Category Archives: history

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.

Christmas Traditions: Candles in the Windows

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Christmas is really perfectly timed in the Western Hemisphere. The days are really short (the sun set at 4:30 PM yesterday) and the nights are especially dark. So it’s quite convenient that we deck the halls with festive lights during the month of December.

I’ve always loved the tradition of placing a single candle in each window of a house – especially in older homes with lots of big windows. Ah, classic Christmas.

It’s said that this tradition of placing a single candle in an home’s window dates back to Colonial times. According to an article from the Westlake Bay Village Observer,

The candle was often placed in the window when a member of the family was away. The lit candle was also placed in the window as a sign of good news or as a beacon to weary travelers. Candles also represented friendship and were seen as a sign of welcome to others.

In early America, homes were often miles apart. The sight of a candle in a window from a distance was a sign of “welcome” to those wishing to visit.

While apparently not strictly a Christmas tradition, the practice has been appropriated for the holiday season. But the practice is also rooted in Irish heritage. According to RichardHowe.com:

The candle in the window at Christmas symbolizes many things in Ireland. It’s still a favorite traditional Irish Christmas decoration, harkening back to that ancient Christmas Eve when Mary and Joseph could find no shelter. It is a symbol of Irish hospitality – a way of welcoming Mary and Joseph…and any travelers who might happen to pass by looking for a warm place to stay.

In the days when it was illegal and even dangerous to practice the Catholic faith in Ireland because of the oppressive Penal Laws, the candles seen in the windows of Irish homes at Christmas also signaled traveling priests that this was a home where they would be welcome and where they could safely conduct the traditional Irish Catholic Christmas Mass.

We don’t have windowsills at This American House but we do back at our condo in the city. I came across a big bag of electric candle lights at a thrift store last year so I lugged them back to the city and put them in the windows. The window candle tradition seems to be all about a message of welcoming. I can’t think of a more delightful way to say welcome home.

Image: This American House

Happy Anniversary to the Delbert Meier House

Delbert Meier

On this date exactly 97 years ago, November 10, 1917, the Meier family moved into their newly constructed American System-Built House. At the time, Delbert Meier was a 37-year-old attorney; his wife, Grace, was 38. Daughter Esther was 12, and her younger sister Martha was 8. What an exciting day that must have been for that young family, moving into their beautiful architectural wonder of a house! As you can see in thew local newspaper clipping above, the Meiers’ move-in date was big news.

The Meier family would go on to occupy the house until the mid-1960’s. Martha and Grace grew up and moved out in the late 1920’s but Delbert and Grace stayed on. Delbert passed away (probably IN the house) in 1959, coincidentally the same year that Frank Lloyd Wright passed on. Grace remained in residence until her death in 1964.

Delbert Meier and Grace Meier, Monona, Iowa | This American House

We stopped by the cemetery yesterday to pay our respects to Mr. and Mrs. Meier and to thank them for building this grand house. We feel like we’ve adopted the family as much as the house.

The Mister and I are coming up on our one year anniversary of living in the house. We haven’t gotten very far in the projects we have planned for the house but we have enjoyed every single second we’ve spent here. Thanks again, Delbert and Grace Meier, for building this gorgeous home.

Images: This American House

Came Glasswork: The Windows Are the Soul of Our House

Original Zinc Glass Windows on Our American System Built Home | This American House

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, as the old saying goes, then the windows are the soul of our house. One of the few original features remaining, the windows are also one of the first things that made us fall in love with the house. I don’t mean the number of windows in each room – although that certainly won us over in an instant. I’m talking about the actual 97-year-old original windows. And, in particular, the art glass windows that are in each corner of the upstairs rooms and along the large wall in the living room.

Plans for Zinc Glass Windows for American System Built homes | This American House

We got confirmation from the house plans that we dug up at the Avery Library that the art glass windows are indeed original to the house. We has initially assumed that the windows are lead glass but they are in fact zinc glass. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to us since Frank Lloyd Wright used zinc glass in many of the homes he designed, including the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois.

The technical, design-y term for this kind of glass is came glasswork. As wikipedia says, “Came glasswork is the process of joining cut pieces of art glass through the use of came strips or foil into picturesque designs in a framework of soldered metal.” Although lead is perhaps the most common material used in came glasswork, brass, copper and zinc can also be used. According to Wikipedia, “Zinc makes a lightweight, strong and rigid came, which lends itself to glasswork projects that don’t have many curved lines, are large, or have a number of straight lines that require greater support than lead would afford.” With the straight lines and large panes in our windows, it definitely makes sense that Wright would specify zinc in the plans.

Zinc Glass Windows in the Delbert Meier House | This American House

That these windows, with their wood frames and zinc came, have endured for 97 years is a testament to good house stewardship. Although many of the other original features in the house were pulled out 40+ years ago, the windows remain. They not only remain, actually, they’ve been lovingly maintained and restored over the years.

When we finally met Peter and Becky, the house’s owners for more than thirty years, and the folks responsible for giving the house its birth”wright”, as they say, we commented on our love of the windows. Peter piped up that the windows weren’t always so nice. Years of summer rainstorms and winter freezes hadn’t been kind to the zinc glass windows (or any of the windows for that matter). Peter made it his mission to get the windows back in shape and keep them that way. He cleaned up the rotting wood and had the zinc came glasswork encased to protect and restore it. We’re eternally grateful to Peter for making the windows his personal project for so many years.

Images: This American House and The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York