By Kate Klimesh,
As far as unique homes go, laying claim to a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home ranks toward the top. What makes it more special is that it’s a Wright-designed home located outside of Illinois and Wisconsin, that is one of few using prefabricated construction techniques in his American System-Built Homes program.
On the north edge of Monona, Iowa, sits the Delbert Meier House, one of the unique M202 designs by Wright and now lovingly tended to and restored by Michael Schreiber and Jason Loper. They purchased the house in 2013. Delbert and Grace Meier selected, bought and built the home in Monona in 1917. The attorney and his family, with two daughters, lived in the space above his law office while the home was built. Even the local newspapers made mention of the added beauty to the town upon the home’s completion. The Meier family lived in the home until the early 1960s. In a stroke of coincidence, Delbert passed away the same year as Frank Lloyd Wright, the designer of his home.
“In looking for a house, we had stayed at cabins and B&Bs throughout Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, some really charming places,” Schreiber remarked, “and we were very familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright and had tours through many of his homes near where we had stayed. After this listing came up, it took a couple of weeks to convince Jason to look at it. We had a list of ‘must haves’ and it didn’t meet any of the top three.”
Living in Chicago at the time, they had wanted a shorter commute than the five hours to Monona, however Schreiber recalled, “We were goners as soon as we walked in the door. We knew this was a really loved house.” Schreiber and Loper confirmed this through their conversations with many previous residents. But each family had also left their own unique stamp on the house.
“There were a lot of colors on the walls we wouldn’t have picked,” he noted. Quite a bit of remodeling was done in the 1960s; the woodwork had been painted over, the built-in cabinets had been removed, the entryway had been opened up, a new garage was added, and the porch had an extension added between the house and garage. In the 1980s, the kitchen and bathrooms had been updated.
This dream home became a passion for the pair, who interviewed previous owners for more information, documenting the histories of the Meier House and the American-System-Built Home project as a whole. This passion translated into careful preservation of the house to honor its heritage, while simultaneously updating it to improve its functionality as a 21st-century home.
Beginning on the exterior of the home and moving into the first floor, their challenges have been to restore as many original features as possible from renovations, design choices and additions made by previous owners. In the living room this included painstakingly removing paint from the brick ireplace and removing the added mantel, a daunting task for any homeowner.
As in many older homes, the wood trim had been painted over, and Loper took that on as his mission. He stripped the paint off and stained the wood trim, returning it to its original glory throughout the home. Luckily, the original kitchen cabinets were found in the garage in 2014 and were used to recreate and replace built-in cabinets that had been removed in the living room.
Doing most of the work themselves has given the pair an opportunity to not only connect and engage in the renovations in an intimate way but to plan phases of restoration of the original aspects of the historic home and time to connect with its past. “Of course, we appreciated the Frank Lloyd Wright aspect of the house, but the connection we were able to experience with the former owners and relatives that knew the house, those are tangible memories of the lives in this house over the past 100 years,” Schreiber said smiling. “They shared their memories, their photos, we even have the original blueprint, which is just invaluable.”
Each project a labor of love, each stroke of the paintbrush one step closer to their vision of their dream home. The couple has developed a website, www.thisamericanhouse.com, devoted to their findings and helping connect people with other System-Built Houses. They still get comments on their blog from people who remember the house and the people living in it.
Schreiber added, “That’s the advantage of being in a small town. We have access to those people who have memories and histories. People always say, ‘if these walls could talk’ but we’ve been so lucky because these walls have been talking, and we are listening.”
Seeing a correlation to their situation in one of their favorite 1948 movies, “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream Home,” Schreiber and Loper adopted their own moniker: Mr. and Mr. Blandings. “There are still things we would like to address in the restoration, and eight years in, it is ever a work in progress. And we’re still uncovering little surprises as we explore the next renovation project. Like the original pebble-dash stucco tucked under the addition to the porch roofline.”
Schreiber and Loper signed a contract for a book in 2018 with five distinct chapters titled: “An American Plan,” “A Home in a Prairie Town,” “This American House,” “If These Walls Could Talk,” and “The Accidental Archivists.” Compiling stories from the house itself was book-matched with finishing restoration in main areas of the home for photo opportunities. All materials were submitted in summer 2019 with an expected 2020 book release.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, it also put a pause on the publishing industry. The folks at Pomegranate very wisely decided to push back release of our book by a year. We were disappointed (naturally!) but considering what we all endured in 2020, it didn’t seem like something we had any right to complain about,” Schreiber relayed.
The book, “This American House,” was finally published in August of this year and is now available at bookstores. The book reflects the Frank Lloyd Wright design sense on its cover and is filled with much of the wonder and love that the house has held for over 100 years.
They duo realized there was so much more than just the house design of Frank Lloyd Wright, and they continued to listen to stories from former owners, relatives and members of the community. These too became part of the tales told by the Meier House – a house of family, community and connection, just like it’s original owners, Delbert and Grace Meier.
Visit www.thisamericanhouse.com for complete details on the Meier house, its story and other American System-Built houses.
Pictured is a scale model of the original Monona home’s M202 design made for owners Schreiber and Loper. Beside it is their book “This American House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meier House and the American System-Built Homes,” the story this house has to tell. “When we bought the Meier House in 2013, we immediately dove into researching the American System-Built Home project and gathering the history of our little piece of it. We interviewed former owners, searched through the Wright archives at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, compared notes with other ASBH owners and spent countless hours scrolling through blogs, websites and library records,” recalled Schreiber.