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The Globe and Mail

A Waterloo couple mad for mid-century modern

The first hint is the minimalist landscaping.

Next, the slim, brushed-metal house numbers, followed by an original front door sporting a tidy column of square windows against a jaunty lime-green backdrop.

But push the doorbell and four muffled, familiar notes – "Meet-the-Jet-sons" – twinkle inside.

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Meet the Stadus family of Waterloo: R.J., Mary, both 44, and Monty, a two-year-old Norwich terrier; more dedicated mid-century modern aficionados would be difficult to find in southwestern Ontario.

While this story begins with how they rescued this 1956 house in Waterloo's desirable Westmount neighbourhood from decades of neglect, it doesn't end there.

"I used to jog past this house all the time," says Mr. Stadus, who, in 2005, lived about a kilometre away in an early-eighties "faux colonial" that was big enough to house the couple's marketing business and extended visits from family members, plus featured "certain rooms I would go into every few weeks and think 'Oh, I haven't seen this room in a while,'" he said.

The couple was drawn, however, to the smaller 1956 house's clean lines, low profile and gentle placement on the large lot so when the "For Sale" sign appeared, they immediately arranged to get inside. Halfway through their walkthrough, they decided to purchase, despite the growing list of projects they'd tallied inside and the wildly overgrown English garden outside.

They didn't waste any time: "When the [old] owners were driving out when we took possession, we had our landscaper drive up behind them," he laughs. Everything, except the two mature trees in front yard, was carted away. "We bought a bunch of old Sunset magazines from the period and said, 'Okay, how would they have landscaped it back in the day?' "

They read articles by the esteemed American landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who studied under Bauhaus master Walter Gropius at Harvard in the late 1930s.

They sweated the small stuff, too: the "curlicue things" sandwiched between the three sets of twin posts holding up the covered walkway to the front door were sacrificed to the Modernist Gods – "That was a happy day," jokes Ms. Stadus – and unattractive house numbers were jettisoned.

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Inside, everything except the kitchen – which wasn't to their taste but had been renovated so recently they didn't have the heart to tear it out – was brought back to the studs. Failing windows were replaced, bathrooms renovated, and the second-largest bedroom was converted to a dressing room complete with vanity. Hulking ductwork in the walkout basement was replaced to gain ceiling height so the couple could place their business there.

Much of the furniture was replaced with mid-century classics – an Isamu Noguchi coffee table, a Saarinen dining set, a teak bed – and a local artist was commissioned to create a large painting inspired by Karl Benjamin's work for the living room. At some point after that, the Jetsons doorbell was installed.

Dedication. Modernist gods appeased. But that's nothing compared to what came next.

A neighbour revealed his wife had grown up in the house; even better, he offered to arrange for his mother-in-law to visit, since she'd had the house built and could answer many questions. "And we were all over that," says Ms. Stadus .

It took a year to arrange, but when the octogenarian came over, the couple learned a lot more than which rooms had been kids' bedrooms and the colour of carpeting: They learned the house had been built from plans purchased from Better Homes & Gardens in 1955 … or thereabouts.

They went to the library to search for the little advertisement she must have clipped. Hours, patience and reels of microfiche were exhausted. Eyes grew bleary. And then they saw it.

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The house was the cover story. The accompanying article, "The house of seven children … and tranquil parents," placed the original home in Golden Valley, Minn., and named Carl Graffunder, who also studied under Gropius, as architect. Needless to say, when they got home they hit eBay for the issue; it now hangs in their basement hallway.

That's not all. Mr. Graffunder was still alive, so they wrote him a letter, which began: "We're writing to tell you that we live in a house you designed and we love it!" Three months later, during breakfast, the phone rang; the 90-something architect took Mr. Stadus by surprise: "It's like when you're in high school and your date comes to the door and you're not ready," he says, feigning panic.

While he "missed all kinds of opportunities to ask him some great questions," a detailed letter arrived from Mr. Graffunder's daughter, Sybil, a little while later. Also an architect, she told the couple of her father's "primary influences," which were "the work of Antonin Raymond and Japanese architecture." She compared the magazine house with their Waterloo version and set their minds at ease on some points, concluding with: "It's been fun writing about these things."

That was a few years ago.

Last week, members of Waterloo's municipal heritage committee visited. They think the house might be a shoo-in for designation. If so, it'll be Waterloo's first mid-century modern listing.

"We see what's going on in the neighbourhood with some of these houses," Mr. Stadus said. "The character of the neighbourhood is beginning to get lost, and that really saddens us."

Modernist gods happy.

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