January 28, 2013

[Interview] Elizabeth Ellsworth, Maven of Midcentury Modern

  • By: David Weible

Elizabeth Ellsworth stands in front of her Bimel Kehm house. Credit: Elizabeth Ellsworth

After retiring from a career as a marketing executive, Elizabeth Ellsworth began buying and restoring once-beautiful homes that had been tarnished by lack of maintenance or improper additions. In late 2012, she purchased the Island House. Built in 1954, it’s one of three residences designed by Bimel Kehm in New Canaan, Connecticut.

I called Elizabeth to get the skinny on the talented but enigmatic architect, her love for the house, and her restoration work.

What did you think when you first saw the house?

I thought I was going to have to put way more money into it than I would ever get out of it. So my first thought was not to do it. But I kept coming back because it was so beautiful and it had been so well preserved in its fundamental nature.

Did you know right away that it was a Kehm house?

I noticed that it was physically stunning and very much in the style of Midcentury Modern. It was all pumice block, enormous fireplaces, fourteen-foot ceilings and just walls of glass. And it was also on a remarkable piece of real estate.

We learned from some old marketing materials from the ‘60s or ‘70s that it had been designed by Bimel Kehm. And then I saw two other Kehm homes in New Canaan but [they] have been really dramatically altered. So I was so excited to find this one that was still so pure.

Photo of the rear of Island House (Bimel Kehm), c. 1960s. Credit: New Canaan Historic Society
The rear of Island House, c. 1960s.

So what’s the story with Kehm?

There isn't a great deal about him. He was born in 1907 and he was from Ohio. I think he fancied himself first a sculptor and second an architect. I think he found in his architecture a way to express his love of form and function. And to my knowledge, he’s only done residences.

He had a very good eye for positioning his buildings on sites that were really naturally beautiful with water or hillside views. And he had these orientations that lead you to just have these sun flooded rooms. This house in particular had natural light in every single room.

He died in 1996 at the age of 89. I know he has some sculptures still left out there, but in terms of architecture it seems to be just New Canaan and Ohio.

What about this house makes it stand out?

It’s very angular. It’s kind of a set of squares. He designed it so that the public and private areas were very distinct. You basically have your bedrooms, your bathrooms, and your study in one half of the house, and then you have this large L-shaped great room, and then the kitchen and dining room combined.

[He had a] kind of modern way of thinking about the kitchen and the dining room -- completely integrated, which was fairly radical I think for the '50s.

For a house that’s less than 3,000 square feet, it feels really, really large because he’s designed it with all of these nooks and crannies so you feel like you’ve got multiple rooms even though they all flow so seamlessly together.

Original town field card drawing from plan. Credit: New Canaan Historic Society
Original town field card drawing from plan.

What are your plans for the restoration?

I’m replacing the roof -- leaving it as it had been designed but reinforcing it structurally and putting a green roof on that. I also removed all of the 1960s and 1970s molding and wood paneling and things like that that really didn't work with the house. [For the kitchen] I’m using some reclaimed ambrosia maple that has that kind of zebra quality to it. I’m doing very simple cabinetry that’s appropriate for the time period.

I’m really trying to update it for families or couples who respect the architecture, but I’m [also] trying to put in some modern touches because I think that’s what people who love this kind of architecture would enjoy.

View of the bridge over the river to reach Island House. Credit: Elizabeth Ellsworth
View of the bridge over the river to reach Island House.

Did Kehm ever live in the house?

What we've been able to ascertain is that they built the larger Kehm house [nearby, then] built this Island House and moved in. And then it was sold onto other interesting people including Jack Douglas who was a writer for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and was a TV personality. He actually wrote a book called The Neighbors are Scaring My Wolf about life in New Canaan at the time and all the drinking parties.

What do you love most about this place?

The proportions are such that no matter what room you’re in it feels well-sized and well-lit. There’s something really special about it, and I’m quite sure I’m not only going to not make money on this venture, I’m quite sure I’m going to lose money, but for me it’s a labor of love, it’s beautiful and to be able to preserve it is exciting.

Edited for content and clarity

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

Join us for PastForward Online 2021, the historic preservation event of the year, November 2-5, 2021.

Tell Me More!