2017 Decorators’ Show House and Gardens
by Chris Bavender
From the huge furnace in the basement—affectionately dubbed Big Bertha—to the soaring two-story ceiling, Juliet balcony, and curved, built-in bench-style sitting area in the living room, the 2017 St. Margaret’s Hospital Guild Decorators’ Show House and Gardens is one with plenty of character and history.
The home at 4401 N. Illinois isn’t just any house; it’s the childhood home of author, artist, and playwright Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who lived there until he was 15. His architect father, Kurt Sr., built it for the family, which included Kurt Jr.’s mother, Edith, and two siblings, Bernard and Alice.
“Two years ago during the Show House, a visitor said she owned this home and would be happy for us to use it. But we had one already for 2016,” said Kerry Caito, president of St. Margaret’s Hospital Guild. “She came again last year and asked if we wanted to come and take a look at it. We had one in the works but came to see this and fell in love with the house and the history.”
Coincidentally, the decision to feature the Vonnegut house coincided with the City naming 2017 the “Year of Vonnegut” in recognition of the 10th anniversary of his death.
“Most people don’t know Vonnegut lived there as a child. The various owners have been mostly private about the home. It is not zoned for commercial use so it could not be a public space,” said Julia Whitehead, founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. “That’s another reason why people need to take this opportunity to view the home through the Decorators’ Show House. It’s a unique opportunity to see the home and hear stories about the Vonnegut family.”
Construction on the Arts & Crafts home started in the fall of 1922 and finished in the spring of 1923. An unusual aspect of the home is that, unlike most other homes on the block, it does not face the street. Rather, the front door faces south, while the back door and garage doors face north. The exterior of the home is primarily brick, with a slate roof and copper gutters and downspouts. Most of the main and second floor windows are leaded glass, and stained glass windows are featured as part of the front entrance.
“What I love about this house is the craftsmanship and that in a way it is a step back in time,” said Guild member and design chair Joan Hilger. “It is just a beautiful home that pays homage to history.”
The house also features oak floors, ceramic tile, mahogany woodwork, and leaded glass interior doors. A staircase near the front door and living room was most likely used by adults and guests, Hilger said, while the back stairs near the kitchen were most likely used by the children and domestic help.
Another unique aspect—and a subtle clue to the home’s original residents—is the entry door window, which has the letter V wrapped around the letters K and E, for Kurt and Edith, and the date 1923. Three windows alongside the front door have the letters B, A, and K for the children.
“I am hearing from designers that the house is creating a buzz. I’ve had designers fighting to get into the house, and the reason was because of Vonnegut,” Hilger said. “I hear painters talking about it too. ‘Man, did you know Kurt Vonnegut lived here?’ It’s interesting to hear since it is a younger crew and demographic.”
“I think also the recent publications by Dan Wakefield about Kurt Vonnegut’s works have contributed to the heightened awareness,” said Guild co-chair Mary Holland. “I did not realize Vonnegut was so big in the city. I knew he was popular but did not know how popular.”
Fellow co-chair Ellen Brethauer agrees that Vonnegut’s popularity is increasing. “I think a few years ago, when the Vonnegut Library started and then Ball State students came down and did a project, it just blew up,” Brethauer said. “It brought to life Vonnegut even more so.”
‘In its purest form still’
The current owners bought the home in 2008 and live there with their youngest child. They had no idea when they first bought the house that it was Vonnegut’s childhood home. “It was on the market and they pulled it off,” Caito said. “They have huge commitment to the home and the history of it. They wanted to make sure whoever did anything to it was a good steward of the home.”
The owners have converted the former coal bin into a wine cellar, refinished floors, and updated a third-floor bathroom. They’ve also added a new master bath and laundry room on the second floor.
The Guild works with the homeowners on what they’d like to see in the house. The homeowners usually move out for at least a four-month period. In this case, because some remodeling was involved, they allowed the Guild to start the work in July 2016.
“This one is really interesting because they may put it back on the market to try to sell it afterward. It really is in its purest form still—nothing has been altered footprint-wise with the exception of the living room ceiling. They have not changed a lot, just upgraded it a bit,” Hilger said. “So we addressed what a future buyer might like as well as what the homeowner now would like. We are going to redo the kitchen—it was a bit institutional—and upgrade floors to add more square footage.” Other changes include changing the basement from a storage area to an inviting place to hang out. The attic is being transformed into a cheerful bonus room featuring lots of natural light.
Show House designers tour the home to see what rooms they want to bid on. Once the homeowner moves out, the work begins. This year there are 26 design areas with one or more designers, and two designers for the outdoor areas.
“This is their calling card, so the vision of this house was to upgrade it but stay true to history so if Mr. Vonnegut—not Kurt but Mr. Vonnegut, who designed the home—came in he would be like ‘I get that,’” Hilger said.
The Vonnegut Library helped provide background on Vonnegut, but Whitehead wished he were still alive to answer questions about the home. “I had been in the home before but we were able to tour the home under construction, and while we did not make recommendations on the design, we absolutely provided answers to their questions. The design work in that home is extraordinary,” she said. “We want this event to be successful for St. Margaret’s Guild, so you’ll see us on hand during those weeks to support them in whatever ways we can. It’s a great opportunity for us, also, to be in front of people who may not have found us if it had not been for this opportunity to tour Vonnegut’s childhood home. And it is so beautiful . . . visitors are going to love it.”
Tickets and related events
One hundred percent of the proceeds from the Decorators’ Show House benefit Eskenazi Health programs and services. Many of the items in the home are for sale, with designers donating a portion of the sales to the Guild. Landscape designers will have a list of items for sale in their outdoor areas. Visitors can also browse the Show House Shops or grab a bite to eat at Maggie’s Café.
This year’s Decorators’ Show House kicks off with the Taste !ndy event on Thursday, April 27. From 4 to 6 p.m. you can wind your way through the Vonnegut home on an exclusive tour. Then, from 6 to 9 p.m., you can meet the designers and enjoy specialty tastes from area restaurants and caterers with complimentary beer and wine at the Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St. Tickets are $75 per person.
The 56th annual St. Margaret’s Guild Decorators’ Show House opens at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 29, and runs through May 14. Tour hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the home closed on Mondays. Parking is available on Illinois Street, Capitol Avenue, and adjacent side streets.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 2 through 12. Children under 2 are admitted free. Tickets can be purchased for $18 in advance at Sullivan’s Hardware and Ethan Allen. Guild members sell tickets in advance for $15. Group rates are available online. For tickets and more information, including a complete list of events, visit showhouseindy.org
Chris Bavender is a freelance writer in SoBro with more than 20 years’ experience as a print and broadcast journalist. Follow her on Twitter @chris_bavender and Instagram @chris_bavender.
Chris adapted historical and architectural information for this article from St. Margaret’s Guild materials written by Guild member Sharon Butsch Freeland.