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A Mid-Century Modern Retreat

With main rooms a story above grade, this split-level house gives the impression of living in a glorious tree house.
By Brian D. Coleman | Photos by William Wright

    The main floor, 32' of open space, is divided by a freestanding fireplace; floor-to-ceiling glass window walls are trimmed with laminated wood beams.

    Mid-century modern residences are often said to be successors to the bungalow: simplified and naturalistic, meant to bring the outdoors inside. Here is a house built in 1958 by the Modernist architect Edward James, which recalls the philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright—author of The Natural House and the architect whose career spanned from the Prairie School of the Arts & Crafts era into International Style and Modern design.

    Large walls of floor-to-ceiling glass in the living and dining rooms bring the forested setting indoors. Bedrooms at the northern and western ends of the house were built with small windows to keep them cool and private. Natural and sustainable materials include quarter-sawn red oak flooring, and Pennsylvania bluestone around the fireplace and for flagstones in the foyer. Laminated wood beams inset with V-groove fir planks clad the 12′ ceilings.

    Public rooms were given the best light, and the bedrooms are at the rear of the house, the study downstairs. The concept of public rooms getting the best location is in the classic European tradition—remember that the piano nobile, a raised first (and public) floor, is the most desirable in classical architecture.

    When Christine Matheu and her late husband, William Cohen, came across this Bloomington home in 1990, they weren’t looking to move. Out of curiosity, they asked an agent to show them the house, which is conveniently located close to Indiana University, where Cohen was a professor. Christine recalls that her husband’s face lit up as soon as they went inside. The open floor plan, soaring ceilings, and expansive window walls make a refreshing change from traditional Midwestern interiors.

    The new kitchen was built within the original footprint, but with the wall to the dining room removed to allow for light and views. Open shelves define the space.

    The couple became the house’s third owners; it was in good condition. Christine, who is an accomplished architect, designed a series of renovations sagely spaced over 15 years, divided into four discrete projects—not just for practicality, but also to allow her family breaks between the disruptions that invariably come with construction.

    Project number one, just after move-in, involved updating the lower level. Set above grade with floor-to-ceiling windows, the lower level still seemed cramped; suspended ceilings were hung with acoustical tiles, and dark veneered and composition paneling covered walls. The ceiling grid was removed, revealing an additional foot of height and original laminated wood beams like those upstairs. Walls were drywalled and painted in a grayed white; gray carpet picks up the stony palette. The built-in cherry cabinets and bookshelves were cleaned.

    Then, in 1994, the second renovation expanded two bathrooms on the main floor and the master bedroom. By relocating the laundry to the lower level, Christine “found” just over 100 square feet of space to move the master bath and create a walk-in closet and dressing room. Six years later, the dust had settled and the family was ready for the third round. The goal was to further integrate the house with its forested setting. The side yard was regraded, and a series of levels was created with retaining walls of Brown County stone. Beds bordered by dwarf box are planted with shade-tolerant plants: Japanese maple, variegated hostas, and mounds of multi-hued impatiens. The back deck was enlarged and connected with a “pyramid” of graduated steps to a bluestone patio across the rear facade, expanding living space outdoors. An open brise-soleil above the kitchen and dining-room windows provides shade on the southern side of the house.

    Bedroom windows echo those in the front of the house. Period furnishings include a streamlined maple chest and an Eames bent plywood chair.

    The last renovation, in 2007, tackled the kitchen. Set in the center of the upper level, the original Pullman kitch en was cramped and inefficient. Ash cabinets, stained dark, were awkwardly placed so that corners were inaccessible. The white laminate countertops and vinyl flooring were dated—not in a good way—and had reached the end of their lifespan. Lighting was inadequate by today’s standards, consisting of under-counter fluorescent tubes and a single overhead fixture.

    Christine was careful to not over-remodel, retaining the simplicity and honesty of the mid-century modern design. Working with cabinetmaker Nancy Hiller, who specializes in period-sensitive design, Christine stayed within the kitchen’s original footprint.

    Published in: Old-House Interiors July/August 2011

    { 1 comment }

    Art March 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Very impressive reworking of this lovely mid-century modern home. We are presently trying to incorporate some of these MCM elements into our 1965 split foyer (a/k/a split entry, bi-level, hi-ranch). The windows our architect selected are very much like those used in this home. While our home is different in many respects, we too live “at the top of the stairs.” Please see my Split Foyer Challenge and related posts at

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