This International style home  went up for sale in 2014 causing some concern that it might be significantly altered or torn down because it is considered historically significant.  In this highly desirable community with great schools and few build-able lots, tear-downs increasingly make way for new custom homes.  I won’t keep you in suspense.  Happily the home sold in 2015 to sensitive new owners.  

The home is tucked away in the center of East Grand Rapids, not on a major road, and therefore something of a hidden treasure. It was designed in 1936 by architect Emil Zillmer for Dr. J.C. Mauris, a local dentist. Emil Zillmer received his bachelor of science from Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1913.   He designed this bold statement of modernism at a time when the country was still coming out of an economic depression and Europe was in turmoil.   

The origins of International Style.  Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson curated the first display of architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. At the same time they published the book International Style citing examples of modern buildings designed from 1922 to 1931 documented during their travels throughout Europe with Alfred Baar who first coined the phrase.  Some of the features of these modern International Style buildings were flat roofs, plain smooth facades lacking ornamentation where form followed function.  Steel and metal windows were an important part of the facade sometimes creating wide expanses of ribbon windows, sometimes wrapping around corners blending into the exterior without the interruption of traditional wooden window trim. 

Original rendering by Zillmer

Original rendering by Zillmer

Emil Zillmer’s original design.  When this house was built in East Grand Rapids, both the style and the construction materials set it apart on the block and placing it in a small category of International Style houses city-wide. To date I have identified approximately 16 of these houses that appear to have changed very little and are located in the Grand Rapids area.  A good share of them were built from 1935-1938.    In this house, exterior walls and interior partitions are constructed of Haydite blocks, a building unit produced locally at the time by the S.A. Morman company.   These blocks came in the same dimensions as concrete blocks and were lighter but three times as strong.    Haydite joists supported the reinforced concrete floors.   The house was fitted with steel sash windows.  The exterior finish is pure white stucco and when built the only color was the painting of the window sashes.  The interior of the home was finished in tinted plaster.  Original finishes included carpet over concrete floors and asphalt tiles in bedrooms, stairways, halls, kitchen.   It’s fun to imagine Dr. Mauris and his wife welcoming curious friends and visitors in this traditional city to their unusual new modern home for cocktails in the formal evening attire of the late 1930’s. 

The house was purchased in the summer of 2014 by new owners David and Jennifer Kirchgessner for their young family.I made the acquaintance of David, a realtor with an interest and knowledge of mid-century modern homes, in early 2014 when he alerted me to the sale of a cool 1950’s ranch with a low profile and swooping roofline designed by Ernie King, GM automotive designer.   Jennifer who has a textile designbackground and works for the Scott Group Custom Carpets clearly appreciates the aesthetic value of the house.  Jennifer grew up steeped in modernism, living in one of the most iconic modern homes (shown above) on Hall Street designed by Arleigh (Bud)Hitchcock, Executive Director of Grand Rapids Homestyle Center, an amazing idea that came close to fruition in the 1950’s.  See WMM post http://westmichiganmodern.com/2014/07/01/3164-hall-a-precedent-for-aging-in-place-in-grand-rapids-michigan-by-alison-mcdonnell/.   

Warm and inviting living room

The house tour.  We were so happy when David and Jennifer agreed to let our little party tour their home.  Later I asked our friends about their first impressions and they confirmed my own.  Behind the beautiful stark white stucco finish and the smooth flat planes of of the exterior is a warm and inviting interior.  We entered through the original wood front door into a cozy foyer where we were welcomed by our hosts. The home has a well-designed circulation pattern and the entry leads three ways – to the garage, to the kitchen or to the open living area with built in book shelf and three informal seating areas.  The room is surprisingly cozy with low ceilings (must ignore the ceiling beams) and warm wood floors.  These floors happily have replaced the original finishes which called for carpet over concrete.  The dining area is a continuation of the living area, handy to both living room and kitchen. Our friend recalled that she just loved the way the dining area was incorporated into the main living area with a door leading back to the kitchen for serving purposes.  Wrap around windows provide light in the dining area and are an attractive backdrop for the dining furniture.  These were originally steel sash windows and provide one of the main design features of the home.   The windows have been replaced by new windows that are functional and convenient and maintain the wrap-around style.

Original built-in bookcase in living room

 The owners had laid out on the dining room table the original blue prints and a book of specifications created by the architect for the owner.  We had a great time paging through the detailed information to look back at the architect’s vision.  My husband really enjoyed delving into the specifications for the house because he recognized some similar structural characteristics after doing all of the interior renovation work on a condo we own at the Hillmount on Cherry Street in Heritage Hill.  Emil Zillmer designed the Hillmount too, a wonderful Art Moderne building, about the same time as this house in 1937.  However, due to wartime material shortages the building was not completed until 1952.   

Art deco  style modern fireplace in living room

Original blueprints with fireplace detail

In looking through the house blueprints, it was fun to identify striking features such as the decorative marble fireplace and multi-paned wood doors.  The art deco style fireplace is just as originally drawn in the elevation shown left and is the focal point of the third seating area in the living room.  This area is almost overlooked when you first enter the living area because your eyes are drawn left. Next to the fireplace is the glass door shown in the drawing which leads to a delightful room that could serve as an office or small den where you can be totally apart from the open living space but still hear the quiet conversation buzz and activities taking place just around the corner. The space has that indoor/outdoor feel with a lovely view of the backyard green space.  

