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Photos: A historic midcentury ranch in Mission Hills gets a dramatic makeover

A pair of white Barcelona chairs and a vintage Eames lounger from Retro Inferno are an ode to the era of the home. Fireplace front is Statuary Venato marble from Carthage Stoneworks and flowers are by Bergamot & Ivy. Cara sofa by Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.
A pair of white Barcelona chairs and a vintage Eames lounger from Retro Inferno are an ode to the era of the home. Fireplace front is Statuary Venato marble from Carthage Stoneworks and flowers are by Bergamot & Ivy. Cara sofa by Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.

Sid and Jennie Crawley didn’t intend to become midcentury modern enthusiasts. But almost overnight, fateful events unfolded, steering them in that direction.

The couple, both physicians, wanted to downsize from their traditional Tudor home in Mission Hills. They considered condos, but none excited them. Then they looked into lots in their own neighborhood to rebuild upon.

Their daughter Amanda introduced them to architect Chris Fein of Forward Design after he redesigned her kitchen. Fein happened to live down the street from the Crawleys, and met them all for a walk one Saturday to look at potential tear-downs.

Amanda, a preservation-minded woman who was formerly the executive director of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, pointed to a midcentury modern house and declared that her parents should buy and renovate something like it.

On Monday, a “for sale” sign popped up in the yard, and the Crawleys acted.

“I think it was meant to be,” Jennie says.

Even more prophetic was that Fein, who specializes in midcentury modern rebuilds and serves as a founding member of KC Modern, already had plans drawn up to renovate the house with its previous owners. But after a surprise pregnancy, they stalled on construction and were unsure whether they should move forward or move out.

Chris Fein of Forward Design | Architecture in Prairie Village

With Fein on board, the Crawleys became the house’s advocate, especially after learning its history. Designed by San Francisco-based architect William Wurster, the plan was picked by “Better Homes & Gardens” magazine as its “Idea Home” for 1957.

Identical ranches were built in cities across America. J.C. Nichols built the only home of its kind in the Kansas City area.

“Chris was keen on preserving the house,” Sid says. “He appreciated the fact that we didn’t intend to tear it down.”

The Crawleys accepted parts of Fein’s initial plans, adding a master suite and garage, and then gave him latitude to make decisions appropriate for the house. Fein followed cues from the existing architecture and avoided putting his own stamp on it.

“The whole goal was to make it look like we did nothing, using the invisible hand of the architect,” Fein says. “It has the same flavor of the original house.

“The exterior detailing was good; we had a vocabulary to work with.”

Fein kept the essence of openness in what was once a breezeway by adding an ipe deck between the existing house and new addition. The front courtyard, a key welcoming point, remains snugly intact, but has been given a modern makeover.

Indoor/outdoor transitions were as important back then as they are today. Wurster incorporated many points of entry, and Fein played them up.

An enormous 9-foot eave over the back patio was upgraded with an extension into the yard via a couple of steps down to a bluestone paver patio with a charcoal pit at ground level.

The former master bedroom, now the guest room, steps out onto an ipe deck made more private by horizontal wood walls along the entire side of the house.

“There are a lot of little private nooks in the original design, which I find fascinating,” Jennie notes.

The couple’s favorite is the new courtyard positioned between the master addition and garage, with its Bullfrog hot tub.

Plantings significantly blend the exterior spaces into nature. Rick Howell and Brett Payton of Plaid Collaborative selected unusual trees and shrubs that accentuate the house’s architecture and differentiate it from other homes in the neighborhood.

“It looks unique with plants you don’t see everywhere — no boxwood, no yews,” Jennie says.

Inside the house, room configurations weren’t altered, except where the former galley kitchen became the dining room and the vaulted ceiling was removed to make the space more intimate. From there, Fein’s addition extends two directions: to the master bedroom and toward a utility area and garage. The extension feels seamlessly natural.

“We were adamant about maintaining the center line so you see straight through the house,” Sid says. “It circulates well; you don’t get trapped anywhere.”

However positively the Crawleys felt about the shell’s design, they could not reconcile themselves to living with the original quality of products installed in the house. As a 1950s model home, it had the trendy finishes of the era: pink tile, metal cabinetry, fake wood paneling and linoleum flooring.

Amanda used her background to help her parents upgrade the home’s style. Remember: this was a complete sea change for the couple, who purged most of their belongings, save for a few objects from their wedding and oriental rugs.

“We wanted something a lot lighter, simpler and refreshing,” Jennie says.

The home has a midcentury modern vibe, but it’s not a time capsule.

“The interiors are more contemporary,” Fein says.

The living room is a blend of recognizable furnishings of the era — a pair of white Barcelona chairs, a vintage Eames lounger from Retro Inferno and light fixtures inspired by the “glow balls” popular in the 1950s — but the wood paneling was removed and the red brick fireplace replaced by Carrara marble.

Wurster intentionally left windows out of the den, which is at the front of the house, because he wanted to draw eyes to the windows facing the backyard. The architect envisioned neighbors’ yards hooking up to create “one continuous park,” Fein says, but fences and modern ideas about privacy outdated that concept. The Crawleys added two windows to the den, which brightened the space and made it feel more connected to the front yard.

The former screened-in porch became a highly efficient, vaulted kitchen.

“Chris made everything disappear,” Jennie says of the custom cabinets that reach up to the ceiling in all shapes and sizes, plus secondary pullouts within the drawers.

“It’s a compact space, but there’s a lot of usable storage,” Sid adds.

Even the master closet is spacious and organized enough to separate his clothing from hers. The master bath offers a private water closet and shower room.

The size of the master suite was determined by property setback rules, but the space is in no way cramped.

With four architects involved — including architect-turned-general contractor Tyler Harrelson of Centric Homes — the Crawley residence is fully revitalized for a new era.

“We were all working to solve one problem, which is why it turned out so well,” Fein says.

Two framed awards hang in the den: a Merit Award presented by the American Society of Landscape Architects and one from Historic Kansas City for Best Contemporary Design in a Historical Context.

Amid all the impressive rebuilds in the neighborhood, the Crawleys’ smaller-scale project has received kudos from passersby.

“People have honked their horns or given us a thumbs up. They’re glad we didn’t tear down and build something oversized,” Jennie says.

“We are, too.”