It’s that Minnesota time of year. Shoes are covered in salt stains, windshield wipers are streaking invisible chunks of ice across glass and city streets run single-lane in two directions. It’s time to reflect on appreciation, if only to stay warm. This past year provided an extra day or two in early October to extend such opportunities for appreciation. One of mine was spent running to a handful of houses on the 2011 docomomo us mn tour, held Oct. 8.
Doco-what? It was new to me, too, but docomomo us mn is a local chapter of an International nonprofit organization that is, according to their Facebook page, dedicated to the “DOcumentation and COnservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the MOdern MOvement.”
This local tour featured only six homes designed by acclaimed architects in the 1950s and ’60s that have been carefully maintained by their owners, in some cases, the original owners. The tour was a unique opportunity for enthusiasts to visit and study regional Modernist roots.
Many of the architects were local practitioners, including Robert Bliss, Lisl Close, Carl Graffunder, and James Stageberg, bringing to attention the notable Modernist talents in the region. Both James Stageberg and Lisl Close died this year making the opportunity to experience their individual gifts for crafting space with brick, wood and light all the more poignant and memorable.
I’ve written about home tours featuring contemporary design before, but a tour of mid-century Modernist-designed homes is a resounding reminder of how the adage less is more can be a memorable understatement. From period furniture to closet space, these homes epitomized the Not-So-Big with efficiency and elegance. Mostly unchanged since their construction, these homes have begun to reveal their age in yellowing plastics or drafty windows, but their beauty is as recognizable with wrinkles as it is with freshly painted skin.
Imagine the majority of homes built today, designed in the suburban hip-roofed aesthetic, and you will likely recall formal rooms at the front and informal rooms along the back, separated by a bearing wall and contained under a giant roof. To the contrary, many of these homes featured an organizational system containing a middle zone. These “modern middles” contained functional secondary spaces of the homes — baths, laundries, kitchens and circulation elements — naturally lit by skylights in space-efficient and neighbor-friendly flat roofs.
The final home on our abridged tour was a rambling gem in Kenwood, originally known as the Dalrymple House by Bliss & Campbell from 1963. Its scale and ingenuity are cleverly masked by the delicately curved street elevation, but inside, the one-level plan unfolds as the visitor passes through and around a series of arced brick walls, culminating in the central living room with a 16 to 20-foot diameter glazed oculus in the ceiling. It was straight out of an early Bond movie, and for a house enthusiast, left me as giddy as a child under a Christmas tree.
I have benefited from the graciousness of many of my clients agreeing to similar tours and have, myself, entertained curious strangers in my living room, so I make it a point to thank the homeowners who have sacrificed their privacy for an afternoon so that I, and the curious others, can share in their architectural delight, if only for the length of a tour.
In this last home we visited, at the risk of overstaying our welcome, I found the homeowner to express my appreciation. I was memorably struck by his gracious response. “It is such a privilege to own a house like this. We have to share it.” Now there is a sentiment to keep you warm through another Minnesota winter.
Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects.