The Meier House Has Known Quarantine Before

Delbert and Grace Meier House - an American System-Built Home in Iowa

We, like much of the rest of the country, are sheltering in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19. As we go about our days trying to create normalcy out of an abnormal situation, we keep finding ourselves talking about how strange this all is, how it feels unreal to be living this experience. And then we’re reminded that this is not the first quarantine this house has known.

When Delbert and Grace Meier, along with their daughters Esther and Martha, moved into their newly constructed American System-Built Home in the fall of 1917, they were most likely filled with excitement. The family had been renting an apartment above Del’s office while the house was constructed so we can imagine that the three-bedroom single family home must have been a welcome change from the cramped quarters of that temporary lodging. Little did they know that they were about to spend an extended period of time getting acquainted with their new abode.

The flu outbreak of 1918 was the deadliest pandemic to hit America, infecting an estimated 500 millions and claiming the lives of over 600,000 Americans. The country, already gripped by its entrance into World War I, struggled to respond to the virus. Much like today, cities and communities disagreed on whether quarantining was necessary. Quite famously, the city of Philadelphia held a parade that set off a second wave of the virus that went on to claim some 15,000 lives. Still, other communities heeded health officials’ warnings and closed schools, movie theaters and other public gatherings to prevent the spread. (source)

Monona, Iowa, was one of the communities that took protective measures against the Spanish flu.Delbert likely closed his law office temporarily and the girls would have stayed home from school. And so we can imagine that the Meier family sheltered in place in their newly constructed home on Page Street … and somehow everyone managed to get through it.

If you think it’s hard to shelter in place in 2020, with our televisions and computers and internet and a whole world at our fingertips, can you imagine what it would have been like in 1918/1919? With many stores closed and even some mail service interrupted by the pandemic, the Meiers would have been limited to reading the books they had on hand and working on crafts and projects for which they had already purchased supplies. Whereas we receive up-to-the-minute updates from radio, television and streaming press conferences, news would have arrived slowly to this rural community via newspaper. That newspaper must have felt like a lifeline and as a welcome distraction during the quarantine.

All this is to say that we’ll get through this, too. This experience may feel strange and the world may not look the same on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could all be much, much worse. Medical advances of the past 100 years are helping to keep the death toll from spiking as high as it did during the Spanish flu pandemic. Global transportation networks are keeping us supplied with necessities even as much of society is shut down. But, most importantly, we could be dependent on early-20th century technology to get us through this quarantine.

Thank Gore for the internet!

Local History: The Clydesdale Colony’s Connection to Monona, Iowa

Yesterday, we set off in search of what little remains to commemorate a most remarkable social experiment that happened some 170 years ago just south of our little town of Monona, Iowa. It was a little like trying to find the wreckage of the Titanic under the vast Atlantic Ocean, but amidst our own local “seas” of prairie grass and farm fields, we finally found the hauntingly beautiful burial ground under which rests a small group of pioneers who courageously tried to make real a shared (if doomed) dream.

In 1850, just a year after our house’s first co-steward and co-namesake Grace Burgess Meier’s family migrated to this area of northeastern Iowa, another young idealist named Alexander Gardner and other representatives of a proposed “utopian society” also came here from Scotland. This company purchased land on which they established a cooperative community. Gardner returned to Scotland to raise funds and recruit more members for this venture, called the Clydesdale Joint Agricultural and Commercial Company, and oversaw its operations from afar while his fellow colonists and their families settled on the land in the winter of 1850-51. But by the time Gardner and his own family eventually emigrated in 1856, the Clydesdale Colony had disintegrated due both to a devastating outbreak of tuberculosis and dissension amongst its surviving members. Gardner would move on to New York, where, after working for the pioneering photographer Mathew Brady, he would establish himself as a renowned photographer in his own right, creating many now-iconic images of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the conspirators to Lincoln’s assassination.

Meanwhile, many of the survivors of the doomed Clydesdale Colony remained in northeastern Iowa, joining the growing communities of Monona, then a little village at the top of the Mississippi River bluffs, and nearby McGregor, a still charming resort town on the Mississippi itself. In 1869, an itinerant minister named William Carey Wright and his family moved to McGregor, where Wright briefly served as the pastor for a Baptist congregation. The earliest known photograph of his then two-year-old son, Frank Lincoln Wright, was taken there. Nearly 50 years later, long after changing his middle name following his parents’ divorce, Frank Lloyd Wright would design an American System-Built house built in 1917 just 13 miles from McGregor, in Monona: the Delbert W. and Grace B. Meier House – our house and home.

As “city boys” taking on small town Iowa living, we’ve often idealistically fancied ourselves as being “modern pioneers.” But on that serene ground under which so many brave (if also idealistic) pioneers lay, whose shared dream and lives were decimated by a pandemic (the echoes of now are certainly not lost on us), we realized we certainly can’t stand with them. But perhaps FOR them, we might, in encouraging everyone who is reading this, as well as reminding ourselves, to stay safe, stay socially responsible, and stay steadfast in pursuing your dreams, wherever they may lead you.

Bovine Battle: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Springtime at the Meier House means stretching out the retractable clotheslines on the back of the new garage and drying our laundry with sunlight and fresh air. It’s kind of a yearly tradition here. Come late-March you’ll start seeing sheets, duvet covers, towels, curtains and other laundry flapping in the wind. After being cooped up in the stale indoor air all winter, there’s nothing more refreshing than laundry dried outdoors. It makes the laundry and, in the case of bedding, the entire room smell as fresh as a summer afternoon.

