A Brief History of the Owners of the Delbert Meier House

Our American System Built home, named the Delbert Meier house after the first owner, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017. One of the advantages of owning an architecturally significant house in a small town is that we’ve been able to meet every owner or descendent in the house’s 100-year history. Here’s a brief history of the ownership of our the Delbert Meier house (with some names removed to respect privacy).

The Original Owners – 1917 to 1963
Delbert Meier and his wife Grace built the house and, along with their two daughters, took occupancy in 1917. Del was an attorney and briefly served as the town’s mayor. We’re not sure how Delbert and Grace would have heard about American System Built Homes. We have theories about his stumbling upon Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs when he would travel to Mason City as part of his law practice. Of course, that’s all theory. What we do know is that Delbert and Grace lived in the house until their deaths. Del died in the house in 1959. Grace kept on at the house following Del’s death but then fell ill on a trip visit her daughter in Madison. (That same daughter commissioned a house design by William Kaeser, a Wright-influenced architect. It seems there was an interest in design that ran in the family). After falling ill on that visit to Madison, Grace was never able to return to the house. She passed away in Madison in 1964.

The Farmer and Family – 1963 to 1966
Shortly after Grace fell ill, the farmer and his family took possession of the house. They weren’t in the house very long because the husband wanted to farm, prompting them to move outside of the town limits. But according to the farmer’s wife, they were there during a pivotal time in history. When she came to visit the house shortly after we bought it, the farmer’s wife told us that she would always remember the floors because she was cleaning for Bridge guests when the phone rang and she was delivered the news of Kennedy’s assassination. We also learned from the farmer’s wife that there was an oil tank in the basement (which has since been replaced with a gas forced air furnace). The kitchen was still original, she reported, with cupboards that were painted a pale aqua and a built-in ironing board. We found the original cabinetry in the garage (below) and were able to confirm the color.

The Grocer and Family – 1966 to 1977
The house was then purchased by the town grocer whose family name had been connected to local food markets for generations. The grocer’s daughter stopped by for a visit when she was in town for a class reunion. One Sunday morning our doorbell rang and we were greeted by a boisterous woman who announced, “I’m here to tell you all about your house!” We learned from her that it was her father who made a number of the big changes to the house. When they moved into the house it was almost 50 years old. The house surely seemed dark and dated through nineteen sixties eyes. And so the grocer opened up the entryway, removed all the built-in wardrobes, added the faux beams to the living room and dining room and built the new garage and roofline extension. Some of that work was completed right after the grocer took ownership. The grocer’s daughter said that she was in the 5th grade when they bought the house but that they lived down the street while doing renovations and finally moved in when we she was in the 6th grade.

The Teachers – 1977 to 2011
Thanks to the wonders of social media, we’ve been in frequent contact with the next owners of the house. The teachers were biking through town one day in 1977 when they came across the house that would become their home for the next thirty years. It was the teachers who gave the the house its birthright by following up on news of other American System Built Homes that were identified over the years and contacting the people connected with Frank Lloyd Wright organizations to verify the house’s provenance. The couple raised their two sons in the house while contributing to its preservation. It was their maintenance of the stucco and windows that has them still looking so good after 100 years! The teachers went on to build their own house in a beautiful wooded setting about 45-minutes away from the Delbert Meier house. They left behind all of the house’s documentation, including old photos and the original floor plan.

The Young Ones – 2011 to 2013
The last set of owners before we bought the house were the young couple. They were also teachers in the area who, after a couple years of ownership, got jobs that required a move. But while they were in the house they pulled down wallpaper and pulled up carpet, re-skimmed walls and painted the wood beams.

And now it’s our turn! We’re continuing to pour love and respect in this big, old house. We hope that whoever eventually takes over from us will continue to tell its story.

Thank You For Being A Friend: Visiting The Golden Girls House

Golden Girls House in Los Angeles

Picture it: Lake Forest, Illinois, 2001.

A skinny young man sits in the basement of a multi-million dollar home using a big device that costs more than his car to iron bed linens, the price of which could’ve covered student loan payment for more than eight months. This is a new world for this young man. He was raised in a blue collar household where sheets were laundered at the coin-op and nothing was ever ironed.

He had started this new job just weeks before. He had seen an advertisement in the free weekly city newspaper and couldn’t believe his eyes. After spending his high school years in food service and college career in retail and then desk monkey jobs, hopping from one unfulfilling situation to slightly less unfulfilling situation, this job seemed like a dream come true. The advertisement listed the job title as household manager but the young man preferred to think of himself as a butler. As a professed homebody and Martha Stewart wannabe, the job description read like a list of the man’s favorite activities. Cooking, shopping, laundry, organizing and other household tasks for a couple in the suburbs.

The young man was also excited about the opportunity because he knew that this job – a live-in position with a healthy salary – would help him dig out of the debt that he accrued through college borrowing and sporadic employment. But the young man was also bored by his new surroundings. He had moved out of the city and to this tony suburb where he was considered “the help.” If not for the televisions in every room – including the basement, where he spent many hours toiling with an iron – he may have gone mad.

