Back to the future

Showcasing the wonders of aluminum -- from its once sky-blue aluminum roof, to its purple siding, lacy aqua window panels and golden front door -- Len and Mary O'Kelly's unique mid-century modern home in Northeast Grand Rapids, was a model house of the future in 1957.

The contemporary marvel for modern living and beyond was designed by one of the most prominent architects of the time, Charles M. Goodman, of Washington, D.C., as a project for the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). Alcoa planned to construct 50 such houses at selected locations throughout the United States, promoting Goodman's design as the "Alcoa Care-free Home."

"This home was so remarkably different from other houses that were being built at the time," said Mary O'Kelly, a freelance digital research librarian and consultant. O'Kelly grew up in East Grand Rapids, then eventually moved to Chicago. Relocating back to Grand Rapids, she and her husband, Len, purchased the 1,900-square-foot ranch-style home last winter.

Goodman used results taken from the 1956 Women's Congress on Housing as a guide for designing the house, Mary said. The Congress was a focus group of 103 middle-class homemakers from around the country. The women were asked for their input about how much space a house should have, how many bedrooms would be ideal and which kitchen appliances they needed. As a result, Goodman came up with an open floor plan and family-friendly design that combined decorative and structural aluminum with woods, such a cypress and teak, Mary said.

"It was built to perfectly suit the nuclear family of the 1950s," she added.

In the 1950s and '60s, Goodman also designed homes for the contemporary Hollin Hills suburban housing development in Alexandria, Va., she said, adding the Alcoa homes were built to promote the versatility and durability of aluminum for residential construction.

"Our home includes about 7,500 pounds of aluminum, from the windows, siding and roof, to the decorative trim. Even the ductwork is aluminum," said Len O'Kelly, program director for WFGR-FM.

Once built, Alcoa homes were open to the public before being put up for sale. Three Alcoa homes were built in Michigan, Mary said. The others are in Flint and Southfield.

Purchasing such a home has sparked the couple's interest in exploring the history of their house.

"I started doing research," Mary says. "I've always had an interest in architecture, and this has been really fun."

She found an original copy of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine from October of 1957, which featured a story about an Alcoa Care-free Home.

"The home is exactly like ours," Len said.

Although aluminum is a main building component, the home also features cypress wood paneling on the ceiling, teak and aluminum panels on walls, extensive decorative brickwork and entire walls of sliding glass.

"The homes were built with a post-and-beam construction, which allowed the rooms to open up," Mary said. "The architecture of the space was designed so you could see through the entire house from one end to the other, but still maintain privacy."

Encompassing the living, dining and family areas, the east side of the home is faced with six sliding glass doors, which open out onto a brick-walled patio and deck, giving the interior of the home an outdoors feel and filling the space with light.

In the center of the home, a vivid turquoise kitchen with ample metal cabinets is the focal point, allowing access from all areas, including a convenient pass-through into the family room. Equipped with handy built-ins, the kitchen also has counters at two levels for convenience. On the family room side, which eventually will be the O'Kelly's dining space, there's a wall of built-in cabinets faced with colorful laminate in black, white, teal and bright green.

"There's even a cabinet wired for the Hi-Fi stereo," Len said. "And, there are drawers specifically designed to hold vinyl records."

"We're very lucky that most of the home is original and hasn't been changed over the years," Mary said.

Except for a few decorative changes inside, including changing the color scheme of the kitchen from its original tan color to a vibrant turquoise, the house has been kept intact, she says.

"It even has the original built-in oven," says Len, adding the color change in the kitchen was done a number of years ago, long before they moved in.

Looking outside, the walls of windows frame scenic views of trees and shrubbery, which makes the outdoors part of the home's interior.

"Once you get inside the house, it's all about looking outside," Mary adds. "This house has a sense that it's a lot larger than it actually is."

Even with all of the windows, the home is private, surrounded by decorative brick walls, plantings and connected patio areas. It also has a partially covered terrace between the bedroom area and the carport, which includes a lovely garden. To give a sense of airiness to the brickwork, the bricks were arranged in a pattern that provides privacy, but lets in light.

True to the Alcoa promise of being "care-free," the home has required little maintenance over the years, but, because of the way the house was designed, it has its challenges.

"The aluminum roof is guaranteed for one hundred years," Len said. "But, we have a problem with ice back-up in the winter, and there's no real solution as to how to fix that."

The home also has little insulation, and the massive walls of windows are not energy-efficient, especially by today's standards.

"When it rains, we can hear it pound on the roof," Mary adds.

"And, you should hear the racket when it hails."

Although the "Alcoa Care-free Home" and other modern designs of that same time period never became typical for American houses, many of their innovative features, such as sliding glass doors with aluminum frames, open floor plans and low-maintenance materials, made it into the home-building mainstream.

"Some of the home's innovative ideas really did make a lasting impact," Mary said. "In it's own way, it's also a work of art."