A mid-century modern house in Norwich gets a renovation honoring its architectural history | Home Trips | seven days
When estate agents Tammy Heisaker and Gregory Russo first brought them to see a modest, low-key house on a hill in Norwich in 2015, the tenant was practically camping out in the living room and the place was falling apart.
“She was in a mad state of neglect,” Rousseau recalled. Still, he recognized what the 1961 home looked like: poured-concrete floors, breezy interiors, and narrow hallways opening into a lofty living space with tall windows. It looked like a house designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 20th century.
“I was a fan,” Russo explained. Now a radiation oncologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, he grew up with a poster of Wright Falling Water in his bedroom. Years later, he and Hessaker visited this famous residence in western Pennsylvania while living in Philadelphia.
The couple were living in Boston when they saw the Norwich home. Suspecting that the real estate agent had misidentified its architect—she had named someone they had never heard of—they searched online and discovered it was by Alan J. Gilpin. An associate of Wright’s, Gilpin trained at Wright’s home studio in Taliesin East, Wisconsin, from 1949 to 1953; He then oversaw the construction of several Wright-designed homes and opened his private practice in Connecticut in 1957. (Wright died in 1959; Gilpin died in 1994).
An examination of the addresses with Gilpin’s archives at the Art Institute of Chicago confirmed that Gilpin designed the three-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot Norwich home for Walter and Sylvia Stockmeyer and their two teenage sons. The Stockmayers hired Gilpin on the recommendation of their friend Lucille Zimmerman, whose 1951 Wright-designed home in Manchester, New Hampshire they admired.
Faced with this historical importance, Heyssacker and Rousseau decided to undertake the rehabilitation of Stockmeyer House. Daniel Johnson, an architect at White River Junction, directed the multi-year project, and Hessaker, who works in technology licensing at Dartmouth College and then ran her own consulting business, became the general contractor. She and Russo traveled to Chicago to study Gilpin’s archive correspondence, plans, and documents in person before launching their project.
Their efforts won the 2022 Excellence Award for Modernism in America from the Docomomo US Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the modern movement. The house is now listed on the National Registers and the Vermont Register of Historic Places.
And in early June, the house was filmed for inclusion in the upcoming 2023 documentary New England Modernism: Revolutionary Architecture in the Twentieth Century Directed by Jake Gorst. His films have explored the mid-century architecture of Long Island and Southern California, as well as architects such as Albert Frey and Andrew Geller.
Vermont architectural historian Devin Coleman, who wrote the award nomination, noted in it that the Stockmire House is “architecturally significant as a very rare and well-preserved example of American design in Vermont.” Usonian homes were Wright’s compact, affordable version of his prairie style and the predecessor to ranch-style homes in the United States. The name comes from the abbreviation of the United States of America in North America.
The nomination continued: “It could easily have been considered ruinous, given its poor condition, small size and valuable property, but fortunately the current owners… saw its potential.”
Heissaker and Johnson, Director and Founder of Watershed Studio Architecture, recently introduced nest home tour. Approached from the side via a garage, the long, low structure is built into the hill with the rear length sunk into a four-foot bank and the south-facing front side commanding a stunning view of the Connecticut River Valley. On leafless days, Mount Ascutne is visible.
The salvage effort began with the unique roof, which is flat with an asymmetrical central gable—that is, one corner of the gable is taller and lower than the other. The couple replaced the asphalt and gravel construction with a metal-edged rubber diaphragm.
Inside, the “compression and expansion” typical of Usonian homes is expressed, Heyssacker noted, in the way narrow entrance passages lead from the front door to the open-plan dining and living areas and an office behind a partial wall. Wright’s organic architecture favored natural materials, so the walls are made of dark golden cypress in wide panels punctuated by narrow beams, all oriented horizontally to emphasize the shape of the house.
The other walls in the living area are made of red brick that was manufactured in a nearby town in Vermont, according to Gilpin’s papers. He designed the decorative arrangement of cypress panels covering the space between the upper part of the kitchen wall and the high ceiling—a striking construction that Heysäcker described as sculptural.
Light sandy-coloured pebbled plaster complements the interior wall materials—except for the glass, which is everywhere: a wall of panes of glass stretch across the front façade; Windowed gable ends. Office nook, where two Fallingwater windows meet. More light filters through two skylights.
When asked if it was accurate to name the house Wrightian when Gilpin was the architect, Johnson said: “You wouldn’t get how different Gilpin’s style was from Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Even Wright’s designs weren’t wholly his own; they were done by his apprentices.” “.
Johnson’s work is influenced by organic architects, particularly the mid-century Finnish master Alvar Aalto; He said his interest in “light, landscape, and materials” reflected theirs.
In Stockmayer’s home, original Gelbin items, restored by Heesakker and Russo, are everywhere, including a built-in cypress sofa with new, custom-made cushions; Wooden Hanging Dining Lamp and Wall Sconce in Fresh Fiberglass Paper Shades; original red Micarta kitchen countertops; and cypress chests of cupboards with new cypress doors stained to match just right.
The biggest interference of the couple is not visible. The main source of heat in the house, apart from a large brick fireplace, is radiant copper tubing buried in a terra cotta-colored concrete floor scored in a four-foot-square grid. Heated floors had failed in the master bedroom and bathroom, so Johnson oversaw the dismantling of the floors and the installation of new pipes running from the central boiler room over the top of the galley and down the walls.
“It was either that or having to dig a hole under the house to get it in,” Russo said, referring to the house’s slab construction. The new interior floors were poured using Wright’s favorite technique – applying color hardener in place of an integral color with the closest possible match.
“They were very strict and passionate about the home,” Johnson said of his clients, adding that only one part of the project, the primary bathroom, went beyond renovation to renovation. Describing the bathroom as dark and fitted with an unoriginal bathtub, the architect came up with the idea of extending the floor plan to include a continuous Gelbin-style brick planter outside the bathroom window. Thus the area of the house remained unchanged while sufficient internal space was obtained to install the shower.
Now that summer is upon us, Stockmayer homeowners can enjoy its most Wrightian feature: the pathway out and mingling through the continuation of the concrete floors to an expansive gravel outdoor patio. (In fact, Hessaker and Russo spent the summer with a wheelbarrow and sieve, salvaging the original gravel from weeds rather than digging it up and replacing it.) Hessacre’s gardens widen down the hill, and Rousseau’s poured-concrete benches—an epidemic pastime—dotted the yard.
“The house becomes twice as large in the summer,” declared Rousseau.
The Stockmayers provided Gilpin’s motivation to come to Vermont. He subsequently designed and built four more homes in the Green Mountains between 1961 and 1975 – including his own, which is a short drive down the hill from the Stockmyres home. This house, Alan Gilpin House (1973), is on the popular mid-century walking tour organized by the Norwich Historical Society.
The twice-summer show (exteriors only) began in 2017, when director Sarah Rooker researched and staged Norwich’s exhibition of mid-century modern architecture in the community. (The Stockmayer House is not on the tour because it is not within walking distance.)
Coleman remembers seeing the Stockmeyer house shortly after Hessaker and Russo finished their project. After fixing up the under-board hot water heating system—like, who does that?—and seeing all they’ve done, I thought, surprisinghe recalls.
Coleman continued: ‘I didn’t feel like they were necessarily looking for a special home to renovate, but I think they’re the kind of people who take the time to understand things and learn about them, and once they realized they had something special, they were able to shift their thinking from This is the dilapidated house that we are going to renovate to This is an important architectural work that we need to restore.
“They are preservationists by chance,” he added.
(tags for translation)n