Text and photos by Pam VanderPloeg

The beauty of this striking 52-year old Grand Rapids home is credited equally to Chicago architect Otto Stark's modern design and current owner Sarah Porter's commitment to restoration and creative improvements. Sarah recently listed her home on the market, and, no surprise, it it received a lot of interest.

Otto Stark designed this house for a site in Wheaton, Illinois, but the original owner accepted an executive position with the Herman Miller Company in Zeeland. So the architect revised the house plans to fit this lovely 3.08 acre site on the narrow winding extension of East Paris Avenue. Stark graduated from the University of Illinois and is especially known for his Brutalist (from the French term for raw concrete) 15-story concrete and glass Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building at 55 Wacker Drive on the Chicago River.  Architectural Record called the Blue Cross Building a “muscular, positive architectural statement,” akin to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building (Buffalo, NY, 1903, demolished) and Paul Rudolph’s Yale University Art and Architecture Building (New Haven, CT, 1963). 

The 1967 house is an H-shape structure with an exterior of variegated brick shades of brown from the Belden Brick Company. The newer flat membrane roof was installed by Dalstra Roofing and the zinc-cladded copper cap and drip edge was done by Grand River Builders, this replaced the earlier wood trim. One of the signature features is a recessed entry with massive hand-carved doors purchased in Spain by the architect. The foyer provides access to both sides of the H, including the bedroom wing on one side and the common area wing with living, dining and family rooms and the kitchen on the other.  A duplicate set of Spanish carved doors on the opposite side of the foyer leads directly outside to the backyard where the landscape rolls dramatically down to a small private lake beyond the retaining wall. 

The focal point of the foyer is the circular metal staircase.  Also commanding attention is the large abstract painting by Sarah’s father William Porter, retired General Motors Chief Designer of the Pontiac 1 Studio. He has an exhibition coming up at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Sarah’s mother is an award-winning jewelry designer. Interesting houses “run in the family.” Sarah’s parents recently built in the Whitmore Lake area a house of corrugated metal siding with a tower and a contrasting long horizontal section with a large bank of windows. The rooms are designed to display the couple’s eclectic historic furniture collections.  

Sarah Porter is herself a furniture designer who attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. She makes creative use of IKEA pieces and parts, seeing the store itself as her own kind of canvas, envisioning unique purpose and installation for her home. Sarah added open shelving to give the rooms a horizontal flow, and she reconfigured wardrobes, desks and cabinets to customize the interior. Along the way she revealed the main floor tile by removing the carpeting added by the second owner. She also added oak floors in two of the bedrooms. The large free-standing fireplace is an original design statement of its own, and the track lighting is also original to the house. One sad loss was the removal by the second owners of the George Nelson CSS unit that ran the entire wall from the front to the back of the house connecting the living room and family room.

Nearly every room has glass sliders to the outdoors, even one of the bathrooms. Apparently the architect was a gardener and emphasized the landscaping aspect of the design. However, the original deck that ran the entire width of the house is long gone, and a grassy space and retaining wall were added after Sarah bought the house to make it a safer space for her young children

Sarah dramatically increased the living space when she built-out several new rooms in the unfinished basement, again using the IKEA stock. Some of her signature pieces include the built-in office wall unit, the hall bench, and the plywood ceiling in the office space finished with just a clear coat of poly. She also added a studio space that has a built-in modern enclosure for the laundry and a stylish sliding door. She finished the concrete floors with large square tile. The wall art opposite the hall bench was fashioned by Sarah from leftover wood pieces found at the Stone Zone.

If Sarah were going to stay, she would begin a rework of the industrial style kitchen added by the previous owners, who removed the original custom St. Charles cabinets. That first kitchen space was level with the other rooms and where there is now a wall, the kitchen was open to the living room. A skylight brightens the current kitchen and it is handy to the family’s favorite patio on the main level.

Just before listing the house, Sarah added a sunken patio on the walkout level where family and friends gather. Sarah told me that the house was considered one of the “hottest” on Zillow and here is the listing