St. Margaret's Hospital Guild is honored to be a part of the 2017 celebration that has been designated as the "Year of Vonnegut," by presenting the childhood home of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as the organization's 56th annual Decorators' Show House and Gardens. The residence was built by Kurt's father, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., expressly for the family, which included his wife, Edith Lieber Vonnegut, and the couple's three children, Bernard, Alice, and Kurt Jr. Kurt Vonnegut Sr. was at that time head of the architectural firm that had been founded in 1888 by his father, Bernard Vonnegut, who died in 1908. Bernard's father, Clemens Vonnegut, was the founder of a chain of successful hardware stores in 1852. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the celebrated author, playwright, artist, lecturer, and humanitarian, resided in the subject home from the time that he was just a few months old until he was 15 years old.
Members of Edith Vonnegut's family were also prominent citizens in the community. Edith’s father, Albert Lieber, was the owner of the Indianapolis Brewing Company. His was a highly successful business from its founding in 1887, until Prohibition shuttered its doors in 1920. Edith's grand-uncle, Herman Lieber, operated a picture-framing and art supply store on West Washington Street, which evolved into an art gallery that exhibited many now-famous Hoosier artists. Edith’s cousin, Richard Lieber, was the founder of the Indiana State Parks system.
Although the Vonnegut home is known as 4401 North Illinois Street today, at the time it was built, its address was 4365 North Illinois Street. The address remained 4365 for nearly four decades. The property's third owners changed the address to 4401 in the early 1960s. This modification required the cooperation of their neighbors to the north, who had to relinquish their home's original address of 4401. Construction of the 5,907-square-foot residence began in the fall of 1922. In filing for the building permit from the city, Kurt Sr. had to provide a figure for the projected cost of construction. He estimated that the four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home, with finished attic, unfinished basement, and a two-car attached garage, would cost about $25,000 to build. Using an inflation calculator, that figure would be about $360,000 in 2017 dollars. However, the land on which the dwelling was built was already owned by the Vonneguts prior to construction of the home and was not included in the estimate of construction cost. The lot is 100 feet by 300 feet, more than two-thirds of an acre. The residence was completed by the spring of 1923.
With its simplicity and clean lines, the building primarily presents an Arts & Crafts architectural style. However, the incorporation of English Country and English Tudor vernacular resulted in the exterior’s having a somewhat eclectic appearance. Since Vonnegut built the home for himself and his family, he may not have felt any constraints in choosing to incorporate various features that he himself liked that were not strictly from one period of architecture or in one style of architecture.
An unusual aspect of the structure is its placement on the lot. Most homes face the street, unless the lots on which they were built are too narrow for the combined widths of an entrance and the more formal entertainment areas of the first floor to fit within the width of the building site. The Vonnegut house was positioned with its front door facing south and its back door and garage doors facing north; thus, the side of the house is oriented towards the street. Since the lot is adequate to accommodate the width of the house, Mr. Vonnegut must have had some other reason for deciding for positioning the residence as he did.
The exterior façade of the home is primarily brick, with a few areas of painted half-timbers and stuccoed walls. The roof is slate, and the gutters and downspouts are copper. Most of the windows on the main and second floors are leaded glass. Of special note are several stained-glass windows that were incorporated into the home’s front entrance. The window in the entry door of the home contains the letter V wrapped around the letters K & E (for Kurt and Edith), and the date 1923 (for the year in which the home was completed). Three windows east of the front door contain the letters B, A, and K (for the three Vonnegut children, Bernard, Alice, and Kurt).
Inside the house, the details and materials used by Kurt Sr. were clearly in the Arts & Crafts tradition. Many of the original components remain today. Mahogany woodwork, oak floors, ceramic tile, and leaded glass interior doors can be found throughout the home. An unusual arrangement of elevated front and back stairways provides alternatives for access to and from the second floor. The front stairs, which are near the front door, living room, and dining room, were finished more elegantly and were probably originally intended for use by adults and guests. The back stairs, readily accessed from the kitchen, back door, and garage, are more utilitarian and were probably originally intended for use by children and domestic help.