Unless, that is, the farm across the street from our house is spreading manure. Suddenly, as we experienced over the weekend, that fresh air takes on a whole different fragrance. Did you know that a strong manure odor will transfer to laundry that’s drying on a clothesline? We certainly didn’t think it would! But we were wrong. The bedroom still smells like a summer afternoon … if you’re spending that afternoon standing in a cow pasture.

Cows: 1, Misters: 0.

Alfred Bersbach House: Van Bergen’s Prairie Masterpiece

Alfred Bersbach House - Wilmette, Illinois

We happened down a side street in Wilmette, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, today and came across this house that could very easily be mistaken for one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. In fact, as we learned from our old friend Wikipedia, back in the 1950s and ’70s, real estate listings mistakenly attributed the house to Mr. Wright. It’s actually one of John S. Van Bergen‘s designs. Built in 1915 for Alfred Bersbach, it doesn’t get any more Prairie School than this lakefront estate!

Sadly, it looks like this gorgeous example of Prairie School design, a house that is often called John S. Van Bergen’s masterpiece, is about to see some big (and perhaps fatal!) changes. This big old house, as gorgeous as it is in its early-20th-century glory, is dwarfed by the modern McMansions around it. Judging by the demolition notice, we fear that the Bersbach house will soon be replaced with something far less significant.

This, we’re reminded, is the importance of stewardship. We don’t actually know that the Alfred Bersbach House is going to meet the wrecking ball, but we do know that too many houses of architectural significance do meet that fate.

Every now and then we wonder why we bought the Delbert and Grace Meier House. What compelled us to invest our energies (and money!) in a 100+ year old house?

This, ladies and gentlemen, this is why we became the stewards of the Meier House. Because we need more stewards. We need more love for old houses. We need more appreciation for the past. We need these houses to remain standing as a reminder of how we’ve lived, of who we’ve been.

Interestingly, there is a brick column near the property line that marks the location as a “Wilmette Local Landmark.” Here’s hoping that you’re getting a little refresh, Alfred Bersbach House, and not a full teardown. If not, at least we got to spend a little time with you today.

Before & After: Stripped and Refinished Living Room Trim

It’s been over a year in the making and there were times when we questioned the project altogether but we’re finally ready to reveal the refinished trim in the living room. But first, take a moment to reflect on the photo above. This snapshot shows the living room as it looked before we kicked off this project. The trim was still painted the same white that went on some time in the late 1960’s. (Fortunately the doors have never been painted.) The walls were still covered in the gray paint that we slapped on when we first moved in six years ago. (It was supposed to be gray anyway. It has always read as blue – much to our chagrin.) We had finally decided to upcycle the old kitchen cabinets as new fireplace built-ins and they’re sitting there, having been cut apart, stripped, reassembled and rebuilt.

This whole trim refinishing project actually started with those cabinets. We had been in a serious rut of procrastination while deciding what to do about the house’s interior trim. Should we take the easy route and re-paint the woodwork or take the much longer – and possibly more satisfying – route and strip it? It wasn’t until we started placing the newly refurbished fireplace cabinets in the room that we were forced to make a decision. Whatever we did with those cabinets – stain the stripped wood or paint it – would dictate how we’d approach the woodwork. Well, after we stripped the cabinets and set them in place, the honey hued wood seemed to warm the space. And with that, our decision was made. Stain the cabinets … and thus strip all the woodwork too.  

Mind you, we kind of liked the white trim. It’s not difficult to recognize the intention of the owner who first painted it back in the ’60s. The white trim seems to not just brighten the space; it also brings a modern sensibility to it. It transforms the interior from Prairie style to a more modern Craftsman look. But then we scraped the first patch of paint from the wood and revealed the dark grain beneath it and knew that we were making the right decision.

Suddenly, the house looks, well, like it’s supposed to look. The dark trim stands out – even more so now that we’ve repainted the walls in an off-white color. (We’re so happy to finally say goodbye to that gray-masquerading-as-blue!)

Living Room of Delbert Meier House - before stripping the trim

Every little aspect of the room works now. The dark trim plays nicely with the gray fireplace brick, not to mention working seamlessly with the wood doors. Even the windows look better now that they’re framed in dark wood trim.

Now, about those beams … Again, we can see what the owner who installed the beams was thinking. It was the 1970s and faux beams were all the rage. They actually kind of worked when the trim was painted white. As we slowly bring the house back to its 1917-era charm, however, the beams seem more and more out of place. We’re anxious to remove them but also wary of biting off a bigger DIY project than we can chew. Sure, removing the beams may be easy. After all, demolition is the most fun part of any project. Patching the ceiling, on the other hand, is a task too daunting for these novices. That said, the owners of the Elizabeth Murphy House have offered to come out and help us remove the beams later this year. We may just take them up on that!

For now, though, we’re going to sit back in our freshly rearranged living room and admire a job well done. Not for long, mind you. Stripping the living room trim is just the beginning. We’ve already moved on to the entry and stairwell and have plans to also strip the trim in the dining room in the near future. The end goal is to take the first floor of the house – the public space, so to speak – back to its original look. The living room is the largest room on the the first floor so we’re happy to have that behind us.

Onward we go!