Meeting of man and house was meant to be
Housecalls | By Michael Good
When Kurt Schuette first set foot in his Mission Hills, mid-century modern house 25 years ago, it felt eerily familiar. For some homebuyers, that initial impression is love at first sight. For Schuette it was architectural déjà vu.
“My parents built a post-and-beam house in Del Mar, on Torrey Pines Terrace, so my first impression was of what I knew,” he said. “It was what I was familiar with, what I grew up with.”
All the hallmarks of his childhood home were there, he said: “The open-beam ceiling, the floor-to-ceiling glass, the views. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a whole enclave of modern architects in Del Mar.”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s son John settled there in the late 1940s, and another set of architects followed, including Hanis Lloyde Therkelsen. Therkelsen is the architect of the Schuette family home, and had a studio right down the street.
Mid-century modern has become trendy in the last 10 years, but Schuette was way ahead of the curve. “I come by this honestly,” he said. “My mom was a total minimalist. She liked very sparse furnishing: Danish modern, teak furniture, very little embellishment [and] no knick-knacks of any kind. … That’s why it was fortunate that when I walked into my house it was vacant. The focus was on the architecture, not the contents.”
It was easy for Schuette to imagine living there, yet there was only one problem. “I really wasn’t looking for a house,” he said, adding that a friend who knew the listing agent told Schuette to just take a look. While Schuette said he was not ready to buy a house at the time, that changed when upon that first visit.
“I went up there, … I walked in and I instantly knew I was home,” he said. “This was the first and only house I looked at. It was waiting for me. Isn’t that crazy?”
Stranger things have certainly happened. Go back in time another 35 years to find a recent college graduate, Homer Delawie, holding the nozzle of a fire hose while staring down a wall of flames and having an epiphany. Delawie had just turned around to see the person who was supposed to be backing him up running away.
That’s when a little kernel of doubt entered Delawie’s mind. Maybe he didn’t really want to be a firefighter. Maybe it was time to find another line of work.
After graduating from technical school and fulfilling 18 months working on blueprints for schools in Modesto, Calif., Delawie came to San Diego for a vacation. In Hillcrest he had another encounter with fate. Driving up Fifth Avenue, he saw the Design Center, created by modernist Lloyd Ruocco, whom Delawie almost ran over. After chatting for a while, Ruocco offering Delawie a job at the KOGO TV and radio studio. Eventually Delawie and Ruocco became partners
In 1958, to show what he could do with a small budget, a demanding client and a difficult lot, Delawie designed his own house on a tiny, 25-foot-wide lot on Torrance Street in Mission Hills. The house was 17-feet wide and was built, literally, like a boxcar, but it was a critical, artistic and personal success. When his family outgrew it, Delawie built another, larger house nearby: basically two boxcars arranged in an L-shape.
It was that 1963 house that cast a spell on Schuette, much later in 1987.
“I didn’t even know who Homer Delawie was for the first eight or 10 years I lived here,” Schuette said, “and I certainly didn’t expect it would have any notoriety when I bought it.”
In 2004, Delawie dropped by the house to introduce himself, and to talk Schuette into opening the place for a historic-home tour. Though he was a modernist, Delawie was a founding member of Save Our Heritage Organisation and he had negotiated the purchase of Heritage Park’s first Victorian, the Sherman-Gilbert House, in 1969. After retiring in 1997, he remained involved in preservation.
It’s hard to overstate Delawie’s influence on San Diego architecture. While his carefully crafted, post-and-beam, light-filled houses are modernist archetypes – he designed 60 or so, plus an 100-home housing tract in El Cajon and a model for the Pacifica development on Mount Soledad – his commercial work put Delawie’s stamp on San Diego.
Just some of his work: Coronado Library, Sea World exhibits, Saint Therese Catholic Church, San Diego Zoo enclosures, Old Ferry Landing, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Hospice, Scripps Ranch High School and San Diego Police Administration & Technical Center. He even designed the children’s fountain in Balboa Park.
In short, whatever you want to do in San Diego – get arrested, educated, entertained, trained, parked, bandaged, preached to, prayed over or sent on to your final resting place – you can do it in a Delawie.
Despite his architectural accomplishments, Delawie seemed to draw more satisfaction, and spent more time talking about, the relationships he built during his 50 years in San Diego. For a guy who claimed he wasn’t naturally gregarious, he did a lot of volunteering. He was on the Housing Appeals Advisory Board, the Parks and Recreation Design Review Board, the Historic Resources Board and the Planning Commission, among others.
Delawie liked to say, “Life is not a spectator sport.” He got involved in things, and people clearly enjoyed working with him. Every time his appointment on the Planning Commission neared its end, a vacancy would open up and they’d ask Delawie to stay. He kept getting asked back for 13 years.
“The thing that was great about the Planning Commission in that time was the people,” Delawie was quoted as saying. “In fact, the whole thing about life is the people. I mean it too.”
What is mid-century modern?
Mid-century is a time. Modern is an attitude. Put them together and you have something completely different. The mid-century house was a work in progress. Architects of the period were just trying to build something that respected the land, satisfied the client and fit the budget. When asked if he considered his work cutting edge, Homer Delawie said, “I never thought of it.”
Hallmarks of the type: Houses were often modular in appearance and construction, using standard-sized exterior panels and regularly spaced, exposed roof joists. There was a blending of outdoor and indoor, with materials, such as the tongue and groove interior living room wall in Kurt Schuette’s house, extending outside the home to form a garden wall. The houses were sometimes screened from the street, but very open to the yard and view. They were comparatively small, with low roofs, open floor plans and compact built-in furniture.
Philosophy: The architects of the era were thoroughly modern in their habits, interests and approach to life and work, even if they were born in a time when most Americans didn’t have an indoor toilet. The Depression had made them weary of anything old-fashioned. The War had taught them about modern materials and mass production. It was the Space Age, so not even the sky was the limit. They hoped to make building more economical, thus freeing up the budget for innovative design.
Where you’ll find them: Surprisingly, mid-century houses are everywhere in San Diego. Many suburban tract developments built from 1955 to 1970 have at least one model in the style. Custom houses built during the era, on in-fill lots in mid-city and suburban lots in La Mesa, Mt. Helix, Fletcher Hills, La Jolla and anywhere near a university as educators particularly liked the style, are often in the modern mode. The reason why you don’t notice more mid-century modern houses is because so many have been ruined by poor remodeling. The style is as much about proportion, massing and balance as it is about the details.
Learn More: The best way to get a feel for mid-century modern in San Diego is through Keith York’s website, Modern San Diego. After looking at a few dozen examples of the genre, you’ll be noticing modern everywhere. Most San Diego modern architects are listed there, including Homer Delawie and Lloyd Ruocco, along with biographical information and examples of their work.