A couple purchase a home and discover a delightful surprise: It was designed by mid century visionary and architect Francis Gassner.
For a long time, Ben Lewis and Ilene Markell dreamed of owning a Mid Century Modern home. Ben, a retired U.S. Navy musician and trumpet player, fell in love with Mid Century Modern style in 1986, when he picked up a copy of Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s by Cara Greenberg. Flipping through its pages, he became captivated by the architecture, art and design of the post-war period. “I immediately began researching,” he says. For Ilene’s part, her passion for Mid Century Modern design was sparked after a childhood in a beautiful home. “I was lucky enough to grow up in a contemporary house surrounded by incredible furniture, art and household goods,” she says. “The home my parents built was designed by architect Francis Mah and was named one of the Record Houses of 1969 by Architectural Record magazine.”
A 1961 Mid Century Modern home located in Memphis, Tennessee, came on the market. When the couple saw it for the first time, they could tell that, under decades of poor redecoration, lay an inspired design. “If we had been able to buy the house from the original owners, we would have been set,” Ben says. “Unfortunately, we had to undo the damage wrought by at least two poorly advised ‘improvements’ by successive owners.”
Guided by Fate
Perhaps it’s fate that Ben and Ilene purchased the residence, because they could see the home’s true identity. As they toured it, it spoke to them, revealing just what it had been. Ben says, “We noticed aspects that revealed the work of a talented architect.” Ilene adds, “When we got to the wardrobe area in the master bedroom, it started reminding me a lot of the house I grew up in (aka my favorite house in the world). It was a clue.”
They didn’t learn the identity of the architect until after they had bought the house, and it was a wonderful surprise. “It turned out to be Francis Gassner; our families were close,” Ilene says. “The fact that I knew and admired him when I was a little girl makes the house even more special to me. His daughters are our friends; they love what we have done with it and are certain he would approve.” They were able to track down the original owners, who gave them the blueprints of the house as well as contemporary family photos. The couple along with architect John Jones, whom they hired to help bring their vision to life, used the blueprints as the “bible” to discern what needed to be reconstructed and what could be sensitively altered. Now, the home has been returned to its former self and is a living and breathing ode to Mid Century Modern design.
Bringing the Vision to Life
The couple were not just in tune with the house but also completely in tune with each other. “When we were discussing the house after seeing it for the first time, we both remembered it as being open from the dining room through the kitchen to the den with a wall of windows,” Ben says. “But it wasn’t. The way we remembered seeing it actually was our shared vision of how we thought it should look.” Using the original plans secured from the previous owners, Ben, Ilene and John were able to devise solutions that allowed them to address their needs while staying true to the overall integrity of the design.
In the main living room area, they installed terrazzo tile and recreated the divider and steps that were part of the first design. They also creatively worked around challenges resulting from the home’s location. “Ideally, when it comes to the relationship between indoors and out, a Mid Century Modern house would flow directly through the envelope of the structure and remain one design,” Ben shares. “Unfortunately, in Memphis, the humidity and insects do not allow us the freedom found in areas where modern design is more prevalent. We attempted to achieve the same visual continuity with banks of windows, even if true interaction is not possible.”
Returned to its roots, the home now carries on the beautiful lineage of Francis Gassner design and is enjoyed by the couple every single day.
To see more of Ben and Ilene’s home, visit johnjonesarchitect.com/lewis-markell-residence.
Sensitively restoring or styling an MCM home can be a challenge. Here are three ways that Ben and Ilene approach it.
- Pieces of History. One of the best ways to implement Mid Century Modern design in your home and to understand it is by collecting period pieces that demonstrate the vision and craftsmanship of the time. Whether you get sizable furniture pieces or tabletop-size items like Ben and Ilene’s peppermill collection by Jens Quistgaard, you’ll glean insights into design and can use them as styling points for your interiors.
- Book Sale. Ben has amassed a large collection of period books on architecture and design, and several of the choices in the renovation were inspired by houses designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Besides specialty booksellers and design shows, many of his books have come from estate sales and thrift shops, as well as a favorite source: library book sales. “These are truly an untapped resource for books on design, art and architecture,” he says.
- Find the Right People. It’s important to find tradespeople who are willing and able to adopt the modern mindset. Ben says, “Fortunately, we were lucky enough to work with John Harrison Jones, an exceptional architect who immediately got what we were trying to do, and a general contractor who helped us realize the potential of the space.”
To learn more about Francis Gassner, read Francis Gassner: Building Community Through Space. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!