Photograph by Sam Fentress
The owners, a down-to-earth couple with two young daughters, wanted a mid-century Modern house in which they could live simply and sustainably, avoid clutter and piled-up possessions, find space for their growing art collection, and enjoy their daughters’ childhood.
They didn’t expect to wind up in an International Style house built by philanthropist and art collector Morton D. May.
The house was most recently owned by a divorce attorney—who got divorced. In the breakup, a renovation got scrapped, and the house was sold as a gutted shell.
When the price comes down to $990,000, the young couple—who are at the moment planning to build “a 20th-century take on mid-century Modern”—asks builder Chuck Schagrin what he thinks. Could something be done with this house instead?
“Sure,” he says, a master of understatement. “This is a really nice opportunity.”
They make an offer.
The house was designed in 1952 by the Fischer-Campbell architectural firm, and four years later, May hired the soon-to-be legendary architect Frederick Dunn to do an addition.
May’s father, Morton J. May, co-founder of the Muny Opera, lived next door in a traditional brick mansion. His 1910 carriage house sits on the adjacent estate, so the new homeowners’ modern masterpiece stands between it and a semi-circular arbor with wisteria growing over stone pillars and wood trellis. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition,” Mr. Schagrin says. “Somehow, it works.”
The divorce attorney and her husband lived in the house for almost a decade. They’d bought it for just over $1 million and wanted to sell it for $1.2 million. “They’d already ordered cabinetry, carpet, drapes, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, all new windows and doors, and patio furniture,” Mr. Schagrin says. “Then the whole thing blew up. The plumbing stuff was in the house, the patio furniture was in the detached garage, and it was unclear what else was there. They put the house on the market in March 2010.”
Morton D. May’s next house, far grander, has just been torn down. Word spreads fast: Another May house is in danger. The real-estate agent is telling prospective buyers they can get an amazing 1.5-acre lot in Brentmoor Park and build their dream home.
For the couple, it already is their dream home. It just has to be finished.
The couple tells Mr. Schagrin how they want to live. They want geothermal heating and cooling, solar power. They do not want big closets or lots of storage space that would soon be crammed with stuff. “We’re not fancy,” the wife says, “This is not a neighborhood we ever thought we’d live in. We’re homebodies!” They like being within walking distance of Washington University, though (“One of my big goals is that our kids will go to Wash. U. and I’ll be able to spy on them,” she admits) and a public pool and library. Oh, and they want their daughters, ages 2 and 4, to have similarly sized bedrooms and bathrooms, so there would be no squabbling.
The husband is thrilled to be able to save the house and live in it: “There aren’t many times that houses like this come on the market.” And they’re all entirely comfortable with Mr. Schagrin, whose cell phone rings with a bark louder than the two labs that often accompany him.
“He’s quirky, like us,” the wife remarks.
He agrees to shepherd them through the renovation.
“I have walked and driven past this house for 30 years, and it has always intrigued me,” he explains. This project won’t be lucrative for him, but his heart’s in it: “I only have limited time, and I like to parcel it out to people who will appreciate it. These are nice clients. They’re the age of my children. They’re not accumulators of things; they use them and then find them new homes. I’m an accumulator myself, and I’m just so taken aback by someone who doesn’t do all that. It’s very interesting!”
A Preliminary Tour
Light spills into the house from narrow skylights and the south wall. (Southern light was a philosophical requirement for a lot of early Modern architects.) The three bedrooms, living room, dining room, and study are all located on this south wall; only the service rooms, maid’s room, and kitchen face the other direction. All the sunshine’s surprising when you remember May’s legendary art collection, but the architects created overhangs so the sun doesn’t penetrate to the interior of the house until very late in the year, when it’s low and soft.
You walk in the front door and see the staircase straight ahead of you. To the right, a short hall takes you past the powder room to the study, then a small enclosed bar and the large, open living and dining rooms.
“There was a column here and a column here,” Mr. Schagrin says, walking through and pointing, “and at some point someone removed those columns and organized an ingenious system to open up the space. We have no idea when that was done.”
A creamy dividing wall made of fossilized limestone has gravity and ancient weight, yet it floats, resting on a recessed base and stopping short of the ceiling. The fireplace is cut into this wall on the living-room side. Then there’s a long stretch of space, leading through living and dining rooms to the kitchen—the perfect set-up for entertaining.
Mr. Schagrin decides that a fireplace screen, designed by him and made by Eureka Forge, will be his housewarming present.
First, the new triple-panel windows go in, and the chain-link fence gets ripped away. Thirteen bright new aluminum trashcans line up outside the house, waiting for the mess. A few walls are reconfigured, and plasterers begin smoothing over spots where the surface had been smashed off to bare concrete and wire-mesh innards.
The couple decides to get rid of the narrow, steep back staircase and have a larger guest suite, with bath. Lord knows how often the girls will have friends sleep over.
The Caribbean mural in one bedroom is almost tempting to keep—“That’s Mommy and Daddy!” one of the daughters exclaims, pointing to a dancing couple with dreadlocks. But the girls already know what color they want their rooms—carnation pink and pale purple. Their mom smiles. “It will be temporary.”
