When a young couple first spotted this abandoned Alcoa aluminum house in Southfield, they tried to hide their excitement from the other potential homebuyers. They called their real estate agent immediately and asked how long it would take for her to get there. They also asked how long it would take to put in an offer.
Designed by Charles Goodman, only about two dozen Alcoa Care-Free aluminum homes were built in the late 1950s, including two in Michigan. They were playful and durable, with minimum maintenance required from their owners. Jewel tones like teal, green, purple, and gold were used in fixtures, cabinetry, and exteriors.
This particular home had only had one owner, but years of hoarding led to oil-soaked carpeting, engine parts and machinery all over the house, and cigarette soot that needed to be scrubbed out of the ceiling.
Yet the design-minded couple—she works in advertising, he’s a car designer for Ford—knew how special the house was, and that it could be their dream home.
On the hunt for a midcentury house, the two zeroed in on the Southfield/Birmingham district, which they knew had quite a few. The listing for the house didn’t even have photos, and when they drove up, the couple could barely see the house behind all the brush. Worse still, when they went in, they felt like the other people viewing it could be flippers, looking to tear down and build on such a big lot in a highly coveted area.
They put in an offer $1,000 over asking.
The house had been abandoned for about six years, but the couple wanted to move in quickly. They cleaned out the home, then contracted for two rooms—a bedroom and bathroom—so they could go ahead and move in. Finding a contractor was difficult, since most people they talked to wanted to rip out materials and throw up some drywall. But once they found someone, the real work started.
While the couple used the bedroom and bathroom, the rest of the house was demoed. Base materials were retained as much as possible. Kitchen cabinets were taken out, sandblasted, and repainted.
They also took out some overhead cabinetry—which made the galley kitchen feel claustrophobic—and repurposed them in a closet. Using many of the home’s original materials, they brightened the space with new colors: They passed on concrete countertops once they found a Formica style that felt true to the original.
The couple considered different types of flooring—wood, concrete—and chose a thick vinyl, which not only stayed true to the home, but felt right for their dogs.
To address heating and cooling—sometimes an issue in a midcentury house clad with large windows—the couple balanced a combination of heavy canvas window blinds, a new HVAC system, and insulation to create a comfortable space for Michigan’s cold winters and hot summers. The blinds they installed help with privacy, temperature, and light control.
“We replaced the original furnace with one of the most high-efficiency furnaces,” says one of the owners, “then central air conditioning at the time of purchase to force air into the window-length heat and cooling registers that line all the glass throughout the house. You’ll see them at the base of all the glazing elements.”
The couple went back and forth on many large and small design decisions, but a few reminders kept them moving forward. These houses were marketed in the ’50s as “care-free.” The couple reminded themselves that the redesign couldn’t be too opulent; it had to be practical.
“It’s not a luxury home. It’s a middle-class home in a middle-class community. It has to be sensible,” says the car designer. The purple exterior tested their sensibilities and taste, but they found ways to make it an accent of the house, rather than a polarizing focal point.
While contractors handled most of the big projects, the owners tackled many smaller projects: Their nights and summers were taken up during the restoration, but they always kept their target budget in mind. Staying true to the design and intent of these rare homes helped, too.
They “mildly modified” the bathrooms, again brightening up some duller colors. They kept the original Formica, but used white instead of blue. They also put a shower in one and a bath in the other and added energy-efficient updates to each.
As they near completion—it’s been five years, but there are still some final details to work out—they have to move away. Ford is transplanting them, and the couple will embark on a three-year adventure. The house will be leased, and they say that, depending on the new tenant, work could continue or they could finish when they return.