Take the Chill off Modern Architecture
This Old House television project
I want my house
to be flexible. Dedicating
one purpose doesn't
One might be forgiven for assuming that a 1950 Modern house will be uninviting—all chilly steel, concrete, and glass. But take a walk down the front steps of George Mabry's newly renovated house, and those preconceptions start to unravel. There, chocolate–colored redwood siding and thin slices of rustic stacked stone surround an entryway made even more welcoming by the soothing sound of a nearby fountain. The effect is more serene forest than sterile structure, and any visitor would be hard pressed to say the style holds no charms. The allure of the house—the current TOH TV-show project—is largely the work of Todd Tsiang, an architectural designer who designated the materials, finishes, and details, working from plans by architect Will Ruhl. Tsiang's choices may be 21st-century, but the house still belongs in the class of high-style mid-20th-century Modern, with its floating staircase, streamlined fixtures and lighting, open-plan first floor, and a wall of glass along the back that makes inside and outside a matter of opinion. There's an emphasis on informal living—key for George, who likes to entertain—that hews to the philosophy of Modern design. Combined with traditional, even antique materials, from recycled wood to handmade tiles to farmhouse slate counters, the house belies the notion that Modern homes are cold and soulless. That opinion is best expressed in the words of one particularly reluctant convert, TOH general contractor Tom Silva, who executed the transformation. "This house gave me a new appreciation for Modern homes," says Tom. "I've worked on them for decades—going way back with my dad—and I'd always thought them to be somewhat sterile. But this one has real charm."
At one end of a long dining room at the finished Cambridge TV–show project house is a library area, where the ceiling soars to 13½ feet. Tall shelves, a stone-veneer chimney, and windows masked from the street by shoji screens define the homey space, which homeowner George Mabry says he will use every day. "I'll have dinner parties," he says. "But I didn't want the room gathering dust the rest of the time."
The dining room, where a large table fills the eating area, has a couple of cozy nooks where George can relax alone or with guests. Darkstained wood shelves provide a dramatic backdrop for his art pottery collection.
What was once new is old
Modern is a misleading word. As an American house style, it first appeared in the 1920s, and the bulk of Modern houses are at least a half-century old—which means they're eligible to be part of the National Register of Historic Places. It also means they're old enough to be ripe for renovation.
But redoing a Modern home presents special challenges. Some of the period's experimental building techniques have not always held up well. In Plano, Illinois, preservationists at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1951 Farnsworth House are trying to deal with rust on the home's 9½–foot–high steel window frames, which can cause them to distend and fracture the plate glass. David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, says that because of the home's historic importance, replacing the frames with modern aluminum trim is out of the question. So they're testing how to repair them. At the same time, Bahlman's group is addressing problems caused by previous renovations, including a "flat" roof that has been repaired so many times that its slope toward a drain in the center of the house has diminished, causing leaks and water damage.
Modern-house owners also struggle with original finish materials, such as laminated counters and vinyl flooring, that were the wonder products of their time but are today considered low-budget. Los Angeles architect Frank Escher, who recently designed an addition to Richard Neutra's 1958 Loring House in the Hollywood Hills, isn't against switching materials, as long as the new products respect Modern's spare aesthetic. His favorite substitutes include solid-surface counters and linoleum flooring, though he doesn't write off laminates, which have evolved in recent years.
The good news about taking on a Modern house restoration is that the plans may still be in the hands of the original owner. "Those drawings can tell you an awful lot about the logic of the home's construction," says Bahlman. But even without the plans, as more and more warm up to the style, information about renovating Modern is increasingly available. In large cities like Los Angeles, where the L.A. Conservancy keeps track of dozens of historic 20th-century buildings, house tours are an invaluable source for ideas or to find preservationists who specialize in the style.