Editors note: Richard Neutra, native of Vienna, Austria, was born in 1879 and immigrated to the United States in 1923, after working for acclaimed architect Erich Mendelsohn in Europe. Among his famous designs are the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles and the Kaufman house in Palm Springs, California. Neutra designed only one home in Michigan, the List house, named for Dr. and Mrs. Carl List, a beautiful brick, frame and glass home on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids. In this paper, published on West Michigan Modern in 2015, Steve Romkema looks at this prized Grand Rapids treasure, and addresses some of the issues faced today by owners of iconic mid-century modern buildings.
Richard Neutra's List House: Lessons from Significant Architecture by Steve Romkema
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 months, we explored and researched single family residential architecture through the lens of aging in place. One aspect of our wok 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 Rapid’s first neurosurgeon, the List House is a prime example of the leading edge of architecture of the time. Designed by the 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.
That's not to say, however, that the home is two stories. When occupying the main living floor the house has a feeling 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.
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. There are multiple directions one can go upon entering the foyer. To the left is the kitchen, complete with minimalistic cabinets and built-ins. 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 are greeted with a long, closet lined corridor that leads to the master suite.
The most natural path is to head straight to the 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. 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 suit.
In recent years the home has been occupied with 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 has the ability to support its occupants over the course of time.
While the List House may be an excellent example of mid-century architecture, its short comings 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 homes size for the larger number of occupants isn’t an issue, 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. 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 such as the kitchen that has limited space for someone to sit and appliances have outgrown their intended spots. If homes are to serve in the long term they need adapt not just their occupants but also 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 which is no longer being manufactured. Fortunately, after an extensive search, the homeowners found a painter who just happened to have some laying around from a past job but this situation brings into 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 the Southern California homes have been incorporated in the List House and have proven 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 where 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 are able to do with their home as it is a prized work of architecture even if the issues arise from poor design decisions.
The owners possess massive amount 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 that 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:
Steve Romkema recently completed his Master of Architecture at Lawrence Institute of 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. They now live in the Rockford area after previously spending time in Lansing, Detroit and Ann Arbor.