Imagine visiting Highclere Castle — better known as Downton Abbey. Then, try to peek outside a window.
In all likelihood, you’d have to push your way past heavy velvet drapes to get an outdoor view from inside the expansive mansion.
Johnson County residents Eric and Saskia Lehnert may admire the Victorian style from afar, but they wouldn’t want to live like that.
“We really like modern architecture, specifically, midcentury modern,” says Saskia.
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Midcentury modern homes, built between 1933 and 1965, were championed by architects Richard Neutra, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, among others. Donald Drummond pioneered modern residential architecture in the Kansas City area by building as many as 1,100 such homes between 1946 and 1964.
It was these architects who interpreted the social change that came after World War II, building homes utilizing strong geometric lines, flat roofs and expansive use of glass.
As modernists at heart, the Lehnerts were drawn to their current residence after looking at couple of dozen homes throughout the metro.
“Despite the fact that the house needed a lot of work, we saw the possibilities. This house had ‘good bones’,” says Saskia. “This type of home was known as a ‘Trade Secrets House,’ custom built in 1954 by former Kansas Citians Lennie and Jerry Berkowitz.”
The Berkowitzes were well-known as longtime supporters of the visual arts in Kansas City and their collection of contemporary ceramics. Trade Secrets Houses were built after World War II, millions for homeowners looking for housing that followed certain industry techniques compiled by the National Homebuilders Association to produce good looking, skillfully engineered houses that could be put up by any mass builder almost anywhere in the country for $15,000. They typically featured about 1,300 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, 1 1/2 bathrooms, a big fireplace and a flexible, open-style floor plan.
The house’s exterior was painted turquoise green and had an outdated kitchen along with two baths that needed attention. On the upside, it had good insulation, lots of redwood siding and cork floors under the carpet.
Over the scope of 12 years everything the Lehnerts and their architect, Robert McLaughlin of McLaughlin Design Associates in Shawnee, have accomplished is admirable.
Though Eric admits, “It’s been a lot of sweat and tears.”
The big reveal
The home’s footprint measures a modest 1,500 square feet; spatially, however it appears much larger — which is a hallmark of midcentury design.
The majority of the living space is in the living room, emphasized by an angular, vaulted ceiling and a redwood beam.
An interior north wall is nearly all glass, further increasing the visual space.
The details of renovation seem like a saga.
“One of our first tasks was to relocate and build a new kitchen,” says Eric. “Then we built a custom birch wood screen as an entryway divider leading into the living room. To keep the continuity from one space to another, all of the interior doors and trim were replaced with birch wood.”
They have also replaced a leaky roof with a tar and gravel one that mimics the original and added custom gutters and new windows with anodized aluminum.
“One of the former owners, I think we’re number seven or eight, painted the living room fireplace, so we had to have it sandblasted.” says Saskia.
During all of the remodeling, the couple had two children.
“That led to refinishing the kids’ rooms,” Saskia says. “Specifically, their Jack-and-Jill bathroom needed rehabbing, so we added handmade tiles, new fixtures and custom cabinets. We’re still working on the cork floors in their bedrooms.”
Work is never done
The good news is that all of this rehabbing has yielded a home with an open, airy space that’s very livable.
What the family enjoys most is an uncluttered minimalist interior like the striking red and gray kitchen. It doesn’t need much accessorizing since the bold color scheme has a built-in wow factor. That’s probably a result of the Fire Slate concrete island and high-gloss enameled cabinets that energize the space without overwhelming it.
The home’s living room is adjacent to the kitchen and features a layout of true-to-period Atomic Age furnishings.
Among various pieces in an otherwise spare space is a Herman Miller laminated birch-and-plywood coffee table, Siesta chair and a red low-slung Adrian Pearsall sofa.
The only noticeable ornamentation is a gallery-like display of post WWII Japanese wood-block prints hung on the neutral-colored walls.
Saskia admits the ongoing remodeling does take time and effort. “But it’s totally worth it considering we’ve learned so much about this architectural style from various people who have become resources along the way.”
The family enjoys the open concept of the house with the main living area opening unencumbered to the patio and backyard.
The property is large enough that the couple built an art studio for Saskia.
“It’s an ideal workspace,” she says. “Plus, I like seeing our house from this vantage point.”
The Lehnerts toy with the idea of adding on to the existing house.
Says Saskia: “There’s plenty of room but we’re just not there yet … maybe sometime soon.”