Not long ago, Marcel Breuer’s Snower House, in Mission Hills, Kansas, seemed destined to be another victim of a real estate boom. Sitting on a large corner lot in an upscale suburb, where once-traditional 8,000-square-foot homes were being turned into even larger ones, it appeared likely that any buyer would tear down the 1954 structure. "Its lot was valued at much more than the house, which was only 1,800 square feet," says Scott Lane, a realtor and past president of the Historic Kansas City Foundation, which put the house on its Most Endangered List.
But no one had accounted for Robert Barnes and Karen Bisset, a couple passionate about midcentury design. Their existing house nearby had been drawn up in the modernist idiom by architect Joseph Shaughnessy, and they were intrigued by the prospect of saving an architectural icon.
When Robert and Karen first came to see the Snower house in the summer of 2013, Lane produced a story from The Kansas City Star dated March 27, 1955. The headline read: "Homes...In The Modern Accent," and it showed large photos of the recently completed Breuer house. But Robert and Karen noticed the article also featured another project: their Shaughnessy-designed home. "We had no idea the article existed," Robert says. "It was fate." Several months later, they purchased the Breuer, having found a partner to help them restore it in Matthew Hufft of the Missouri-based firm Hufft Projects.
One of just a handful of residential commissions Breuer executed west of the Mississippi, the house was designed at a time when, according to Robert McCarter, the author of a new Breuer monograph from Phaidon, "the architect was going one-on-one with Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest designer of houses in American history."
Robert Snower, then a 31-year-old businessman, commissioned Breuer to build the home after seeing photographs of the architect’s work in a magazine. All contact between the two was by letter. Breuer never came to the site, leaving the details to his New York office. "He would have sketched its design in ballpoint pen and then handed it off," recalls Robert Gatje, an architect in the office who not only finished the working drawings on the house, but was dispatched to see it during construction. (At the time, Breuer was immersed in one of the major commissions of his lifetime, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, which he designed with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.)
The Snower house was built during the period when the architect was doing his best residential designs. It has many similarities to Breuer’s design for his own home in New Canaan, Connecticut, where the larger upper floor overhangs the one below. Similarly, its cantilevered edges mirror those made famous in his renowned Chamberlain Cottage, built in Wayland, Massachusetts, in 1940.
The ever-meticulous Snower, who retained the residence until his death, in July 2013, kept all of his correspondence with Breuer’s office, including the plans and original specifications. Those came in handy when the new owners embarked upon the restoration.
"Part of what attracted us was that everything was original, but you could see that if the house was really polished, it would be fantastic," Robert says. So he and Karen commissioned Hufft Projects to burnish their gem.
Hufft, 39, whose firm is known for its contemporary designs, was excited but nervous. "Every time I went, it was unlike any other site visit," Hufft says. "You could just feel Breuer and the original life it had." Initially, he proposed the possibility of adding on a garage and a master bedroom. "We sat there on the site and talked about the ethics of making changes like that," the architect recalls. It did not take long for Robert and Karen to opt instead for an intensive and scrupulous restoration.
Even this proved challenging. The firm replaced the flat roof with one that, while it has no pitch visible from beyond the house, is able to take water to a central inner drain. A long debate took place over what to do with the house’s cedar siding, which had deteriorated to a rough gray with black patches. To replace it entirely might look odd, as it would appear brand-new. Ultimately, Hufft repaired some sections and filled in badly damaged areas with new clear cedar brought from the Northwest. All the siding was then hand-sanded and painted with a UV-proof stain.
Inside, he redid the floors and installed new appliances in the kitchen. "Over time the wall colors had changed, so the reds were less orange, the blues much darker," Robert says. Hufft repainted them in the precise tones Breuer had insisted upon. (Snower had kept the original paint chips.) The new owners were delighted: "The house really started to pop," Robert says.
Much of the furniture suggested by Breuer was still in the living room, right where he had ordered it placed: a Knoll sofa, priced at $450 at the time, and a "lounging chair" designed by Breuer himself. The original drapes were beyond repair, however. Luckily, a roll of what is described in a letter from the office as "natural unbleached unlined silk pongee material, which Mr. Breuer likes very much" was found in the basement, and new curtains were made.
Robert and Karen have yet to move in. With three children still coming back from college, the house is too small. But Robert often spends time there. "It has a very calming influence because it’s so logical," he says. He and Karen are content to be good custodians. Three years after the house appeared doomed, something even rarer stands on this Mission Hills corner: a museum-quality example of a master architect’s work.
David Hay, a New York-based playwright who once lived in a house designed by Richard Neutra has always been interested in how architects design homes that promote easy and comfortable social interaction. He fondly recalls sitting in Williams Massie's house late last summer, surrounded by people old and young, as the conversation got funnier and more outrageous by the minute–a tribute to a design that puts humans, with all their wonderful foibles, first.