the article in the Almanac, the home had a feeling of “airiness.”
Today we would call that an “open plan,” a highly desired floor plan style that is sought after by today’s homebuyers. The original interior also featured walls of a cream color with painted greypaneling, and the floor finishes were a sharp contrast – carpeting in blue-green, apricot, and “tweedy” gold on the floating stairway. Kenneth Koernoelje loved sailing and there was speculation that this influenced the soft grey and cream colors of interior and exterior. Today the Koernoelje house remains an icon of modern style. Current owners Stephane and Carolyn moved here from Toronto and filled the home with their collection of modern furniture and art. With two young children, the multi-level house offers great functionality and flexibility. This house is both beautiful and practical. For example there is an unusual modern metal screen at the top of the stairway at both the Pinecrest and Breton homes. This decorative feature provides privacy by blocking the view of the bedroom hall from visitors entering through the front door. The things that attracted Carolyn and Stephane to the house reflect the ease of living in a well maintained modern home, the floor plan and use of space, the location, and the quality of finishes and sensitive remodel that had been done by the previous owners. Stephane and Carolyn wish they could put the house on a truck and move it with them, as they are relocating to Indiana. They will miss the house, and also the peaceful setting and daily visitors, the deer, wild turkeys, and birds. On the day of our tour, the yard was lush and green. Stephane and Carolyn met us at the door, eager to show us their lovely home. When Stephane and Carolyn first moved here from Toronto they fell in love with the Breton house. With two young children, the multi-level house offers great functionality and flexibility.
The dramatic cantilevered stairway at the entry leads down a flight to the two very distinct halves of the open plan main level and up a flight to the bedroom level. For Stephane and Carolyn, the stairway provides a perfect focal point for art and light fixtures and separates the two parallel halves of the main floor which are a contrast in natural lighting. On the living room and dining room side the length of the room has floor-to-ceiling glass, bringing the outdoors in. These rooms front a beautifully landscaped backyard. The only original dark wood-paneled wall, located in the dining area, has been painted a light color to provide a backdrop for more beautiful art. The seating group is positioned to enjoy the outdoor patio with its mix of concrete, rocks, ground cover, steps and an iron gate. The lovely grounds are a perfect frame for this geometric house. On the family room and study/office side there is a high bank of ribbon windows. We like these,” said original owner Mrs. Koernoelje, “They make for varying furniture placement, give plenty of light, yet complete privacy.” Between the two halves of this level is the kitchen, which has been tastefully updated. The original kitchen was planned to be an efficient connector between eating area and dining room and today separates the dining area from the children’s play area.
Ribbon windows also line both sides of the bedroom level, which is arranged around a large central landing. This house is great for a young family. The attractive rooms of the main floor do double duty as a place for entertaining friends and also for children’s play and quiet activities close to parents. One accesses the garage and utility room, including laundry, via a hall leading from the main floor living room. The efficient use of
space on the interior of the house is reflective of the minimalism suggested by the exterior. Still the interior of the home is warm and peaceful, with Stephane and Carolyn’s baby sleeping and their young son running around, the home is clearly as well suited for parties as it is for family life. It’s easy to see why the Koernoelje’s needed one of their own.
Walking around this house with my neighbor was particularly interesting, both of us oddly familiar with it, though not quite. He walked slowly through the house, commenting here and there on similarities and differences between his home and this one, and on projects he was planning to tackle as he renovated his house. My familiarity with this house, these two homes was from the exterior as I had never been inside either of them. Walking and driving by, and looking out at this house from my own, I thought often of the way that house must have landed on Pinecrest like a strange other place sort of dwelling. I thought too of the wonderful parties that must have happened there. It has all those elements that delight
mid-century enthusiasts, the glass and open floor plan and indoor outdoor living. For me though the really special thing about this house, in addition to its sort of building block shape, is the play between privacy and openness. The front of the house is very private, the only real opening is the large windows by the door, which are hard to see into because of the way the house is positioned on the lot. The back of the house is so open, at least on that main level. If there wasn’t a fence between our yard and that house we would have seen everything our neighbors did in the kitchen, dining, and living room. What must it have been like, in 1961 to look from my house to that house? Those original owners must have felt so exposed. But that is what is so great about the back of these twin houses – they are so open to the outdoors, but also very much like a department store display window, especially if someone has the right furniture and design sense.
It’s wonderful to have not only one, but two of these houses in West Michigan. And even more that they are nearly original, both a perfect set of light grey boxes, set just so on their lots, inviting yet not so very. Author note: Melissa Fox is a librarian and avid reader who most recently worked at the Grand Rapids Public LIbrary Local History and Special Collections Department. Melissa and her husband Tom and daughter Lucy are currently living in London. Melissa is a contributing writer and correspondent for West Michigan Modern and is writing her own blog about her London adventures.