“People who visited this house 30 years ago say how beautiful it was,” the wife says. “We’re excited to restore that.”
The wife has insisted they take out the built-in pool that all the glass walls, southeast windows, and balcony overlook. “I don’t want to be worrying ,” she says, “about our kids, the neighbor kids, or even our dog”—a wee poodle who’d doubtless have more sense.
With the pool gone, the site opens up. “It breathes,” Mr. Schagrin says happily. The placement of the pool basically in the front yard was so peculiar, and now that it’s gone, the house sits much more comfortably on the site.” By April, all the rough-ins and the framing are completed. There’s R50 insulation, a light-colored roof, a geothermal heating and cooling system, a central vac system, and provisions for solar energy. Mr. Schagrin puts LEDs up into the soffits, sending the glow upward, and uses ceiling lights to demarcate spaces.
It’s easier now, he points out, to see the house’s amazing architecture: “One of the unusual characteristics is the way the large expanses of glass, which act as voids, contrast with the strong brick or stone walls, which act as solids. You get this very nice interplay, and there are actually solids projected over each other in some places, cantilevers. It’s very unusual to project this amount of masonry these distances. That sense of overlapping solids and voids continues through the house, which is crisp and well-organized, with a lot of internal symmetry.”
Mr. Schagrin watches the couple’s budget closely. Because the house is on the National Register of Historic Places and this is a historic rehab, they take advantage of every possible tax credit. Two coats of quality paint will be sufficient, not the three his fastidious painter is recommending. The couple went to Ivey-Selkirk’s Modern auction in November and saw a few items that used to live in their house—but couldn’t afford them. “Stained white-oak casings, trim, and doors would have been beautiful, but it just wasn’t in the budget,” Mr. Schagrin says. “So we kept everything simple—no crown moldings or raised panels, just a reveal cut into the casing and base that runs continuously throughout the house,” subtly outlining its shape.
The couple will add pieces of furniture and art over time. “I’m definitely Type A,” the wife admits. “But I’m trying to turn over a new leaf here and not stress out. This is the house we will hopefully have forever. I don’t want to rush it.”
Exterior windows and doors come as close as possible to the originals. The couple manages to find a contemporary, round, brushed-metal doorbell that echoes the design of the original peepholes in the paired front doors, and they find lights for the end of the walkway, offset cubes in Corten steel, with the same simplicity. They salvaged a serpentine cast-concrete bench from the swimming pool; now, they place it to the right of the entrance.
For the downstairs powder room, they found out the original privacy screen had been removed during the demo and left at Classic Woodworking. They got it back, and it functions perfectly, providing both privacy and decoration with a series of raised squares and recessed channels, different on each side, the layers forming the pattern. The powder room also has its original countertop, a sandy beige marble, and original oval sink, with a silvery-gold stripe around the top edge.
All the new finishes and materials have been chosen. At first, Mr. Schagrin thought the floor would be laid in red oak. Then he peered closely at the existing stairs and shook his head. White oak. For the pale herringbone wood floors, he uses a combination of rift and quarter-sawn white oak, and has floor vents made to match.
The floor in the dining room and kitchen is stone, and some of its randomly sized, large pieces are cracked or missing. Schagrin shows an expert at Midwest Ceramic Tile, who nods and says, with miraculous confidence, “We can do it.” He produces Jerusalem Antique and Botticino Firoito stones that fit perfectly and match the color of the 60-year-old grout.
The kitchen counter and backsplash are white Olympian Danby marble. Cabinetry is a dark walnut, the perfect foil to the stone floor. Bathrooms are limestone and honed marble, and in the master bath suite, you’re surrounded by Crème Europa: 18-inch squares on the floor, and smaller, narrow rectangles, installed with a brick joint, for the walls and tub.
Both lifesavers are in place: the mudroom, with ample storage cubbies, and the laundry room. The luxuries are just arriving: the Crème Europa tub, with heated backrest; the special chandeliers the girls chose for their bedrooms; the equipment for a small exercise room and big theater on the lower level. There’s plenty of room downstairs for fun, and just a small concrete-walled room for storage.
The house doesn’t do what’s expected and face the public street. In fact, its front door doesn’t face much of anything, and its elaborate, glassed-in southern elevation faces only the patio and grounds. To avoid looking through to other houses in the distance, Mr. Schagrin moves the totem poles in the yard and makes them a focal point just off the patio. (The delighted couple later learns the totem poles are houseposts from Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River, once used to support structures used for male initiation rites.) A curving wall of birch trees contains the space and directs the eye. “The house suffered previously,” Mr. Schagrin says, “by your eye going everywhere.”
The other focal point, of course, is the cow, one of the large outdoor sculptures they inherited. It’s androgynous, with both horns and udder, and implacable; no one in the family has once dreamed of moving it. Instead, the girls have spent hours debating its name, which began as Bessie, changed to Olivia, and will change again. The mom decides their amazingly liveable new house should be named La Casa Vaca. The House of the Cow.