Editor's Note.   Richard Neutra's List House: Lessons from Significant Architecture by Steve Romkema looks at one of Metropolitan Grand Rapids' prized architectural treasures and addresses some of the issues faced by owners of iconic mid-century modern buildings.  Will it provide for the needs of owners as the house and owners age?

A little bit here about Architect Richard Neutra.  According to Barbara Lamprecht in her book Neutra published in 2006 by Taschien, Richard Neutra was referred to as "America's best known architect" in Progressive Contractor magazine, November 1934.  Neutra was born in Vienna in 1879, came to the United States in 1923.  He worked for acclaimed architect Erich Mendelsohn in Europe and later for Frank Lloyd Wright in the US before he settled in California where in 1927-1929 he designed the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles, recognized according to Lamprecht as "one of the most important houses of the 20th century" due to its revolutionary steel frame structure. Neutra is also known for the Kaufman house in Palm Springs.  Julius Shulman noted architectural photographer became famous photographing the buildings designed by Richard Neutra.  And Neutra designed only one home in Michigan and that was for Dr. and Mrs. Carl List on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids in 1962, the subject of this paper. Neutra died in 1970 after a prolific career.   Citation:  Neutra by Barbara Lamprecht.  Taschien, 2006

Richard Neutra's List House: Lessons from Significant Architecture with Text and Photos by Steve Romkema.  

List House at street level with glassed in porch above vertical brick work and garage. Photograph by Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern.

How will the needs of a rapidly aging baby boomer generation affect the current housing stock in the United States? This is the question that I, along with several of my classmates, set out to answer in a graduate level architecture studio at Lawrence Technical University. For over four month, we explored and researched single family residential architecture through the lens of aging in place. One aspect of our work is a firsthand examination of a significant work of mid-century modern architecture. The following is a combination of that work and a general review of the List House in East Grand Rapids.

Built in 1962 for Grand Rapids’ first neurosurgeon, the List House is a prime example of the leading edge of architecture of the time. Designed by renowned architect Richard Neutra, the home is modest in size.

Originally built for retirement, the home consists of three bedrooms and three baths. It’s situated on a sloping site along Reed’s Lake, and as a result the main living space is elevated a full story above street level.

Original blue prints

That’s not to say, however, that the home is two stories. When occupying the main living floor the house has the feel of being a single level, with the exception of a slight elevation change when moving to the second and third bedrooms. Additionally, the street level is dominated by the garage and unfinished utility spaces. As a result of the elevated living areas the home is fairly nondescript and intimidating from the street.

Exterior with partial view of garage and brick kitchen extension. Photo by Pam VanderPloeg, West Michigan Modern.

The front door is not readily apparent, like many homes of the era. It’s only revealed once you traverse up the natural slope to the main living level and turn a corner. This journey does however take you past a small reflecting pond and reveals the exterior materials of Philippine Mahogany, vertical brick, and glass; all while staging your first view of the interior.

When the front door opens, you’re greeted with a view through the house to the nearly floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake that line the southwest side of the home.

Panoramic view of Reeds Lake from the living room/dining area. Photo by Steve Romkema.

There are multiple directions one can go upon entering the foyer. To the left is the kitchen, complete with minimalistic cabinets and built-ins.

List House Kitchen. Photo by Steve Romkema.

List House Kitchen. Photo by Steve Romkema.

Turning right takes you to one of the baths and a short flight of stairs leading to the second and third bedrooms. If you take a few steps forward and turn right, you’re greeted with a long, closet lined corridor that leads to the master suit.

Closet-lined hallway leading to the master suite, Photo by Steven Romkema

Neutra House Living Room. Photo by Steve Romkema..

The most natural path is to head straight to the main living area. The space is long and skinny, allowing natural light to pour through the full height windows and flood the entire room. At one end, adjacent to the kitchen, is the dining area with an adjacent screened in porch.

Living Room and Study. Photo by Steve Romkema

Anchoring the other end is a large fireplace that serves as the focal point of what is typically referred to today as the living room.  Tucked behind the fireplace is the office with a direct connection to the master suite.

In recent years the home has been occupied by a family of three, bringing into question the ability of the home to support a wider range of occupants. As a result, concern is created when evaluating the house not based on its original intent, but through the lens of aging in place. In doing so the home needs to be seen as a lifelong partner that not just meets needs of a particular moment, but also has the ability to support its occupants over the course of time.

The List House is an excellent example of mid-century modern architecture.  It's challenges as a lifelong partner highlight issues around culture, maintenance, and climate that can be addressed with a new approach to residential architecture.

Culture plays a significant role in how homes are utilized.

The original construction documents call for separate beds and headboards in the master bedroom, something the current owners have no interest in.

The solution here is relatively simple: remove the headboards. However, this is not always the case. While the home is large enough to handle the larger number of occupants, space allotted to individual rooms has created some desires. The ability to find furniture that fits the home has proven to be difficult for the current owners, even though they own their own furniture store.

The biggest culprit is the living room even though it has some furniture built in.

View of living room and dining area with built-ins.  Photo by Steven Romkema.

 In a perfect world the current owners would extend the room a couple of feet to allow the space to function with the larger furniture available today. Similar issues extend to other areas like the kitchen, whichhas limited sitting space and appliances that have outgrown their intended spots.

If homes are to serve in the long term they need adapt not just to their occupants, but also to the items that come with them.

As the home ages it, like all buildings, will require a certain level of maintenance. The issue is that materials used in the original construction may not be available today. This is often the result of new discoveries associated with these materials. Take for example materials like asbestos and lead, which are now prohibited. Recent painting at the List House brought this issue to the forefront. The window frames, which appear to be aluminum, are actually wood coated with an aluminum paint no longer being manufactured.

Fortunately, after an extensive search, the homeowners found a painter who just happened to have some leftover from a past job. This situation brings to question the materials used in long-term homes. If a house is to adapt to changing needs it must provide everything needed to adapt from the start.

While the current owners are happy with the home and don’t have intentions of making significant changes, they do feel the pressure from the outside not to change anything, given the 53 year-old house is one of the few Neutra designed outside of Southern California. As a result, features typical of Southern California homes have been incorporated into the List House, proving to be problematic in the local climate.

For instance, the owners reluctantly replaced a few windows that would ice over in the Michigan winters with the best match available today. Even though the new window frames were only a fraction of an inch larger than the non-functioning originals, the owners received criticism for this. There are other issues associated with the design of the house, most notably insufficient overhangs which allow driving rain to infiltrate, creating problems. Regardless of their intention to alter these, the owners feel they are limited with what they’re able to do with their home, given its status as a prized work of architecture. Even if the issues arise from poor design decisions.

The owners possess massive amounts of documentation around the design of the home, but even so, it’s difficult to understand why specific decisions were made.

What is apparent, however, is the home was designed to fulfill the needs of a specific set of occupants. As such, the home creates what are fairly simplistic issues surrounding furniture, materials, and a sense of destruction in altering the current house. However, these issues can be addressed through a new architectural typology; one that provides the occupants the ability to easily manipulate space to fit the needs of any moment.

About the Author

Steven Romkema recently completed his Master of Architecture at Lawrence Technological University. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and also studied at Michigan State University. Born and raised in Saint Joseph, MI, Steven and his wife, Andria, have strong family ties to the Grand Rapids area. Recently they relocated to Rockford after previously spending time in Lansing, Detroit and Ann Arbor.