Written by Pam VanderPloeg, text and color photos copyright 2015 West Michigan Modern www.westmichiganmodern.com. This International style home went up for sale in 2014 causing some concern because it is historically significant. In this highly desirable community with great schools and few buildable lots, tear-downs increasingly make way for new custom homes. I won’t keep you in suspense. Happily the home sold this summer to sensitive new owners. The home is tucked away in the center of East Grand Rapids, not on a major road, and therefore something of a hidden treasure. It was designed in 1936 by architect Emil Zillmer for Dr. J.C. Mauris, a local dentist. Emil Zillmer received his bachelor of science from Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1913. He designed this bold statement of modernism at a time when the country was still coming out of an economic depression and Europe was plunged into turmoil. The origins of International Style. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson curated the first display of architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. At the same time they published the book International Style citing examples of modern buildings designed from 1922 to 1931 documented during their travels throughout Europe with Alfred Baar who first coined the phrase. Some of the features of these modern International Style buildings were flat roofs, plain smooth facades lacking ornamentation where form followed function. Steel and metal windows were an important part of the facade sometimes creating wide expanses of ribbon windows, sometimes wrapping around corners blending into the exterior without the interruption of traditional wooden window trim. Emil Zillmer’s original design. When this house was built in East Grand Rapids, both the style and the construction materials set it apart on the block and placing it in a small category of International Style houses city-wide. To date I have identified approximately 16 of these houses that appear to have changed very little and are located in the Grand Rapids area. A good share of them were built from 1935-1938. In this house, exterior walls and interior partitions are constructed of Haydite blocks, a building unit produced locally at the time by the S.A. Morman company. These blocks came in the same dimensions as concrete blocks and were lighter but three times as strong. Haydite joists supported the reinforced concrete floors. The house was fitted with steel sash windows. The exterior finish is pure white stucco and when built the only color was the painting of the window sashes. The interior of the home was finished in tinted plaster. Original finishes included carpet over concrete floors and asphalt tiles in bedrooms, stairways, halls, kitchen. It’s fun to imagine Dr. Mauris and his wife welcoming curious friends and visitors in this traditional city to their unusual new modern home for cocktails in the formal evening attire of the late 1930’s. The house was purchased in the summer of 2014 by new owners David and Jennifer Kirchgessner for their young family. I made the acquaintance of David, a realtor with an interest and knowledge of mid-century modern homes, in early 2014 when he alerted me to the sale of a cool 1950’s ranch with a low profile and swooping roofline designed by Ernie King, GM automotive designer. Jennifer who has a textile design background and works for the Scott Group Custom Carpets clearly appreciates the aesthetic value of the house. Jennifer grew up steeped in modernism, living in one of the most iconic modern homes (shown above) on Hall Street designed by Arleigh (Bud)Hitchcock, Executive Director of Grand Rapids Homestyle Center, an amazing idea that came close to fruition in the 1950’s. See WMM post http://westmichiganmodern.com/2014/07/01/3164-hall-a-precedent-for-aging-in-place-in-grand-rapids-michigan-by-alison-mcdonnell/. The house tour. We were so happy when David and Jennifer agreed to let our little party tour their home. Later I asked our friends about their first impressions and they confirmed my own. Behind the beautiful stark white stucco finish and the smooth flat planes of of the exterior is a warm and inviting interior. We entered through the original wood front door into a cozy foyer where we were welcomed by our hosts. The home has a well-designed circulation pattern and the entry leads three ways – to the garage, to the kitchen or to the open living area with built in book shelf and three informal seating areas. The room is surprisingly cozy with low ceilings (must ignore the ceiling beams) and warm wood floors. These floors happily have replaced the original finishes which called for carpet over concrete. The dining area is a continuation of the living area, handy to both living room and kitchen. Our friend recalled that she just loved the way the dining area was incorporated into the main living area with a door leading back to the kitchen for serving purposes. Wrap around windows provide light in the dining area and are an attractive backdrop for the dining furniture. These were originally steel sash windows and provide one of the main design features of the home. The windows have been replaced by new windows that are functional and convenient and maintain the wrap-around style. The owners had laid out on the dining room table the original blue prints and a book of specifications created by the architect for the owner. We had a great time paging through the detailed information to look back at the architect’s vision. My husband really enjoyed delving into the specifications for the house because he recognized some similar structural characteristics after doing all of the interior renovation work on a condo we own at the Hillmount on Cherry Street in Heritage Hill. Emil Zillmer designed the Hillmount too, a wonderful Art Moderne building, about the same time as this house in 1937. However, due to wartime material shortages the building was not completed until 1952. In looking through the house blueprints, it was fun to identify striking features such as the decorative marble fireplace and multi-paned wood doors. The art deco style fireplace is just as originally drawn in the elevation shown left and is the focal point of the third seating area in the living room. This area is almost overlooked when