Category Archives: dream house

Betsy Drake: The Last Lioness

Betsy Drake, Actress, Writer

Before we were This American House, we were blogging as Mr. and Mr. Blandings. In fact,
we’re still Mr. and Mr. Blandings on Twitter. Our nickname arose out of our love for the book and classic movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House as well as the radio series Mr. and Mrs. Blandings. The co-star and co-writer of that series, the extraordinary Betsy Drake, passed away in London on October 27th at age 92. The following is a personal reflection on this remarkable woman and her lasting achievements.

Betsy Drake was about to eat me alive. As I sat listening in on my dear friend, the painter Bernard Perlin, intrepidly holding his own in a tempestuous phone conversation with her one day in 2013, he suddenly motioned that he was going to soon put me on the line to say hello to her. I’d secretly been hoping for this moment for some time, well aware of Betsy Drake’s remarkable life story and close friendship with Bernard, yet also acutely aware of the highly volatile nature of the longtime relationship between these two very independent minds and spirits. After all, I’d become Bernard’s “ear in need,” enduring – or enjoying, depending on the tone of their conversation – many post-Betsy-call processing sessions with him. They loved each other; they loathed each other. Yet their friendship had endured some 50 years.

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Happy 98th Anniversary Delbert Meier!

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Today is a very special anniversary for the house. On this day ninety-eight years ago, Delbert Meier, along with his wife Grace, and daughters Esther and Martha, finally took residence in their American System Built Home. They had sold their house on Main Street earlier that year and were living temporarily in the apartment above Delbert’s office in the Monona Bank Building while this house was being built.

I imagine that day ninety-eight years ago was kind of like the one we’re having today. It was sunny but brisk and the trees were stripped of their leaves which were fluttering around in cyclones. Del and Grace might have walked up the sidewalk and paused on the porch before they opened the front door. They had ordered this house from a catalog, seen the supplies arrive (likely by train) and then waited as workmen had pieced it together. Today, standing on the front porch, they were finally about to walk into their very own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house.

I wonder if Del was more excited than Grace. I know that when it comes to The Mister and me, we don’t always have the same level of enthusiasm about things. Do you think it was that way for Delbert and Grace Meier? Maybe she kind of rolled her eyes as he gave a little speech about how they were going to put Monona on the map with their Frank Lloyd Wright designed house. Delbert was mayor just a few years after moving into the house so he was certainly a civic booster. Maybe he had seen Wright’s designs in Mason City and came back convinced that they needed once of Mr. Wright’s modern homes.

But then again perhaps Delbert and Grace were equally enthusiastic about their new home. Grace could have been just as intrigued by Wright’s pre-fab homes as Delbert. Maybe it was Grace who came back from a trip to Mason City all fired up about the architect’s designs. Looking at the plans maybe she recognized that the corner windows would create bright and airy rooms and the sunporch would be perfect for summer nights and afternoon teas.

Either way, the Meiers went on to occupy this house for 40+ years, the longest they occupied any home in their lives. They finished raising their daughters here. Delbert was a fixture in town, first at the bank and then in his own law practice. Grace, an educated woman, devoted her time to gardening and, I imagine, other home projects.

In fairy tale parlance, they lived happily ever after.

Happy anniversary, Delbert and Grace. Thank you for bringing this house into our lives.

The House that Feels Like a Home

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I’ve never been attached to a home.While I’ve always been a homebody, I was more likely to make the best out of any living situation rather than feel like I was planting roots. My family moved frequently when I was growing up and then I carried that gypsy spirit into my adulthood. By the time I hit my 30’s I had managed to live in a different apartment each year of my adulthood. Moving was fun and I always appreciated the opportunity to make an annual purge and redesign of my space.

Then, a few years into my thirties, we bought a small condo in the city. The housing market was booming and were practically promised a strong return on our investment. Well, if you were around for the 2007 housing crisis, you know how that story turns out. The bottom fell out of the housing market and everyone who bought during the boom found themselves with properties that were worth much less than they had paid.

Almost overnight, our home became a yoke around our necks. While we thought that we were ready for long haul home ownership, we had only envisioned being in the tiny condo for a few years before selling up to something bigger. Suddenly, our home became a yoke around our necks.

But we stuck with it. While many of our neighbors let their condos slip into foreclosure, we kept making our payments, confident that it would be the best decision in the long run.

While we still can’t sell our condo, we haven’t ruined our credit by walking away. We’ve diligently made all our payments and even though we’re still upside down, the amount we owe and the low monthly payment after refinancing our mortgage is very manageable. So manageable, in fact, that we have a little extra money to buy another home. It’s not a lot of money – which means we’re already priced out of buying another home in the city. And that’s what took us 4+ hours out of the city in search of a second home.

When The Mister first started telling me about this house, I immediately shot it down. There are so many reasons that owning this house is ridiculous for us. Besides the distance from our main home, the house is almost 100 years old, it’s much bigger that we originally had in mind and it’s located in a small town. Still, The Mister was drawn to the house’s history and, after talking and talking and talking about it, he finally convinced me that we should at least take a walk through it.

And that was it. From the minute we opened the front door and stepped into the house I knew that it was home. Because it felt like home. I can’t explain it really. This house has just always felt like home. Even before we started furnishing it with our own belongings it felt like home. There’s just a comfort here. And a familiarity that belies the fact that we’ve owned it for less than two years.

We don’t get to spend as much time here as we’d like. But whenever we do, we feel at peace. And that, in my mind, is what makes a house a home.

Peering Over the Fence: Dealing with House Envy

Delbert Meier House

When other Frank Lloyd Wright-designed properties pop up on the market, we can’t help but peer over the proverbial fence and compare notes. Mind you, this is more easily done with other Wright-designed Prairie houses, like our own. Recently, some Usonian houses have come up for sale. Each has been beautifully and thoroughly designed; one must feel as though one is actually living in a work of art, even more so than we do in our gorgeous house. A recent listing showed stunning interiors covered in wood – ceilings, walls, built-in shelves and furniture. We wonder, however, how much a completely designed house pushes out the homeowners’ ability to be co-creative with the space? If there are no walls to paint and little furniture needed to add, what more is there to do than fill up the built-in shelves and perhaps change out curtains and floor rugs?

Our house is somewhat of a blank canvas, held within a Wright-designed frame. The frame does dictate to some degree how we fill in the canvas, but for the most part it’s ours with which to play. We are certainly choosing to restore some interior elements to the house that were altered or removed years ago, like the original built-in cabinets, woodwork, and fireplace. We also hope to eventually “Wright” some alterations made to the exterior of the house, and frame it with more organic landscaping. But that said, we have little interest in making the house a museum. We would rather it be a space in which we can live in harmony with what it once was and was meant to be, but also with what it is now and can be. It’s a heady task, this balancing act between preserving the form of the house while updating its function, but we think we’re on the right (if not completely “Wright”) track.

— Michael

Image: This American House

Living a Lush Life at the Dream House

This American House

I don’t know how it was where you live, but here at the dream house we experienced one of the worst winters in the history of ever. We’re talking 50 below zero wind chills and snow piled as high as mountains. Seeing the leaves return to the trees feels like some sort of reward for surviving the worst that Mother Nature can dole out. Every time I look out the window and see the lush green vines covering the carriage house, I breathe a sigh of relief. Winter is but a distant memory to me now. We’re living the lush life.

Image: Mr. and Mr. Blandings