When we walked through the door of a mid-century house in the Milwaukee, Wis., suburb of Fox Point, we knew right away that it would be our future home. What drew us to it so immediately were its original features; some of them intact, others—as we would discover in the ensuing months—hidden, disassembled or reused elsewhere in the home. The first clue that this would be a pattern came when we opened the entryway closet to find that a set of blueprints had been used
as wallpaper. A few minutes peering at them confirmed that they were the blueprints for the house, dated 1953 and developed by architect Howard E. Schroeder for Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bessman.
When he designed our home, Schroeder was a recent graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign architecture program, working out of his self-designed midcentury modern home nearby. In fact, Fox Point is well-known by area MCM enthusiasts for its architecture, and a number of architects, including some protégées of Frank Lloyd Wright, built Usonian-style homes for their clients within just a few blocks of our house. We were able to obtain a copy of Schroeder’s blueprints, and in the ensuing months have reused disassembled components and replaced missing details using the plans as our guide.
Reduce, Reuse, Repair
Because the home hadn’t been extensively remodeled and appeared to be largely intact (but did have many deferred maintenance issues), we decided that our strategy would be to follow the standards developed by the Secretary of the Interior that guide historic preservation efforts for historic properties—despite their complex, nuanced and sometimes seemingly unfathomable nature. It helped that we owned a bungalow in a Los Angeles neighborhood that underwent a historic designation process in the early 2000s, and that Bill had been teaching courses in a university program focused on historic preservation.
A strategy we call ‘reduce, reuse, repair’ is our distillation of the principles of historic preservation and has been our guide thus far. Briefly, the idea is to reduce reconstruction or otherwise rehab the home; reuse the existing materials and/or the disassembled features; and repair those components of the home that are salvageable instead of tearing them out and replacing them.
We’ve now applied our mantra to several projects. Some of them have required quite a bit of repetitive, hard work and have been relatively emotionally unrewarding; others have involved some detective work and just plain good luck, and have left us feeling especially rewarded for undertaking them. All began with a desire to tread lightly on the house, and most have taken as their starting point features called out in our blueprint wallpaper.
On the relatively uninteresting side of the spectrum, the original transom windows and interior storm windows were badly in need of reglazing when we moved in. The exterior surfaces had layers of paint on the hinges and flashing that caused them to be entirely inoperable. We briefly considered replacement, but then decided to repair them instead. All 29 of the storms were reglazed, and we spent what soon amounted to a summer’s worth of Saturday afternoons working on making the transoms operational again.
As an added bonus, we discovered the interior screens that we found in the basement were made with copper wire mesh to match the copper hinges, doorknobs and other hardware throughout the house—an aesthetic touch that would be difficult to reproduce using new windows. Eventually, we’ll need to remove five vinylclad replacement transoms, and we look forward to becoming more familiar with our regional architectural salvage yards.
Several projects involved reusing components and materials that were original but had been moved or left in storage; these have been some of the most rewarding tasks thus far. For example, early in our study of Schroeder’s blueprints, we noticed that a built-in floating desk was missing from an exposed brick wall in our living room. As we examined the plans closely, we began to see that a worktable in the basement looked a lot like that desk. Closer inspection revealed that our hunch had been correct—it still had the original bracing and screw holes matching where it originally attached to the living room wall.
We worked with local carpenter Adam Waite to remount the desk. A makeshift open storage shelf in the basement turned out to be the laminate top of the desk extension, turned upside down. Unfortunately, the support structure had been discarded and all that remained was the top. By closely examining Schroeder’s elevation drawings, Adam built a new facade and support structure in keeping with the existing desk and the original materials.
In another example, the reinstallation of a pass-through door between the kitchen and dining area gave us a project that was more than we had bargained for. The elevation drawings called for a ‘vertical slide-up door’ that was missing but found in a stack of scrap wood in the basement. It was solid cedar and quite heavy, and a portion of a curious looking counter-weight mechanism was still attached. We searched online, figuring out that it was a spiral or tube sash balance, and found a supplier who stocks them.
We spent several days talking through how we’d reinstall the door and fit the counter-weight mechanisms into a wall cavity that we assumed was there. Removing just a couple of planks of the cedar wall paneling for access proved unsuccessful; in the end, taking down and reinstalling all of the cedar paneling on nearly the entire upper half of the wall was necessary. Properly adjusting the resistance on the counter-weight mechanisms also proved to be a tricky undertaking, but after several attempts and a few readjustments, we now have a pass-through door that is fully operational.
Like many owners of midcentury modern houses, we have found our largely intact bathrooms to be considered less than ideal by today’s standards. The Crane faucet handles in the master bath had been replaced, as had the entire faucet in a second bathroom. We’d already decided that, given the custom built-ins and original tile work, we would not gut and remodel, as this would have run counter to our historical preservation mantra to avoid reconstruction and do less, not more.
We saw the model name for the sink imprinted on the underside (Crane Elayne) and found images online. The faucet handles (Crane Drexel) were really cool, and thus began the quest for replacements. Reproductions were available online for $95 from DEA Bathroom Machineries, but we were lucky enough to pick up a Crane sink with intact Drexel hardware at the local Habitat for Humanity Re/Store for $15.
With some searching and coaxing, we located a plumber who was willing to work with the old and somewhat worn fixtures. The plumber told an interesting story about how he could estimate a home’s age based on the brand of sinks in place. Generally, Kohler products are used in area construction, but there was a prolonged strike at the Kohler plant (about 30 miles away) in the 1950s, during which products from rival Crane were installed. We’re still searching for the Crane faucet missing from the second bath and, with any luck (and more time and patience), we’ll be getting back in touch with Viking Plumbing about taking on more specialized work.
Leaving It Alone
Finding contractors like Adam Waite and Viking Plumbing, who are willing to do the work involved in this kind of preservation minded remodeling, is quite difficult and expensive. Most contractors are most experienced at, and most comfortable with, ripping out the old and putting in new. We probably would not have made the decision to adhere to the three Rs had we not stumbled across Schroeder’s blueprints. We sometimes imagine that the original owners must have used the blueprints as wallpaper as a way of reminding future residents that someone put a lot of work and planning into the design and construction of their home. If we didn’t have the blueprints, we’d have been left to guess about our built-in desk in the living room, the dining room pass-through door and, no doubt, a host of as-yet undiscovered features of the Bessmans’ wonderful home.