The Vonneguts resided in the property from early in 1923 until mid-1938. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s, Kurt Sr.’s work as an architect declined. Few people had the money to hire an architect to build a new home or a new commercial building during the Thirties. To reduce their cost of living, the Vonneguts purchased a smaller home at 49 West 42nd Street, just two blocks south of their Illinois Street home. Their time in the home on 42nd Street is not mentioned in most autobiographical pieces about Kurt's life. However, it was during the family's residence in the 42nd Street home that Kurt Jr. began to develop the talents he would employ as an adult. Among his many activities during his junior and senior years at Shortridge High School were serving on the student council, chairing a Junior Vaudeville act, and working as editor of the Tuesday edition of the Shortridge Daily Echo newspaper. He was a member of the Student Council, Drama League, Press Club, R.O.T.C., and the band. It was also during the family's residency on 42nd Street that Kurt made the decision to enroll in Cornell University, one of the most respected universities in the country.
Interestingly, the sellers of the property that the Vonneguts bought in 1938 were also the buyers of the Vonneguts' residence. The family with whom the Vonneguts traded homes were Robert W. and Margaret B. Clark and their two children, William and Ann. Robert Clark was Chairman of the Board of Merchants Property Insurance Co., a family-owned company that continues today. The Clarks resided in the Illinois Street home from 1938 to 1961.
The third family to occupy the home were the architect Evans Woollen III, his wife, Nancy Sewell Woollen, and their sons, Ian and Malcolm. Like the Vonneguts, the Woollen family was well-known, having settled in Indianapolis in 1835. Mr. Woollen’s great-grandfather, Conrad Baker, was the 15th Governor of Indiana. Although Evans III’s work was often controversial, he is nonetheless considered one of Indianapolis’ most important architects. Mr. Woollen designed Clowes Memorial Hall, Barton Towers, the Minton-Capehart Federal Building, and the addition to the Indianapolis Public Library, to name only a handful of his many projects.
During the Woollens’ residency, two significant changes were made to the property. First, at the Woollens’ request, the address of the home was changed from 4365 North Illinois Street to 4401 North Illinois Street. This revision required the cooperation of the Woollens’ next-door-neighbors, the Usher family, as 4401 was their address. The second change was the removal of the ceiling of the home’s living room, which was also the floor of the master bedroom above it. This alteration thereby created a dramatic, open, two-story-high living room and completely eliminated the home’s original master bedroom.
The fourth owners of the home were Ronald B. Covin and Janet Nielson Covin. Ron came to Indianapolis from New York to be the executive vice president of the women’s clothing store, Paul Harris. The Covins lived in the home for only a year. During their ownership, they replaced the original 1923 kitchen with a new kitchen.
In 1987, marketing mavens Vaughn B. Hickman and Melissa Stone Hickman became the home’s fifth owners. The couple owned Hickman and Associates, an award-winning advertising and public relations agency. The firm was founded in 1968 by Vaughn. He was chairman of the company, and Melissa was its president. Hickman and Associates closed its doors in 2009, after 41 years in business, so that Vaughn could enjoy his retirement years.
The current stewards of the Vonnegut-built home are Paul L. Walton, M.D., his wife Cheryl H. Walton, and their son George. Dr. Walton is a highly respected, nationally recognized ophthalmologist. The Waltons purchased the home in 2008. One of the improvements made in the early years of the Waltons’ ownership was the conversion of the former coal bin into a wine cellar. They also refinished all of the hardwood floors and updated the bath on the third level of the home. More recently, the Waltons have installed a new kitchen on the main level and a new master bath, new closet, and new laundry room on the second level. The house now awaits additional improvements by the interior designers and landscape designers.
St. Margaret’s Hospital Guild extends its heartfelt appreciation to the present owners of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s childhood home for partnering with the Guild in the 2017 Decorators’ Show House and Gardens. It has truly been a pleasure to work with the Waltons.
The history of the property and its owners was researched by
St. Margaret's Hospital Guild member, Sharon Butsch Freeland.