Joshua's Usonian Retreat: The L.H. Hamilton House

House Tour

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Name: Joshua Drew (with dachshunds Riley and Buddy)
Location: Racine, Wisconsin
Size: 2,700 square feet
Years lived in: 4 years; owned

It's not every day we get to see how one lives a 2014 life in a 1949 Usonian design by a Frank Lloyd Wright senior apprentice. Designed by Edgar Tafel (1912-2011) for Louis H. Hamilton (the co-founder of Hamilton-Beach appliance and electric motor company), this house has been home to Joshua since 2010. A few years of detailed attention, consideration, and adoration later, and we see a modern masterpiece lived in and cared for much the way it was originally intended.

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Joshua shares some of the property's history and character detail:

Unlike Wright's Usonian designs, the Hamilton House does not have radiant floor heating, concrete floors, or a carport; rather, a basement, wall to wall carpeting, central heating/air-conditioning, and a two car garage were incorporated into the design. Each room has built-in furniture to help decrease clutter: closets, dressers, cabinetry, and shelving were incorporated into the design. The house is sited on the property to take advantage of sunlight in the winter months, and typical of Usonians, it also protects the inhabitants from the street side of the property by siting most of the windows on the private side of the house, while incorporating clerestory windows for light on the busier side of the house.

Just entering the house is an experience in manipulation by the architect. There is a low roofed area at the front door; once you have entered the house, you are presented with a built-in closet as your view, and darkened space with a low ceiling and three choices: two doors, or the living room (doors lead to kitchen, or utility room/garage). The technique, called "compress and release," psychologically prepares you for the unexpected inside. You become uncomfortable in a dark unadorned space, only to be released into the bright tall space of the living room. You are greeted by the warm brick wall, lots of glass, wood, and nature visible from all angles. This play of ceiling height goes on through the whole house. Where intimacy or quiet is the expectation, the ceilings are low (bedrooms, dining room). There are doors to help control the flow of traffic within the house; during a cocktail party, the homeowner could close a large glass paned door between the main/public wing of the house, and the elongated bedroom wing. Again, ceiling height slows you down between the main wing of the house and the bedroom wing: the ceiling drops twice to prepare you for the quieter spaces in the house. Each of the two main bedrooms has a full tiled bathroom, and the house was originally set up with "His and Hers" bedrooms. The "spare" bedroom was Mr. Hamilton's. It has a muted color palate bathroom with walk-in shower, less dresser space, and smaller closets with built-in tie-racks. The master bedroom (Mrs. Hamilton's) had a 50's pink tile bathroom with tub, shower, and a built-in makeup area, larger closets, and more built-in dresser space.

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Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: I would describe my style as firmly in the Danish Modern aesthetic. I prefer furniture that is elevated from the floors with clean lines and minimal fussiness. I am drawn to wood, texture, originality, patina, quality, and especially to organic forms. This attraction to the organic is a good fit for the somewhat rigid rectilinear and horizontal forms of the house itself. The house has lots of open space, but yet it still feels intimate. There is a lot of opportunity to create vignettes within a space. So, you will find seating or conversation areas created within an open space or tucked into a hallway.

I like to consider myself a preservationist; that shows both in my house and the design within. I prefer to restore rather than replace when appropriate, and I like things that have a patina or a story! I tend to adhere to the preservationist ideology when making decisions on carpet, floor covering, and wall colors. The original kitchen floor was originally linoleum tile, and I found a small remnant under the dishwasher. I was able to get the closest modern equivalent (Armstrong Linoleum), so I used that. The original carpeting was a milk chocolate colored boiled wool. I also found a scrap attached under a trim piece that was being repaired, so I stayed close to the texture and color when choosing new carpeting.

I have a fairly diverse collection of mid-century modern furniture and accessories. I love rotating the furniture and objects, and I love to carry a color story through the house. For me, royal blue, reds, and orange are "pop" colors that you'll find sprinkled in nearly every room. This balances well with the natural organic colors of the house, wood, and the steady stream of sunlight from the expansive windows. I collect multiple different lines of pottery including Bitossi, Fiestaware dishes, Hull Drip Glaze, and some new additions of the Eva Zeisel Town and Country line for Red Wing Pottery.

Inspiration: The designs of Paul McCobb, Charles and Ray Eames, and George Nelson. Clean. Honest. Organic.

Favorite Element: There is a corner of the living room brick wall, where the bricks, plaster, cypress woodwork, and clerestory windows meet that is just exquisite.

Biggest Challenge: Window washing. Really. There are 71 windows in the house.

What Friends Say: People that visit fall into two camps: Afraid to touch or sit on anything, or simple astonishment. My best friends are totally comfortable though, and trust me, we really do just use the house as a house!

Biggest Embarrassment: I chose a HIDEOUS brown color for the long hallway between the bedrooms and the main living space. I had to stop the painters mid-project, and start over.

Biggest Indulgence: I would have to say the house itself is the indulgence.

Best Advice: Buy the best designs you can afford, and use them proudly.

Dream Sources: Antique Stores

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Resources of Note:

PAINT & COLORS

  • Living Room / Dining Room: Behr “Vast Desert”
  • Master Bedroom: Behr “Antique Earth” UL140-4
  • Second Bedroom: Behr “Juniper Ash” UL220-21
  • Den: Behr “Spiced Cashew” UL160-4
  • Bedroom Hallway: Martha Stewart Precious Metals Series “Kiwi Peel” MSL369

LIVING ROOM

  • Raleigh Sofa, blue heathered wool, Design Within Reach
  • Eames Aluminum Group lounge chair, vintage, Trilogy Antiques
  • Taliesin Floor Lamp, Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Selig Danish modern upholstered chairs, vintage, reupholstered locally by Randall Maio
  • Dux slipper chairs, vintage, reupholstered locally by Randall Maio, Maio Unlimited Upholstery
  • George Nelson Ball Clock, Star Clock, and Pill Clock
  • George Nelson style bench
  • Bitossi Rimini Blue pottery, assorted
  • Bitossi Birds, white
  • Sig gilded travertine side table, Jayson Home

DINING ROOM

  • Cherner Dining chairs, Walnut (4) and Red Gum (2) finishes
  • Dunbar Contract Walnut table, vintage
  • Eva Zeisel pieces from Town and Country for Red Wing Pottery
  • Bloom Clock, Schmitt Design

MASTER BEDROOM

  • Paul McCobb "Calvin" group dressers (3), vintage, from Broadway Antique Market in Chicago
  • Paul McCobb "Planner" group bedside table, vintage, Broadway Antique Market in Chicago
  • Brown-Saltman California bedside table, vintage
  • Grass cloth upholstered headboard, West Elm
  • George Nelson Bubble Lamp, cigar-shape, from Modernica
  • Bitossi Rimini Blue pottery, assorted
  • Samara Clock, Schmitt Design
  • Driftwood wall art, designed by Lake Michigan

SPARE BEDROOM

  • Walnut credenza, Ramseur Furniture (North Carolina), vintage
  • Walnut headboard, United Furniture, vintage
  • Bitossi table lamp
  • Arco table lamp
  • Modern high-backed arm chair, vintage, designer unknown, made in Ohio circa 1964

DEN/THIRD BEDROOM

  • Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, by Knoll Associates, oatmeal bouclée
  • 1940s side chairs, designer unknown
  • Raymor Credenza (pair), Denmark, vintage

BEDROOM WING HALLWAY

  • Plycraft lounge chair/ottoman, vintage
  • George Nelson Bubble Lamps, Modernica
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Thanks, Joshua!

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(Image credits: Joshua Drew and Charles Hinderliter)