Upon entering Tammy Heesakker and Greg Russo’s circa-1961 mid-century modern Norwich home, it’s no surprise that it won a national Design Award of Excellence in November last year.
The Walter and Sylvia Stockmayer House, poised discreetly and elegantly atop a hill on Overlook Drive in Norwich, is an example of a “Usonian” style home, a design term coined by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to describe what was originally intended to be simple and organic design that warranted an affordable price point for families. The same mid-century modern homes that are widely sought-after today were at one time – in the not so distant past – built by the dozen to address the post-war need for affordable housing.
Now, in 2022, this delicately renovated residence pays beautiful homage to mid-century era design and architecture, enough so that it caught the attention of State Architectural Historian Devin Colman, who nominated the Stockmayer House for a Docomomo US ‘Modernism in America’ award several months ago.
Colman, who calls the home “very forward thinking for its time,” says Heesakker and Russo’s efforts to restore the home to its original architectural glory “really stood out to (him) as being exceptional.”
The Stockmayer House, which is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of only twelve projects receiving a Modernism in America Award in 2022. According to Docomomo US, (a nonprofit organization whose name stands for “Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement”), this particular award recognizes preservation work ranging from “the transformation of large-scale projects into beacons of sustainability” to “modest home revitalizations.”
Designed by Allan J. Gelbin – an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright – the home was commissioned by Walter Stockmayer (a former professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College) and his wife, Sylvia. Since then, the home has been rented and then sat on the market for a summer before Heesakker and Russo purchased it in a near tear-down state in 2015.
With a caving-in roof and other structural issues posing challenges by the mid-2010s, the only hope for the Stockmayer House was “very sensitive, thoughtful interventions” by its new owners, Colman says. “It’s a great example of taking an existing building that needs a little love and bringing it back to life.”
“The house was in bad shape,” Heesakker remembers, though “the bones were good.”
“You could tell right off the bat that the house needed a roof,” Russo adds. “That was for starters. Once you took the roof off, there were lots of surprises under (it).”
Despite being first-time homebuyers and unfamiliar with the surrounding community, Heesakker and Russo made the confident, yet daunting decision to become the next generation of owners for the Stockmayer House just over seven years ago.
Besides being one of the few local properties on the market at the time, the pair chose the Norwich home because they appreciated its style and saw its potential, even in its rough state.
“For better or for worse, we thought, ‘well, if we could fix it up we’d be happy here’,” Russo says, whose appreciation for mid-century modern architecture and design first emerged during his childhood.
A poster of Fallingwater – a famous architectural feat of Frank Lloyd Wright located in Pennsylvania – started it all.
“I just became interested in him… his philosophy and the style,” Russo says.
“When we walked in (to the Stockmayer House), I recognized the style right away,” Russo says. “I knew there was some sort of connection to Frank Lloyd Wright; I didn’t know anything more than that.”
The Stockmayer House features Usonian design concepts like one-story living, no basement or attic, an open carport, concrete slab flooring, natural wood materials, built-in furniture, and simple and sleek rooflines. The tucked-away front door, tight and cozy entryway and dimly lit narrow hallways give way to an open and bright living room, with high ceilings, skylights and large windows, and plenty of space to move around.
According to Heesakker, what stands out most about Gelbin’s design is the thoughtful “form follows function” architectural approach. Gelbin and other architects of the time held equally high standards for aesthetics and purpose, leaving clients with a finished product both beautiful and functional to call home. Elements like built-in bedroom closet storage and a pass-through connecting the kitchen to the dining area and living room eliminate the need for extra clutter and unnecessary space. Upon moving into the Stockmayer House from Boston, “we had a lot of furniture that we either didn’t have a place for or didn’t need,” Heesakker says.
While performing research for the renovations, Heesakker and Russo stumbled upon Gelbin’s design papers for the Stockmayer House, which had been donated to the Art Institute of Chicago after the architect’s death in 1994. The pair took a trip to see the records in person, where they scoured them for information to help guide their project.
“Some of the stuff that we found in the archives were sort of like the specs: the processes they used to make the floors for instance,” Russo says, explaining that the method which Gelbin employed to create the classic Usonian red slab flooring is not the same as what most contractors would follow today.
Honoring the original design of the home has proved tricky, but not impossible. According to Heesakker, finding knowledgeable and willing tradespeople quickly emerged as one of the most difficult challenges.
“It’s just not what they’re used to doing,” she says.
For such a simple theoretical design, their modernist home doesn’t meld all too well with the efficiency of contemporary construction techniques. For example, in many cases, it would be much less of a hassle to simply replace elements of the home with up-to-date materials, rather than restoring them or remodeling them to preserve their authentic history.
Materials for remodeling and routine maintenance are hard to track down. Many are discontinued or not readily available to consumers since the ’60s.
Though Heesakker and Russo’s top priority throughout the renovations has been to create a comfortable and beautiful living space while also honoring the original design of the space as Gelbin intended it.
“We needed to live here and we wanted it to look nice,” Russo says. “I don’t think I ever thought that we would live in a house that would garner attention.”
Major components of the four-year renovation project included installing a new roof, remodeling the carport, a new septic system, exterior painting, and other updates to old and failing features throughout the home.
A few more intricate projects involved specially-crafted replicas of custom original light fixtures and fragile lamp shades, along with the red Micarta kitchen countertops – a building material that’s harder to come by these days, and not cheap.
“It was obvious that there were going to be multiple projects; however, I don’t think it was obvious how many there were,” Russo says. “There’s always more to do.”
In the near future, the pair plan to fortify the single-pane windows to improve insulation in the home, and tackle other projects such as a bathroom remodel, solar panel installation, and outdoor landscaping.
The Stockmayer House also bridges the balance between work life and home life, with a short commute to Dartmouth Health where Russo works as a radiation oncologist, and a welcoming atmosphere to relax in after a long day.
When friends and family come to visit, “they come for relaxation,” Russo says, finding it easy to take a restful break in a home whose architecture already exudes that kind of atmosphere. A recent visitor took note of the soundproofing that the solid floors and walls provide. “You can’t hear people walking around,” Heesakker said. “It’s very peaceful for that reason.”
The Norwich Historical Society’s online exhibit, Mad for Mid Century Modern, documents several modern Norwich homes – including the Stockmayer House – as well as the history of modernist architecture throughout the community.
Gelbin even designed and built a house for himself on Norwich’s Hopson Road in 1973 – known as the “Allan Gelbin House” – where he lived until ’77.
Recently, the Norwich Historic Preservation Commission has nominated several homes for National Historic Register status, and has designated fifteen modern homes in the Hopson Road neighborhood as a ‘National Historic District’. Preserving the history of these homes not only serves to appreciate their unique and beautiful design; it also brings people together and provides an opportunity to learn about a rich history right under our noses.
The Stockmayer House’s application for the Docomomo US award was “a chance to showcase on a national level a really great modernist house in Vermont,” Colman says, noting that in other places around the United States, it’s a common misconception that Vermont is all “old” and harbors no modern architecture. “Our benchmark is 50 years or older as a starting point to evaluate a historic property,” Colman reminds. “That comes as a real shock to some people.”
“It’s nice to be recognized for taking care of something,” Heesakker says.
“It’s interesting learning how to live in a house like this,” she adds. “It’s kind of like living in a museum… living in art,” says Russo. “It’s also just home.”