This Modern life

Posted on Posted in Boulter House News

The owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright shares her journey.


I don't know many couples that get into heated discussions weighing the aesthetics of opaque stain versus transparent, but it's a topic my husband, Chuck Lohre, and I debate often. Then again, most of our conversations these days are about the house we've called home for nearly three years. America's foremost architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed our 2,500-square-foot Clifton home. Yes, after the much-publicized 2003 auction, we ultimately purchased the two-story Usonian home Wright created in 1954 for Patricia and Cedric Boulter. And it's been non-stop Modern design education since.

Familiar Extremes

The home features iconic Wright elements such as an expansive glass façade, overhangs, a cantilevered balcony and a flat roof. Wright favored flat roofs in his later homes, which are famously said to leak. We're dry thanks to the previous owners, who not only added downspouts (Wright didn't believe in them), but replaced the original tar-and-pitch bituminous roof with a composite type in the late 90s.
Luckily for preservationists of Modern architecture, says Patrick Snadon, associate professor of interior design at UC, "Later 20th-Century and early 21st-century building technologies and materials often make it easier to preserve and restore structures than they were to build." Today's rubber membrane roofing, he says, protects flat roofs much better than tar-and-pitch bituminous mixtures used when the structures were originally constructed.
We connected with Professor Snadon when his students toured our home as part of their study of Modern architecture in Cincinnati. His group researched and reported on a wide range of Modern design from enclaves of Modern houses off Galbraith Road and streets in Western Hills to the early homes of Cincinnati architects Carl Strauss and Ray Rousch as well as the work of Woodie Garber and David Niland. Chuck and I have also cruised streets in Finneytown and Amberley Village looking for Moderns.

Mad for Moderns

We've also met a number of vintage mid-century homeowners through Cincinnati Form Follows Function (CF3), a nonprofit organization that hopes to connect people with a passion for Modern design and save homes from "modern death," such as the addition of pitched roofs over flat ones or loss of period details such as built-ins during insensitive remodeling. Members hope to serve as Modern design resources for contractors, homeowners, educators and devotees.
Two CF3 founders, Chris and Wendy McGee, discovered their 1953 gem—make that diamond-in-the-rough—in Paddock Hills. They're fifth owners of a two-level, 2,800-square-foot Benjamin Dombar-designed home and in the process of restoring it. (Early in his architecture career, Cincinnati native Dombar, a Wright apprentice, acted as construction manager for the Boulter House.)
"What appeals to us are the clean lines and minimal aesthetic," explains Chris, an architect with FRCH Design Worldwide. Until they began working with a Realtor, though, they didn't think they could find affordable local options.
In the first seven months of home ownership, Chris and Wendy, a Head Start teacher with Cincinnati Union Bethel, "purged" window treatments, wallpaper, carpet and landscaping not in keeping with the original style. Their "great room," a Wright-inspired concept that brings living and dining functions together, features a soaring ceiling, a wall of windows and fireplace flanked by built-in shelves.

Current projects include repair of a serious roof leak this spring. Chris knows they're facing complete roof and trim replacement, too. Ambitious future projects include a total kitchen remodel to remove '80s cabinets and countertops. He and Wendy want to remove an added-on rear solarium. He's hoping to find the home's plans to study design of the original deck and other features. Restoration will likely take 10 years, since they plan to touch every room, including baths. Minor jobs range from reconditioning window frames, replacing an upstairs railing and removing all trim on doors and baseboards.
Next door, literally, Diane Garrity and husband Todd Farmer live in a 1951 home designed by Abrom Dombar, Ben's brother and one-time Wright apprentice. Unlike the McGee's, Garrity and Farmer's brick and concrete home was in considerably better shape.

Says Garrity, marketing director at Harley Ellis Devereaux and a co-founder of CF3, "Our home inspector said before we closed on it, 'This is one sturdy little house.'" Original lighting fixtures remain, as do custom drapes in the living room. A kitchen redo is in their future and while they don't plan to restore it to original condition, they do have the house's plans for reference. "Seems like there was a budget crisis during construction, and some details got nixed," says Garrity. This spring, they'll start with the glass-block windows originally planned for the bathrooms.

Tomorrow's Moderns Today

Chuck and I have begun attending CF3 meetings—we already learned the name of the city's best flat roofer. In turn, we can share names of electricians, woodworkers and plumbers who aren't afraid of tackling Modern homes.
Since our lives changed that day back in June 2003, we've become involved in a number of organizations devoted to the study and preservation of Wright's work. We met Kevin Byrd, who coincidentally considered buying the Boulter House even though he lives in Columbus. Byrd, who is regional marketing director for Columbus-based M/I Homes, has become nearly expert on Wright and his contemporaries. He's been able to turn his passion for Modern architecture into a job asset. In translating housing trends for the mass market, Byrd says, "A lot of people think they like contemporary homes, because they don't know what contemporary is." When you say contemporary, Byrd explains, " They think vaulted ceilings and lots of windows, but if you showed them a mid-century Modern, they'd go, 'Whoa, no, no not that.'" What they want, Byrd explains, is "touches like high ceilings, window walls and lots of glass and natural light, but they don't want a flat roof."

Living Full Circle

Well, about that flat roof.  We learned our first winter—numbingly cold even with  the radiant heat system Wright pioneered in the 1930s—the house lacked sufficient insulation. Sticker-shock accompanied a heating bill that topped $500.
With the newer roof, and because the home is constructed of concrete block, insulation opportunities were limited. Chuck hit a short-term fix: He layered large sheets of 4-inch-thick styrofoam on the roof and secured them with concrete pavers. He also sandwiched Mylar "space blankets" between the living room drapes' fabric and lining, which lowered the temperature upstairs 10 degrees and reflected the radiant heat back into the living room.

A furnace inspection revealed the expansion tank needed to be replaced. Hours of after-work caulking sealed the house and allowed us to move (without extra layers of clothing) to the our first real project—the kitchen "cubby." At 8 by 10 feet, the kitchen space is Wright at his most efficient. Mahogany cabinets flank what Wright called the "Work Space." While we hadn't planned to completely redo the kitchen, our decision to switch from an electric cooktop to a gas one required reorienting both the dishwasher and sink. The need to run a gas line from the basement led us on the hunt for help.
I won't forget one contractor's reaction when we asked him to quote the job reusing all existing cabinets. He replied it wouldn't save us much money, but we thought everyone would share our idea of restoring the kitchen, not replacing it. Finally, we met Dan Kreimer, a Cincinnati-based designer and builder of custom furniture, who accepted the job and work began in late September 2004. Not only was he sensitive to our plan, but he and Pat Boulter have been friends for years—good omen.
Guided by the home's original plans, Dan removed all cabinetry and refit them with new interiors and amenities, like rolling butler drawers. He designed a cabinet to hold our new cooktop and found an artistic wood refinisher, Mark DeJong, to match new wood with the old we reclaimed. We even resurfaced counters with a very close match to the original stop-sign red laminate we found during the tearout.
Nearly four months later, we celebrated our restored "Work Space" with a Wright tea attended by Pat, Dan and Mark along with Ben Dombar and his wife, Shirley. Shirley told stories of being at Taliesin and having to prepare the daily tea of finger sandwiches and sweet treats for Wright and the apprentices.

The house was warm that March day, thanks to Chuck's engineering. Our celebration of all things Wright with some of those who knew him best, remains one of our best memories. Still, I can't help thinking what the Master would say about one of our next projects, the one that calls for maintaining the redwood and Douglas fir exterior trim. Opaque or transparent?