Vonnegut cottage restoration exemplifies historic preservation possibilities

Much has changed on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee since the heady days of the 19th century when the first cottages began appearing, especially on the east shore, which boasts many of the oldest such structures on the lake. One change is the demise of many of the most historic homes in the area (not to mention their replacement with often-massive, luxurious structures departing markedly from much of the historic architectural culture of the lake's storied past).

The people behind the renovation of one of the most historic houses on Maxinkuckee, at 814 East Shore Drive -- one of a row of three Vonnegut family cottages in the northern portion of the east shore -- made the decision to resist that trend with that property. It was an endeavor costly in time, labor, energy, and of course money, but one they felt well worth it.

Along the way, one worker on the project documented it in a photo-filled blog (www.pursuingnothing.com) and recently-published book ("Renovating Vonnegut" -- see accompanying article here: http://thepilotnews.com/content/new-book-vonnegut-house-restoration-offe...). The book, and conversation with many behind the scenes of the project, reveals that, while famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut was the initial draw to the house (his ancestors built it here some 130 years ago, and he wrote lovingly -- almost adoringly -- about his childhood summers on Lake Maxinkuckee on many occasions), the stories of many who settled here, and of course the lake itself, endeared in their own right.
According to the mission statement of the house and its investors,

"The Purpose of the Clemens Vonnegut Junior House is to provide a relaxing and enjoyable vacation retreat for our clients while preserving history, the environment, and the Lake Maxinkuckee lifestyle of old.”

(For a more detailed look into the Vonnegut family's legacy on Lake Maxinkuckee, see the accompanying article in this issue of The Culver Citizen).

One of the lead investors and visionaries behind the project, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Citizen: "I think there is something about what Kurt Vonnegut represented that made this house, even if it wasn't his primary house on the lake, too valuable to lose.

There are plenty of historic houses in danger of being torn down around the lake, and it's a fight of taste and economics, but there was something about the idea that if we couldn't save this house -- and we didn't fully understand how close the connection was to the famous author when we decided to do this; we just knew there was one -- but if we couldn't save a house with at least some significance, what chance did any other house have with just nostalgia for one or a few families?

"It's a short list of famous people with lake connections outside the Academy," he adds, listing Cole Porter, Lew Wallace, and Meredith Nicholson. "But many of these names are fading into history."

When the house's current owners, Old East Shore LLC, purchased it in 2012, it was near demolition. According to property manager Lindsey Pick, of Culver, and a handout distributed at a recent Indiana Landmarks tour of the property -- and Antiquarian and Historical Society gathering there last month -- "all plumbing, doorknobs, utilities, many of the major appliances, and even some of the decorative woodwork had been stripped by salvagers in anticipation of the house being demolished by a major local developer."

Once the house was purchased with renovation in mind, the initial assumption that only cosmetic upgrades would be needed fell victim to the painful reality that "a serious overhaul of the section of the house that had previously been winterized and expanded in the 1980's (the west facing end of house) needed to be undertaken."

A crew was assembled and work began in the early summer of 2013, including:

• Stabilizing the house from rot and five years of neglect.
• Shoring up, leveling and deepening of the foundation below the frost line.
• Hand digging of a two for crawl space through about 2/3 of the footprint where it did not exist.
• Replacement of rotten flooring for entire east side of home.
• Removal of pests and animal soiled insulation and wall materials.

The house was inherited with some resident raccoons sine the Vonneguts had been unable to sell the house for many years and left it to its own devices.

The "freethinking" Vonnegut family of the late 19th and early 20th century -- and not least of all Kurt Jr. himself -- might appreciate the number of "environmentally friendly" upgrades to the house, including:
• Insulation of geothermal heating and cooling system attached to a unico small vent blower system
• Icynene water based spray foam insulation throughout insulated part of the home.
• Insulated PEX plumbing system with no pipes running through exterior walls.
• Upgrade of windows to double pane where possible and not in conflict with the historic material.
• LED light bulbs in sockets where possible, but with light temperatures chosen to be appropriate for the space.
• Removal of a number of toxic creosoted railroad ties that were used for most of the landscaping of the home.
• Planting of native plants and shrubs from JF New in Walkerton, Indiana
Special care was taken, during the renovation process, to conform the work to historic standards and restore -- as much as renovate -- the space. Among specific endeavors within that context were:
• Revealed roof rafters in lake side of house.
• Milled and installed custom breadboard and flooring to match historic standards of construction.
• Removal of modem flooring and carpet and finishing of historic flooring.
• Installation of water closet high tank toilets.
• Installation of antique electrical interfaces.
• Purchase of period furniture (all handmade, mostly in Mennonite and Amish shops)

"Since all door handles, knobs and plumbing had been taken by salvagers, we have attempted to return as many as possible to the 1890 to 1920s feel/look with East lake style originals," notes the handout.
Renovators also purchased the salvage rights to an old home in nearby Monterey in order to utilize as many of the doors, windows, trim, and flooring as possible in 814 East Shore.

The project has come at a propitious time and has helped spark increasing dialog and discussion around issues of historic preservation -- as well as broader issues of the present and future culture of not only Lake Maxinkuckee, but the Culver as a whole.

In August, historic preservation organization Indiana Landmarks brought some 70 people to the area for a tour primarily focused on historic architecture, and the Vonnegut house was certainly a centerpiece, and arguably a visible example of the very real possibility of preserving historically significant structures, rather than razing them to make way for more modern ones which break from the aesthetic continuity of the area.

In September, the aforementioned Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver hosted Marshall County-based architectural historian Kurt Garner for a program on various means of making such preservation projects economically viable. In fact, that program took place in the Vonnegut house itself (detailed coverage of that talk and related matters will appear in the Culver Citizen in the near future).

Attention will surely be placed on the issue again next year, when a long-planned "historic walking tour" publication guiding locals and visitors around the Culver, Lake Maxinkuckee, and Culver Academies areas, is published.

In the meantime, the house at 814 East Shore isn't merely a private monument to the endeavor to restore it; it's also available for rental by the week or week-end (and it sleeps up to 16 comfortably).

Our anonymous Old East Shore LLC leader notes that, "(Kurt Vonnegut Jr's) impact can be felt within a generation or two of any kid who sails the lake or attends the Academies. It went beyond that too, to what he represented. He was a complex guy…and controversy aside, if he represented anything, he represented a skepticism that was embraced by four generations of Americans from his fellow Greatest Generation veteran peers, the lost generation behind him that tried to find a voice for its frustrations and dark perspectives overshadowed by their veteran older brothers, to Boomers for whom he symbolized a rejection of Societal authority and war, to Generation X who embraced his mental questioning of the roles of family and human behavior.

"...If you know the history, it can be there in the back of your mind even if you are blasting around on an inner tube, or having a drink on a dock, that there is a history of perspective here on this lake, of skepticism, and of a reticence to judge, a desire to understand experience no matter how dark, which is part of the Hoosier experience, and the national experience.

"In a funny way, it's more than just a house...it's a history of ideas that is being preserved, but don't get me wrong, it's a nice (darn) house too."

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Learn more about the history of the Vonnegut family on Lake Maxinkuckee here: http://thepilotnews.com/content/culver-vonnegut-legacy-much-deeper-famou...