you first enter the living area because your eyes are drawn left. Next to the fireplace is the glass door shown in the drawing which leads to a delightful room that could serve as an office or small den where you can be totally apart from the open living space but still hear the quiet conversation buzz and activities taking place just around the corner. The space has that indoor/outdoor feel with a lovely view of the backyard green space. One last thing about the living area. The original multi-pane French doors lead to an inviting comfy porch/sunroom. We could have lingered a long time in the living area enjoying the ambience and conversation but the interesting stairway drew us to the 2nd level. The ballusters and railing were surprisingly traditional but original per the blueprints. The main stairway feature is a full length vertical window in three sections. That window is a striking design feature as viewed in this exterior photo. The third and lowest part of the vertical window is actually located in the stairwell that leads from the main floor to the basement. What is especially fun about this window is that Emil Zillmer designed a similar vertical window in glass block in one of my favorite art moderne structures – a small apartment building at Fulton and Prospect constructed around the same time by Albert Builders and shown at left. David and Jennifer’s house originally called for one bath, four bedrooms and the airing porch with the typical nautical rail on the upper level. However, somewhere along the way, a second bath was added upstairs. The upstairs is bisected by the stairway creating two separate bedroom wings on either end of the connecting hall. Many original features remain upstairs. The master bedroom features original cupboards and closets and the wrap around windows. A multi-pane exterior door leads from the master bedroom to the airing porch. There are gorgeous double doors and extra-wide single doors of burnished wood all with the original silver hardware throughout. The main bathroom features the original pretty patterned asphalt floor tiles and large square glass shower tiles in a complimentary carmel color with black accent tiles. The door trim is a unique three-layer wood style still preserved throughout the house. We were all elated to see so many original details in the home still intact despite the nearly 80 years of occupancy. When we went back downstairs, we did a quick tour of the basement with it’s recreation room, utilities and laundry. This house was designed originally for gas heat and air- conditioning. Our last stop was the kitchen which is a bright welcoming space – casual and friendly and a combination of old and new. The floor to ceiling cupboards appear to be original. New stainless appliances blend well with the warm yellow paint of the walls. Asphalt tile has been replaced by warmer wood floors and a built-in glass front cupboard provides storage and display. The wrap around windows are new but replicate the original style. Thanks to the generosity of David and Jennifer, our tour group was larger than usual that evening and included architect Emil Zillmer’s grandson Eric. Eric’s grandfather Emil and father Carl are both part of the mid-century modern architectural history of the city. Friends John and Barb Mytek (who works with Eric) made the connection. Barb and John are the former owners of one of my favorite modernist homes on College in Riverside Gardens featured on WMMhttp://westmichiganmodern.com/2014/06/16/a-modernist-gem-in-riverside-gardens/ . Eric had hadn’t known about this house his grandfather designed and so it was fun to include him on the tour. The home was considered so unusual for the time that it drew significant attention. The contractor Peter J. Ebels praised the house saying, “This type of house is the coming thing. I believe that it will replace frame house construction within 10 years. The advantages are obvious. Upkeep on the building is reduced to nothing for there is nothing to depreciate. Heating and cleaning are made far easier and the building is fireproof, and rodents and termites and vermin can’t live in concrete.” International Style homes in the Grand Rapids area. In my modernist quest, David and Jennifer’s house has a place in a collection of about 16 outstanding local International style homes with similar features but each with a distinctive design and created by a variety of architects. The bulk of these were built from 1935-1937 and they may have been influenced by the modern architecture featured at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. One such modern house completed in 1937 in Grand Rapids is the Gas Wonder House shown right. Designed by a Chicago firm in collaboration with local architects Knecht, McCarthy & Theibaud, this was a demonstration house. People lined up to see this modern marvel of gas appliances and utilities when it was completed. The earliest of these International style homes in Grand Rapids was probably built in the 1920’s and the latest one I’ve found was constructed in 1947. These homes are limited in number but today stand out in the various neighborhoods where they are located. The International Style house designed by Alexander McColl on Plymouth in East Grand Rapids and built in 1937 (shown left) was featured in the Grand Rapids Press just last summer. These homes represent a small but important part of the modern housing stock in Grand Rapids. It’s unknown at this point if architect Emil Zillmer designed any other homes in this style. However, slowly a catalogue of Zillmer’s principal works is coming together including the Hillmount,the apartment building on Fulton and Prospect, some residences including a Lake Michigan Cottage, the design for a Veteran’s building (unknown if it was built) and a number of commercial structures in Muskegon. In the meantime, David and Jennifer are beginning a new chapter for this lovely modernist gem nearly 80 years old, an important piece of East Grand Rapids architectural history. Written by Pam VanderPloeg, copyright 2015. Citations: 1. American Architects Directory 1956. NY: R. R. Bowker, 1955. 2. Grand Rapids Herald, August 2, 1936. 3. The International Style by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1932, 1966.
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