Early American vs. Modern Design Blog

The house we live in was custom built in 1950 and looks like a rancher with a little bit of prairie influence in the roof lines. I was told by the nephew of the original owner that his uncle was a big fan of modern architecture and that his aunt liked Early American – and yet they stayed married. Yeah. The compromises the couple made when they built the house were evident the day we first looked at it.

It had radiant heating – modern. It also had brick floors on the main level – traditional. It had large glass panels for windows – modern. The living room was paneled in chestnut boards that were an inch thick – traditional. It featured an open floor plan – modern. The fireplaces were red brick – traditional. I could go on – but I think you get the idea.

Over the years we’ve been gradually phasing out the Early American influence as the wife and I discovered we were flaming modernists. We removed traditional wall paper, cut slots in the non-load bearing walls, removed the chestnut paneling and sold it to somebody who was turning a barn into a guest house. I didn’t like the brick floors but I was prepared to live with them because I love the house and the location. The fire changed all that.

On Good Friday in 2004 we went out to dinner with the in-laws and came back to find the house surrounded by fire trucks. An exterior transformer we were using to run landscape lights shorted out and caught the bedroom wall on fire. The fire got into the crawl space but luckily was contained by the plaster ceilings. Damage from smoke, water and the firemen made the house uninhabitable. We were out for 18 months.

Insurance gave us a nice, temporary place to live and provided replacement cost which gave us some freedom to move money around during the rebuild. We used the money to replace fifty year old windows and doors. There was still money leftover and we made the decision that the brick floors needed to come up.

The main level was redone with ash, a beautiful light wood that looks like maple but is more stable. The fireplace was covered with concrete that looks like Carerra marble. We still have one brick fireplace that we were going to cover with hot rolled steel but we ran out of money and motivation. For the time being, it’s still brick. I’m tempted to paint it white but so far I’ve chickened out. Besides that fireplace every nuance of Early American has been exorcised which brings me to the bell.

The nephew also told me his aunt, Mrs. Updike, did iron work as a hobby. They were unusual people, okay? I found evidence of this in the form of kitchen door hardware that looked like it belonged on a log cabin. The doors and the hardware remained until we remodeled the kitchen which happened before the fire. The kitchen had to be taken completely apart and put back together four months after it was finished. This was not easy, folks. A veritable trial by fire. Anyway. The bell.

The house never had a real door bell. Instead it had a funky looking old metal bell hung on a iron bracket mounted by the front door. I’m guessing the bell or at least the bracket was made by the wife that used to own the house. I never liked the bell. It was dusty, dirty, some of the wood trim was busted up and nobody ever used it because it looked like it was about to fall apart.

My wife, also an unusual person found some bells at a church auction sale (don’t ask) that she thought would make a good replacement for the funky iron bell. The new bells are brass, they mount vertical and they do look kind of cool. The iron bell came down, went onto a shelf in the garage and was promptly forgotten – until my ongoing “clean out the garage” campaign began.

I found the bell and decided it deserved a spiff-up. I used Brasso on the metal part followed by a coat of WD-40. I think it may be bronze. I glued the broken wood pieces. I found a small can of Minwax and coated the wood parts. It looks better (I think) and I’ve decided to hang it up on the back (modern) gate that we use to hide the trash cans. A little dash of old on something new. Except for my slightly sloppy bell restoration job. Whattya think? I think Mrs. Updike would approve – wherever she is.

Scott Sowers


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