Suburban Flight

Suburban Flight

By Amara Holstein
It’s become an all-too-familiar scenario all across America: A city’s downtown, once a thriving place to live and work, has slowly withered and become decrepit.

It’s become an all-too-familiar scenario all across America: A city’s downtown, once a thriving place to live and work, has slowly withered and become decrepit. Middle-income families flee to the suburbs to settle in planned communities, city buildings fall into disrepair, and empty weed-filled lots proliferate. So when retired couple Peter and Joan Bracher decided to sell their brick-sided traditional colonial outside of Dayton, Ohio, and build a new home on an infill lot in the Fairgrounds neighborhood just south of the city center, it was a radical departure from the standard palm tree–seeking relocation of most retirees and a pioneering move in terms of the area’s recent urban-regeneration effort.

George Nelson's book Tomorrow's House, classic Neutra homes, and the contemporary architecture from the sunny state of California's all provided inspiration for Peter Bracher's personal Genesis Project.

The modern Bracher house stands out in the more traditional Fairgrounds neighborhood outside the Dayton, Ohio city center.

Peter, a self-professed amateur architecture critic who writes a column for the Dayton City Paper, had stumbled across projects by local architecture firm Rogero + Buckman Architects in his research forays downtown. Principals Mary Rogero and Barry Buckman were involved with the city’s Genesis Project, a partnership between local government and major institutions such as a university and a hospital to spiff up the neighborhood, and they had built a number of condos, live/work spaces, and cafés in the area. "I was impressed with their work using urban space and with their use of space and light," Peter explains of the couple’s choice of architects.

There's no lush lawn on the grounds of this long and narrow house, but the Brachers still made room for some greenery.

The first step was securing an empty lot that was within the Brachers’ relatively modest budget; appropriately enough, this was done through a sheriff’s auction. "It’s a neighborhood of 125-year-old worker houses—very small homes on small lots," Joan states. "The house on this lot had burned down, and the owner had quit paying the taxes." Because the couple’s home was the first private development to go into the neighborhood, members of city improvement organizations showed up at the auction to show their support for the Brachers’ bid.

From the outset, the Brachers had no doubts about the kind of house they wanted to build. Reminiscing about his architectural influences, Peter says, "A transformative experience for me as a teenager was reading George Nelson’s book Tomorrow’s House, which promoted modern residential architecture and was full of pictures of Neutra houses that I still remember vividly." That early visual encounter, combined with time spent gazing at contemporary homes in California, provided the inspiration for their home.

Luckily for the couple, there weren’t any stringent codes or angry neighbors with which to contend. "Dayton has some great older areas downtown that are strong historic districts," maintains Mary Rogero. "But this was a very nondescript neighborhood, so it was easy to tweak the design in a direction that paves the way for modern homes to come in."

The site itself, however, had its own limitations. The long and narrow 28-by-133-foot lot required careful layout of the house’s interior. To create 1,800 square feet of living space within the 19-foot-wide footprint, the long dimension of all six rooms are aligned with the length of the lot. The entry door is set into the side of the house  rather than the front, which minimizes the sense of shotgun architecture typical of this area.

In addition, the house is arranged in three parts (including the garage) around a corresponding number of outdoor garden areas. "You make compromises to get the house you want on the lot you have," Peter says.

The Brachers spend large amounts of time lounging in their courtyard spaces, as Peter demonstrates. "Whatever room you're in on the first floor, you're looking at some type of garden. That was the whole idea of the project," the architect explains.

"Opening things to the outdoors makes a difference, because you’re not in a dark, cramped room." This not only optimizes space and light, but lets the Brachers look at their pink roses and pansies instead of at the occasional drug deals on the street. It also allowed the couple to dispose of their lawn mower since there’s no sprawling lawn—a fact of which Peter is inordinately proud.

Aspects of the house cater to the couple’s future possible age-related restrictions. The staircase connect-ing the two stories is custom-built with deep treads, there are grab bars in the shower, and the house is built slab on grade—so there are no icy winter stairs to negotiate outside. And should the indoor stairs one day become a problem, there’s a full bath downstairs, ensuring the option of ground-floor living.

Even the location lends itself well to seniors, as Joan explains: "We can go practically everywhere on the bus if we want to, which is important to the elderly when you have to stop driving. That can keep you independent a lot longer than if you were out in the suburbs." 

Ultimately, the Brachers couldn’t be happier with their new locale. "Our children were afraid of our moving here to begin with," says Joan, "but they’ve grown to love the neighborhood. In theory, it’s frightening. But in practice, it’s not." Their original intent in moving downtown was to be closer to the performing-arts institutions and the library. Recently, town houses have popped up on the block, businesses have started moving in, and there’s a community feel to the street—and it’s by no chance that some of the activity started after the Brachers’ home was completed.

"The house is by far the most avant-garde-looking house in the downtown area," states Barry Buckman, with obvious pride. "Neighbors came up every time we were there during construction to say how pleased they were with what was happening. It’s in a neighborhood that needed freshness, so most people will accept it even if they don’t agree 100 percent with the aesthetics of it."

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