There was one television show in particular that kept the young man company during the darkest hours of that winter in the suburbs. A show set in sunny Miami, Florida, about four ride-or-die friends who had created a family for themselves. That TV show was The Golden Girls. And that skinny young man was me.

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Winter Reflections on Corner Windows

You know how I was saying that I love the windows in our house? Well this is why.

Frank Lloyd Wright really knew what he was doing when he placed corner windows in his homes. Each of the three bedrooms in our American System Built Home have corner windows like this and the effect is huge. Pushing the windows to the corners of the rooms brings in some of the most amazing light. And when you first walk into a room your eyes are drawn to the corner, to outdoors, to treetops and light.

One day last week I caught this sunset just as it was shining its brilliance through the windows in the front bedroom. I paused for a moment to think about all the previous owners who have probably had moments of reflection inspired by the house’s design.

I think back to the house’s first winter in 1918. I wonder whether Mr. and Mrs. Meier admired the sunlight streaming through the windows. I wonder whether they watched the snow fall and the windows frost and thought about how happy they were to have finally moved into their American System Built Home.

I think about the kids who have probably looked impatiently out the windows in hopes that it’ll be a snow day. I imagine them pushing one of the casement windows open and reaching out to catch a few flakes as they drifted toward earth. “See, Mom,” they might have said. “It’s really coming down out there! It’ll be a snow day for sure tomorrow.”

I imagine the teachers who inhabited the house for 30 years who might have had the same feeling about snow days. Perhaps they counted on snowstorms to deliver unplanned days off that would allow them to hole up in the warmth of the house. And maybe they would see the sun setting through the windows and, refreshed by a day of rest, would feel revived for the new day ahead.

This is our fourth winter in the house and I still find myself being inspired by its beauty. I hope whoever owns the Delbert Meier house one hundred years from now knows that it has been filled with love.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

In taking a year to rehab the kitchen in fits and starts I ended up experimenting with my approach to painting the cabinets. By the time I got to the second half of the job, I had perfected my method. And now that we’ve lived with the painted cabinets for a few months, I’m proud to say that my method worked! The painted cabinets are holding up nicely and are easy to clean. In other words, my trial and error is your guide to doing it right the first time.

When I first started the project, I used my Craftsman Nextec tool to sand the doors and drawer fronts before applying primer and paint. That was a messy and time consuming job that I thought was necessary to get good paint coverage. I soon realized I was making more work for myself than was necessary. So without further adieu, here’s the method for painting the cabinets that I finally landed on.

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Dinner at the Guy Smith House
American System Built Homes

Taking ownership of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home means becoming the steward of a piece of architectural history. The people who are willing to undertake such a responsibility share a passion for history and architecture. (And we may all have a screw loose, too.) After buying the Delbert Meier house in 2013, we started reaching out to fellow owners of American System Built homes. Birds of a feather and all that.

Last weekend we were invited to a gathering of some of the Chicago area American System Built Home owners. The owners of the Guy Smith house hosted The Mister and myself along with the owners of the H. Howard Hyde house and the Oscar Johnson house. We had all met last summer when the Guy Smiths* celebrated their 100th anniversary with a party. This weekend’s dinner was to bring us all together again to share house stories.

The Guy Smith and H. Howard Hyde houses are located on the same street in the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago’s far south side. The Guy Smith is one of the larger ASBH models and has been lovingly restored and maintained over the years. The H. Howard Hyde house is very similar to our own home and is under new ownership. We had been inside both houses last summer during the Guy Smith’s anniversary party but it was nice to return to spend more time in the Smith house.

(The Oscar Johnson house is located in Evanston, a Chicago suburb. We’ve also had the opportunity to visit the Johnson house on a couple of occasions.)

Bringing the four owners (we’re all couples so it’s actually eight owners) together was a great idea. We’re all in different stages of ownership and conservation/renovation. The Guy Smiths have been in their house for over twenty years and have done a lot of work to maintain their home. The Howard Hydes purchased their home just last year and are in the beginning stages of exploring the history of American System Built Homes. The Oscar Johnsons, a couple with two small children, have owned their house for about ten years and rehabbing their home in fits and starts when times allows. And then there’s us – the owners of the Delbert Meier house. You probably already know our story. We’re the guys who are also taking the tortoise approach to the rehab race – slow and steady.

We all traded war stories about rehab surprises, architectural features that have been lost to time and why you should never tell a contractor that you own a Wright house. (There’s no quicker way to see the price of a project skyrocket than to let someone know that your home has some historical significance.) The owners of the Smith house had prepared packets of information that they had gathered from the Wright archives. As we supped at the Prairie-style dining table, we perused the documents and talked about our different experiences as owners of ASB homes. In going through the documents and sharing experiences, it became clear that we all view our homes as passion projects. Birds of a feather indeed.

Our hearty thanks to all the owners for gathering for the dinner. And a special thanks to the owners of the Guy Smith house for coordinating and hosting.

The Guy Smith house was recently featured in a segment on WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station. Watch the segment to learn more about that house as well as the other Wright-designed homes in Beverly.

*In the interest of privacy, I’m referring to each owner by the the name of their house.