HOME: Modernist jewel for empty nesters
A newly created room looks through a wall of glass sliding doors to the central courtyard of an inviting outdoor space. The furniture is classic Modernist (Saarinen coffee table, LeCorbusier loveseat and chair)
In the 1950s, it was the newfangled “modern” ranch on a street lined with stately homes and mansions. Years later, it became the neglected eyesore on the street lined with stately homes and mansions. It finally went up for sale, destined to be a tear-down in a desirable neighborhood, until a couple of visionary empty-nesters came along to rescue it.
John and Toby Laping had enjoyed a series of beautiful residences, and were ready to downsize, but no longer wanted a high-rise building without easy outdoor access. Having sold the beach house where they’d escaped for summers, they recognized a craving for a yard, greenery, privacy. They wanted a home that was inviting, but not overwhelming in square footage and upkeep. And perhaps most importantly, they were committed to staying in the city, which substantially narrowed their property search. Indeed, the inability to find a small, single-family home in the city had forced many of their friends to the suburbs.
The mid-century modern house perfectly met all these criteria—except that it was far from perfect. Neither habitable nor updated, the house had few redeeming qualities but one very attractive one: a fantastic Delaware district location. That alone drew competitive bidding, and the house was sold in a week. The Lapings won the bid because they agreed to forgo a standard home inspection as part of their contract. “It never would have passed, so we didn’t even bother,” explains John Laping. “The house had rotten wood, snow in the living room, cracked pipes, no air conditioning, and the list went on and on.”
First, the house needed a structural overhaul. It needed new mechanical systems—heat, air, electric, plumbing, and lighting. And it needed redefined interior spaces. “Taking this old house that hadn’t been touched for sixty years was a challenge,” says Laping, who also served as architect. “The goal was to fix what needed to be fixed—which was everything—while making it fit us and our lifestyle. It’s not surprising that the finished product is reminiscent of the classic work of the best architects of the Modern style, as Laping went to architecture school in the mid-fifties.
The living room's transformation is remarkable. The crisp white backdrop is now the setting for classic modern furniture. Photo by kc kratt.
The house has been re-envisioned with a clear, practical sensibility. The main axis from front to back was retained, so as not to lose its simple traffic pattern. Architecturally, things are simple; nothing is redundant. It’s not purely minimalistic, but there’s no clutter. There’s a sense of order, and the Laping's personalities are reflected in the furnishings and possessions that they love. Books, for example, have always been important to them, and an area they call the “new room” is lined with bookshelves, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall.
This multi-purpose room opens the home and gives it a center, a new focal spot from which everything else feeds. It was created by repurposing other rooms and deepening the base of the home’s u-shaped core; the latter was achieved by shortening the central courtyard at the center of the U. The courtyard was then enhanced and landscaped to make the outdoor space more useable and appealing. A wall of sliding glass doors now brings the outdoors in and makes the courtyard a functional part of the home’s living space. At the far end of the terrace, a freestanding wall defines the courtyard space, and provides both privacy and a backdrop for landscape.
In the living room, the inherited puddles and mildew—the result of a ruptured hot water line and a consequent crack in the slab—are gone, as is the split-marble fireplace wall that Laping says was “out of plumb and leaked like a sieve.” The room is now a crisp white backdrop to a handsome collection of classic modern furniture that is warm, inviting, and ergonomically comfortable. A full wall of glass offers a spectacular view of the museum district, and a lovely artwork collection is enhanced by subtle lighting.
A new kitchen occupies a central position in the home, and is clean and sleek, simple in lines and finishes. Flush-door painted-wood cabinets and white Caesar-stone countertops are serviced by stainless steel appliances. The center island, with its gas cooktop, floats (on legs rather a solid base) to hide heat and air ventilation ducts. Clear Lucite stools are ready for breakfast but become virtually unnoticeable when not in use. Simple glass tile backsplash and strong horizontal stainless hardware complete the room.
The new dining room shows niches that were built to hold bronze sculptures. Photo by kc kratt.
The old kitchen, which had never been remodeled or updated and still had its original mid-century appliances (including a pink, wall-hung cabinet refrigerator!), is now an inviting dining room. There, a table with a steel base is topped with an ebony-stained oak slab, and a lovely slab of marble tops a simple buffet. The eye is drawn to a pair of massive Russian candelabra, which were brought to this country in the mid 1800s by ancestors of Judge Cecil Wiener. Wiener, one of the first women to attend the University at Buffalo law school and quite possibly the first female judge in Western New York, lovingly gifted the Lapings with her most cherished keepsakes, and extracted a promise that the candelabra be entwined with asparagus fern each Passover in order to continue her family’s holiday tradition.
Property width prevented the new owners from widening the home’s one-car garage—an adequate amenity for mid-century single-car-families, but insufficient for today’s two-car standards—but they were able to lengthen it to allow for tandem parking. Interestingly, while excavating the garage foundation, they discovered the original paving system for the trolley turn-around at the 1901 Pan Am Exposition.
In someone else’s hands, this house might have been a tear-down. Instead, it was appreciated and transformed with a patient and careful hand. Rooted in Modernism, the home imbues that period’s best qualities with a sense of order and warmth, making it appropriate for its new life in the twenty-first century.
Barry A. Muskat is Buffalo Spree’s architecture critic and frequent contributor.