One last thing about the living area.  The original multi-pane French doors lead to a comfortable porch/sunroom. 



We could have lingered a long time inthe living area enjoying the ambience and conversation but the interesting stairway drew us to the 2nd level.   The balusters and railing were surprisingly traditional but original per the blueprints.  The main stairway feature is a full length vertical window in three sections.  That window is a striking design feature as viewed in this exterior photo.

Distinctive design features include 3-story fireplace and nautical railing around second floor balcony

The third and lowest part of the vertical window is actually located in the stairwell that leads from the main floor to the basement. What is especially fun about this window is that Emil Zillmer designed a similar vertical window in glass block in one of my favorite art moderne structures – a small apartment building at Fulton and Prospect constructed around the same time by Albert Builders and shown at left.  

David and Jennifer’s house originally called for one bath, four bedrooms and the airing porch with the typical nautical rail on the upper level. However, somewhere along the way, a second bath was added upstairs.  The upstairs is bisected by the stairway creating two separate bedroom wings on either end of the connecting hall. Many original features remain upstairs.  The master bedroom features original cupboards and closets and the wrap around windows. A multi-pane exterior door leads from the master bedroom to the airing porch.

 There are gorgeous double doors and extra-wide single doors of burnished wood all with the original silver hardware throughout.    The main bathroom features the original pretty patterned asphalt floor tiles and large square glass shower tiles in a complimentary carmel color with black accent tiles. 

Burnished double door with original hardware

The door trim is a unique three-layer wood style still preserved throughout the house.  We were all elated to see so many original details in the home still intact despite the nearly 80 years of occupancy.   When we went back downstairs, we did a quick tour of the basement with it’s recreation room, utilities and laundry. This house was designed originally for gas heat and air- conditioning. Our last stop was the kitchen which is a bright welcoming space – casual and friendly and a combination of old and new.  The floor to ceiling cupboards appear to be original.  New stainless appliances blend well with the warm yellow paint of the walls. Asphalt tile has been replaced by warmer wood floors and a built-in glass front cupboard provides storage and display. The wrap around windows are new but replicate the original style.      


Thanks to the generosity of David and Jennifer, our tour group was larger than usualthat evening and included architect Emil Zillmer’s grandson Eric.  Eric’s grandfather Emil and father Carl are both part of the mid-century modern architectural history of the city.  Friends John and Barb Mytek (who works with Eric) made the connection.  Barb and John are the former owners of one of my favorite modernist homes on College in Riverside Gardens link here for story  http://modernwm.org/#new-page-10 .   Eric had hadn’t known about this house his grandfather designed and so it was fun to include him on the tour. The home was considered so unusual for the time that it drew significant attention.  In the August 2, 1936 edition of the Grand Rapids Herald, contractor Peter J. Ebels praised the house saying, “This type of house is the coming thing.  I believe that it will replace frame house construction within 10 years. The advantages are obvious.  Upkeep on the building is reduced to nothing for there is nothing to depreciate.  Heating and cleaning are made far easier and the building is fireproof,  and rodents and termites and vermin can’t live in concrete.”  

 International Style homes in the Grand Rapids area.  In my modernist quest, David and Jennifer’s house has a place in a collection of about 16 outstanding local International style homes with similar features but each with a distinctive design and created by a variety of architects. The bulk of these were built from 1935-1937 and they may have been influenced by the modern architecture featured at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  One such modern house completed in 1937 in Grand Rapids is the Gas Wonder House shown right. Designed by a Chicago firm in collaboration with local architects Knecht, McCarthy & Theibaud, this was a demonstration house.  People lined up to see this modern marvel of gas appliances and utilities when it was completed.   The earliest of these International style homes in Grand Rapids was probably built in the 1920’s and the latest one I’ve found was constructed in 1947.   These homes are limited in number but today stand out in the various neighborhoods where they are located.  The International Style house designed by Alexander McColl on Plymouth in East Grand Rapids and built in 1937 shown below) was featured in the Grand Rapids Press  when it went on the market in 2014.

International style home designed by Alexander McColl on Plymouth Rd. in East Grand Rapids

These homes represent a small but important part of the modern housing stock in Grand Rapids.    It’s unknown at this point if architect Emil Zillmer designed any other homes in this style. However, slowly a catalogue of Zillmer’s principal works is coming together including the Hillmount,the apartment building on Fulton and Prospect, some residences including a Lake Michigan Cottage, the design for a Veteran’s building (unknown if it was built) and a number of commercial structures in Muskegon. In the meantime, David and Jennifer are beginning a new chapter for this lovely modernist gem nearly 80 years old, an important piece of East Grand Rapids architectural history.  Written by Pam VanderPloeg, copyright 2015.  

Citations:   1. American Architects Directory 1956.  NY:  R. R. Bowker, 1955.  2. Grand Rapids Herald, August 2, 1936.  3.  The International Style by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson.  NY:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1932, 1966.