The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 08, 2017 1:00 am

ARCH leads first-ever tour of Wermuth house

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Eric Schooler dreams of owning a mid-century modern home.

On Saturday, the 27-year-old Munster man got a sense of what that might feel like while touring the A.C. Wermuth house, which was designed by father and son architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen and built in 1941 and 1942. 

“It's pretty clean and simple with all the built-ins,” Schooler said, referring to wooden cabinets found in each room. Other notable features of the home are its flat roof and floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a wooded ravine.

“It's really cool how they almost make you feel like you're outside when you're looking out,” he added.

ARCH, the local historic preservation organization, led three sold-out tours through the 9,600-square-foot Wermuth home for its fall fundraiser. Although tickets were $75 to $100 each, the event attracted 75 architecture enthusiasts.

The residence, which is one of only seven designed by the Saarinens, had never before been opened to the public.

Chris Bickel was among those who toured the house. But it's not the first time she'd seen it. The 78-year-old local woman, whose father was a minister, frequently ate dinner with her parents at the Wermuths' home on Sunday evenings when she was in high school.

Afterward, they would watch TV in color ... a rare treat in the mid-1950s, she said.

A.C. Wermuth, the son of a German immigrant, was a successful local building contractor at the time. His wife resembled Bickel's deceased grandmother.

“They were just a neat, neat couple,” Bickel said. “They were so unassuming that you didn't know they had money.”

The home reflects an affluent lifestyle, however.

A dozen rooms were equipped with buttons that allowed the family to silently summon servants. Two bedrooms in the back of the home were designated for live-in help. And the garage was built for three cars.

Central air-conditioning was among the cutting-edge technology installed in the home when it was built. But other features reflect mid-century practices. The basement includes rooms designated to store wood for numerous fireplaces and coal for the furnace.

The main floor includes a common area, dining room, kitchen, a music room and separate restrooms for men and women. A sunken reading room/conversation pit is just off the common area.

The second floor, which includes four bedrooms and three bathrooms, is cantilevered, making it appear to float in air with no visible means of support. A large, outdoor patio lies beneath.

Frank Souder, one of Saturday's tour guides, gestured toward the ceiling over the patio area and said he'd never seen a crack there.

“It's all concrete,” he added. “The house is built like a fortress.”

Souder now leases the building as an office for his residential design firm. As a condition for allowing the tours, the home's owners made ARCH officials promise not to reveal their names or publicize the home's location.

Mid-century modern design, which is found in buildings and furniture, was popular in the 1930s through the mid-1960s.

Eero Saarinen, who was Finnish American, also designed the local Concordia Theological Seminary campus; the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana; and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Wermuth was the contractor for numerous buildings at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Eliel Saarinen was the dean.

Karen Richards, ARCH's board chairwoman, believes the Wermuth home is an “incredibly significant” architectural work, one of the most significant in Fort Wayne.

The building was designed perfectly for the site to ensure stunning views from every room, she said.

“In 1941, this house was incredibly revolutionary,” said Richards, who also guided some tours. “It's low, it's long. It has these vast expanses of windows meant to bring the outside inside.”

Although some might see mid-century modern style as a little boring, Richards disagrees.

“They're plain,” she said of the numerous design details. “But, when you look, not really. It's not meant to be Victorian. I think you're meant to see the beauty in the simplicity.”

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