When Steve and Marge Kraus bought their modernist Lakeshore house in 1989, they didn't have to inspect every nook and cranny, research its builder or wonder aloud about its history. Steve, a physician, grew up in the house, which was designed by local architect Dow Oliver and constructed by his father, contractor David Kraus, in 1963. The couple was well acquainted with the house's meticulous detailing and craftsmanship. They had celebrated numerous milestones in their lives there including their marriage and they knew that they would respect the house's modern integrity just as Steve's parents had. "My father-in-law was a renaissance man," says Marge of her husband's late father. "He loved beautiful things and had a sense of flair. After he died and we bought the house from Steve's mother, I sensed his presence. I wanted my kids to know him through the house he built."
An innovative builder for the times, Kraus put the house together as if it were a commercial structure, using 200 pilings and steel-beam construction, and infused it with the kind of clean-lined modern bones and sleek, easy-to-maintain materials that typify mid-century modernism. Because he and his wife spent a lot of time in California and Las Vegas, elements of the mid-century modern vernacular common to those areas sliding glass doors, swimming pools, Japanese gardens, flat roofs, split-level floor plans, extended eaves, glass, steel and wood paneling influenced his work, a fact that's seldom lost on people who visit the house.
"My children's friends call it the Brady Bunch house," Marge says of her home, the living room of which especially resembles the iconic TV set thanks to its freestanding, riser-less staircase and cathedral ceiling.
Designing the Kraus family home in 1963 was actually a family affair. Steve, just 14 at the time, used cardboard from laundered shirts to help his father draw up the dimensions and curve of the staircase, which was fabricated in Chicago. His mother Joyce selected the furnishings, which included a Saarinen womb chair and a George Nelson platform bench. "She knew how to furnish a house like this," says Marge. "It was perfect for its time."
Despite the fact that in 1989 renewed interest in mid-century modern houses had not yet reached the fervor in New Orleans that it had in cities like Los Angeles, the Krauses knew what a gem they had. Working with architect Matthew Voelkel and designer Marie Taylor, who specializes in modernist interiors, they made some structural changes. They replaced the house's acoustic ceilings with sheetrock, traded the windows in the dining room for a wall of glass bricks and heightened the ceiling in the master bedroom with an illuminated cut-out all of which were intended to freshen, open and lighten the space without taking away from the purity of its design. They also added a new, contemporary iron gate designed by Voelkel and relied on Taylor's expertise to furnish the house with a mix of modernist pieces. Beyond that, little else changed. Even the kitchen appliances were original and in perfect working order.
Two years ago, when the house suffered serious roof damage during Katrina and flooded with 3 feet of water in its aftermath, the task of renewing the house was a very different story. Few of the family's furnishings including the Saarinen womb chair passed on by Steve's mother survived. In fact, the entire first floor had to be gutted, and much of the second floor had to be repaired as well. Dazed by her family's and her city's losses, Marge, who teaches nursing at Louisiana State University, had no idea where to get a contractor who would pay the same kind of attention to the house that her father-in-law had until a bit of serendipity intervened. "I found my contractor at the hair salon," she muses, still amazed by the scenario. It was Marge's hairdresser who immediately put her in touch with contractor Nelson Clayton of Clayton Homes, who accomplished the job. "I don't think just any contractor could have pulled this off," says Marge, who was also smart enough to have kept the original house plans in a place where they didn't get damaged. "[Nelson] called it the special house," she says. "There was such attention to detail. When it was originally built, all of the walnut paneling had mitered corners. There wasn't a piece of trim in this house."
The Krauses chose to restore most of the house as close to its original state as possible. Marge found a resource to replace the walnut paneling; had the terrazzo floors which withstood the floodwater cleaned, resealed and polished; and had the bookshelves surrounding the fireplace in the den rebuilt according to her father-in-law's plans. But they also called on Voelkel, as they had years earlier, to help them renovate a few areas such as the kitchen and master bath, and on Taylor to help them furnish the space with a new assortment of modern pieces rather than an exact replication of what existed before the storm.
"Marie said, 'You can't put everything back the way you had it before the storm,'" says Marge. She and Taylor found much of the furniture for the redo during a four-day trip to New York and even got to visit the Manhattan apartment of internationally renowned furniture designer Vladimir Kagan in the process. What they didn't buy in New York, they purchased from modernist catalogs such as Design Within Reach and Room & Board and through local retailers like Ray Langley Interiors.
"Everybody wanted to put things back exactly like it was, as if you could recreate your life exactly as it was," says Taylor, pointing out the irony of the notion. "My point was we have a new opportunity here; let's do something different. That's been a theme for me since Katrina," she adds. "I agreed that they should restore a lot of the house as it was. They have a very special house made more special by the fact that Steve's parents built it. But it was also a time to do some things differently. Things do change dramatically in people's lives. Katrina just added to that."
As the population ages and people live longer, one of the changes that Taylor urges her clients to consider is the addition of at least one wheelchair accessible bathroom, which simply means the floor can't have different elevations and openings have to be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Together, Marge and Taylor designed the new master bath, which is wheelchair accessible, to evoke the feeling of a Zen retreat by using a mix of natural and light-reflecting materials that includes river rocks, marble, wood and glass tiles. The same blonde wood and minimalist hardware used in the bathroom also are used in the kitchen, where they're combined with glossy, black countertops and new stainless steel appliances. There, Marge indulged her taste for saturated color. "A lot of modernist environments use a lot of white," says Taylor. "Marge uses a lot of color, and that makes her modernist environment unique."
Because the redesign of the kitchen follows its previous layout, the Krauses were able to keep its original terrazzo floor and reuse the same plumbing lines decisions that not only saved money but also helped preserve the original character of the space and the legacy of the man who built it.
"This house has a lot of memories of my father," says Steve. "It was a labor of love for him, and all of the people who worked for him went out of their way to make sure it was special, too."