Midcentury modern style gets updated in this Boise-Bench gem
It was the kind of argument no one ever wins, but that didn’t stop Stephanie Menietti and Steve Caulkins from going at it.
The subject? What is the best feature of the midcentury ranch house the couple lovingly renovated over the past three years and filled with art — the one thing that most appeals about their home, which will be featured in Preservation Idaho’s Heritage Homes Tour?
Menietti, a retired graphic designer, cast her vote for aesthetics, after first objecting to the terms of discussion. “One? Only one?” Caulkins, a serial entrepreneur, picked — are you ready? — the furnace, which he described as “the engine of the house.”
“The HVAC system is state-of-the-art Trane, a 98 percent efficient gas furnace,” he said. “I can set the temperature (from) anywhere in the world with my phone.”
“My favorite thing about the house — it’s so hard for me to pick my favorite thing because I have so many favorite things — has to come down to the view,” Menietti said. “And that it’s so horizontal. I like that.”
Horizontal lines are a key feature of midcentury modern’s distinctive look, particularly of the ranch houses that were constructed roughly between 1945 and the 1970s. So are broad windows designed to bring the outdoors in. And, to Caulkins’ credit, technology also is part of the underpinnings of this optimistic, post-World War II architectural style.
The original technology came from newly manufactured products, such as steel and plywood. Caulkins translates that to the 21st century with his high-tech take on the heating-ventilation-air conditioning system.
On Sunday, Oct. 1, you get to decide for yourself whether you prefer aesthetics or engineering. That’s when Preservation Idaho will open up half a dozen or so private midcentury homes in the Boise Bench’s Randolph-Robertson neighborhood to public view, including the Menietti and Caulkins abode.
Preservation Idaho picked the neighborhood for this year’s tour to expand the general view of what ‘historic’ means.
It’s not just frilly Victorians, stately Tudors or woodsy Craftsman bungalows with their deep porches and exposed beams.
Midcentury architectural styles are distinctive and use what were new building materials in the post-WWII-era, Preservation Idaho President Paula Benson said in an email.
“The design of the neighborhood, with wide, curved streets to slow traffic and no sidewalks, (was) also new and reflects the rise of the automobile in everyday life,” she said.
The neighborhood is named for the men who developed the area — W. Orth “Duffy” Randolph and the Robertson brothers, Bob and Fred. The three men started a dry cleaning business together before developing the subdivision on 70 acres that Randolph and his wife, Evelyn, purchased in 1946.
Caulkins and Menietti’s low-slung brick home was built in 1950, placing it among the first in the neighborhood. One key to its period aesthetic is easily seen from the street: It is possible to look through the house and admire the view behind it.
Caulkins stands behind the dining room table describing the vista: “If you look straight ahead, see the antennas on top of the hill? That to the left is Shafer Butte. Between the antennas and Shafer Butte is Bogus Basin. And then over here to your right is Lucky Peak. But my favorite, you can’t see it because of the smog, is Squaw Butte.”
Caulkins and Menietti moved to the Treasure Valley five years ago and immediately began looking for a perfect midcentury home.
When she first saw the house in 2014, Menietti said, she was struck by the fact that she could look out the dining room window and watch birds fly by at eye level. There are flocks of geese and ducks, soaring Swainson’s hawks (all nicknamed Gloria — Gloria Swainson, get it?), osprey and great horned owls.
It’s just so cool to look down at the birds instead of up at them.
Homeowner Stephanie Menietti
What was not so cool was the home’s condition. The couple had planned a significant interior remodel, expanding some walls so they could hang their art collection, turning two bedrooms on the main floor into a vast master suite, redoing what Menietti called “a typical ’70s kitchen.”
They wanted to keep the clean lines of the midcentury style, its simplicity, the lack of ornamentation. That’s what appeals to the man who owns a 1995 Porsche 911 Carrera — another example, he says, of simple beauty.
What they discovered when construction began, Caulkins said, was that the house “had cancer.” The electrical system was a snarl of mismatched wires. Pipes disintegrated. So they tore the interior down to the sticks and replaced the electrical system, the plumbing, the insulation and HVAC.
