One for Peter and Deborah gets us started today, and sorry, but I think we’ve discussed this topic before. Anyway, this is the column that started my interest in Michael Graves. Reporting on a house isn’t exactly dramatic. But once you’ve owned real estate, once you’ve battled a contractor or struggled with an expensive problem with plumbing or drainage, you join a fraternity — the house-suffering — that encompasses people from all walks of life, and their problems become ones you can identify with. Dr. Sanford Snyderman and his wife, Joy, commissioned an up-and-coming Indianapolis-born architect named Michael Graves to build them a striking, avant-garde house in 1973, on a large parcel of land in what was then a newly awakening suburban area of Fort Wayne, Indiana. They lived there about 20 years before selling the property to a developer, and the house never was lived in again. Graves went on to become an architect of great renown, and a design-world household name — you’ve probably seen his work at Target. The house was torched in 2002, just as a restoration effort was struggling to get rolling. A photo of the house is at the link in the first line. I strongly suggest you take a look before reading. Oh, and yes, these are the parents of Dr. Nancy Snyderman, author and TV doctor. I heard somewhere that she had the central interior staircase — the one without railings of any sort — removed and warehoused, perhaps to be used in a future house of her own. Beware, Nancy! Beware!
August 2, 2002.
From the very beginning, the reporting on the Snyderman House raised more questions than it answered. For all the effusive praise for Michael Graves’ avant-garde design, as a reader I always wanted to know: So why isn’t anyone living there now?
From all accounts, Sanford and Joy Snyderman sold their 40-acre property to a developer in 1997, moved into a villaminium and abandoned the house to become a target for Aboite Township vandals, one of whom likely burned it to the ground earlier this week in a fire officials describe as suspicious in origin.
True, you can find architectural marvels in similar straits elsewhere in Allen County, but not many that are barely 30 years old and located in a booming, affluent suburb. Why didn’t another doctor and his wife, or some other well-to-do couple with a fondness for modern architecture, buy the place and make it their own?
Ask around, and the answer quickly becomes apparent.
“It wasn’t a physically comfortable house,” said Sanford Snyderman Jr., the Snydermans’ son. “It was hot in summer, cold in winter. The stucco cracked. The roof was flat, and never did drain well. Something was always going wrong with it.”
In other words, the Snyderman house was also a sucking money pit, a beautiful, tragic structure that virtually sprouted the sort of stories that turn homeowners’ hair white. When the Snydermans finally moved out, they had reached the end of their rope in coping with the house’s maddening quirks and design flaws.
At the same time, though, Joy Snyderman is quick to recall the million good times the family enjoyed in their one-of-a-kind home, which made a dramatic stage set for parties and entertaining.
“I remember we had a family reunion here, with maybe 30 people, and this water-gun fight going on from all the different levels and balconies. It was like a Fellini movie,” she said.
“Dramatic” is a word that comes up time and again when discussing the Snyderman house, in both the good and bad sense of the word.
It’s the preferred adjective for Graves’ edgy design, conceived in 1972, which featured exterior staircases and gridlike exterior steel beams, walls that extended above the roof line and cantilevered balconies. It’s also appropriate for the fights the Snydermans had with contractors who scratched their heads over Graves’ flights of design fancy.
“There were so many undecided elements that were resolved as the house was built,” Sanford said. “The house was a work in progress until it was finished.”
And then the real work began. The roof leaked almost from the beginning. The temperature fluctuated wildly from season to season. There was a depression near the exterior basement doors into which animals would fall and be unable to climb out, and one of the teenage boys’ daily chores was fishing out the frogs, snakes and raccoons they would find there in the morning.
“The house was wrapped in glass, and most of it was single-pane,” said Sanford. “So it was impossible to control the temperature. The balconies were stuccoed, and that stuff weighs as much as cement, so they started to sag after a while.” No one can really say whether the house’s problems were in its design or execution, but both Joy Snyderman and her son say the blame probably can be passed around.
“For the materials that existed and the expertise available at the time, the timing just wasn’t right,” said Sanford, recalling the endless battles with contractors and subcontractors, who struggled with Graves’ blueprints. “Everyone who worked on it blames someone else for the problems. Michael Graves is obviously a very talented and successful architect, and this was a very ambitious effort on his part. But I think his reach exceeded his grasp.”
That’s a contention that bothers Matt Kelty, the local architect who led efforts to buy and restore the house in the last two years. Graves’ design was “beyond the ability of most home contractors to carry out,” he said. “The roofing material was put down by a carpet contractor.”
But architecture is both a creative and a practical art form; a designer’s vision has to be reconciled with what is physically possible to build. At what point, if he or she fails to do so, does a design get called a failure, and did the Snyderman house qualify? (After all, the family had to install an additional furnace just to get the master bedroom temperature above 70 degrees, and air conditioning was “an afterthought,” in Sanford’s opinion.) Kelty doesn’t think so.
“I believe (Graves) achieved not just a living structure but a profoundly beautiful one,” he said. “It’s a piece of art that functioned as a house for more than 20 years.”
The Snydermans themselves are less enthusiastic, although perfectly happy with the role the house played in their lives in that time.
“Michael Graves grew up in Indiana, and he knew what you could do here,” said Joy. “It should never have had a flat roof, not in this climate.” Plus, the house was located in woods, and the roof collected leaves and other natural detritus that clogged its drains. If they weren’t cleaned regularly, as often as every few days, water damage followed. Freezing-and-thawing cycles took their toll wherever the water penetrated.
At this point, most homeowners might wonder why the Snydermans didn’t burn the place down themselves, collect the insurance and go build a nice Colonial somewhere. To understand, it helps to know that the family never saw the house the way most of us see our own, as a piggy bank you can live in. Rather, Joy sees her time there as an adventure, a rich collection of experiences – both good and bad – that are, after all, a part of life.
“I would rather have grabbed the brass ring than not,” she said. “I’m 75 now, and at my age you don’t want to live with regrets. We had wonderful times there that we could not have had anywhere else.”
Sanford agrees (although his philosophical outlook is tempered by the fact he served as the house’s chief handyman for years). He also points out that, due to the escalation of property values in Aboite during the time the Snydermans owned it, they were still able to make a profit on the sale of the land, even with a problem house on it.
One of the house’s features was a 20-foot-long mural painted by Graves, and Sanford, an artist himself, was his apprentice. Where else could he have had such an experience? (The mural was removed and now resides at the Indianapolis Art Center, in Graves’ hometown.)
Joy said her son pointed out that many of architecture’s innovations rose from its failures – “like the flying buttress.” Someone had to own the failures, and at least theirs was beautiful.
As for Sanford, “I’m just glad my parents are under a roof that sheds water now.”