In the kitchen, they installed a state-of-the-art BlueStar range. Menietti created the Italian glass tile backsplash, an abstract design that begins with traditional midcentury turquoise and segues through a muted rainbow.
“I had these big, six-foot work tables in here, and I laid the whole thing out on paper,” Menietti said. “It’s about 10,000 pieces of Italian glass tile. It kind of sweeps gradually from color to color to color. There’s one little piece of bright red. That’s my Valentine to Steve, who is the cook. It’s right over the stove.”
The home retains its midcentury bones, its lovely horizontal lines and its spacious windows, but only two features from the original interior remain. That the update functions seamlessly is a testament to the historic style’s adaptable nature.
The most prominent holdover from the last century is the living room fireplace.
When Menietti and Caulkins bought the property, it was a gleaming white, its original stone having been painted over and over again. Next to it, an earlier owner had built a plywood stereo cabinet with a table that flopped down for convenient dining.
The cabinetry was easy to rip out. The paint, however, posed a thornier problem.
First they tried sandblasting, but the process ate away at the soft Arizona sandstone. Caulkins wanted to use walnut shells to blast the paint away, but they were hard to come by.
They ended up using a powdered glass — “softer than the stone, but harder than the paint,” Caulkins said — to restore the fireplace to its warm, rosy glory.
And the other original touch that remains?
A small square of mosaic tile in the downstairs bathroom whose variegated greens fairly scream 1950s. In other words, the shower floor.
“I wanted something reminiscent,” Caulkins said. “I just liked it.”
Freelance writer Maria L. La Ganga is a former reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times.
Homeowners go ‘Mad Men’ chic on their midcentury modern ranch
It’s not hard to understand why strangers knock on Kristi Hoover’s door, asking whether they can come in and look around her home in Boise’s Randolph-Robertson neighborhood.
With its signature sloping roofline, multicolored stone facade and light turquoise wooden screen wall, it is the definition of a midcentury modern ranch house.
Not that Hoover and her husband, Jay, knew that when they bought the property three years ago.
“We were not particularly looking for midcentury but both really loved it, not knowing at the time what that was,” said the J.R. Simplot Company lab manager. “We really stumbled on to it. We like that it has very clean lines. We like the openness to the outdoors, the big windows.
“And we like that there’s a lot of cool little details that you don’t necessarily see in newer houses,” she said. “There are built-ins that are custom to the house. The people we bought it from had either maintained it really well or fixed it up.”
The first inkling they had that they’d bought something special was tucked into the gift basket from their Realtor.
“It was a copy of Atomic Ranch magazine,” Hoover said. “We thought, ‘These houses look like ours.’ We thought, ‘A lot of this furniture is really cool.’ ”
Although the couple renovated the kitchen “a bit,” they left the color scheme the same: bright turquoise cabinets, clean white walls. They added a silver and white backsplash, with thin, rectangular tile that echoed midcentury’s horizontal lines.
They kept the blond wood paneling in the living room and basement and the white plastic chandelier with yellow cloth cutouts that hangs over the stairwell. The family room fireplace maintains the original pale horizontal stonework.
Because their living room furniture didn’t fit in their new home, they sold it and bought pieces “to stay with the vibe of the house,” Hoover said. There are a red sofa straight out of “Mad Men,” two orange chairs that flank the fireplace and a very midcentury sunburst clock.
“I always liked retro style, like the sunburst clock,” Hoover said, “but I never thought it went to a particular style of house.”
Now she knows.
Maria L. La Ganga
About the tour
Preservation Idaho’s 16th annual Heritage Homes Tour explores the midcentury modern and ranch homes of Boise’s Randolph-Robertson neighborhood on the Boise Bench.
The self-guided tour runs 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1.
Early bird tickets go on sale Friday, Aug. 25, for $25 general and members until Sunday, Sept. 17. After that, general tickets will be $30. PreservationIdaho.org. Purchase tickets on the day of the tour at the check-in booth at Grace Jordan Elementary, 6411 Fairfield Ave., Boise.