St. Margaret's Hospital Guild is honored to be a part of the 2017 celebration called the "Year of Vonnegut," by presenting the childhood home of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as the organization's 56th Annual Decorators' Show House and Gardens. Construction of the residence began in 1922 and was completed in 1923 by the author's architect father, Kurt Vonnegut Sr. The home was built expressly for his own family. They included his wife, Edith Lieber Vonnegut, and their three children, Bernard, Alice, and Kurt Jr. Kurt Vonnegut Sr. carried on the architectural firm that had been founded in 1888 by his father, Bernard Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the celebrated author, playwright, artist, lecturer, and humanitarian, resided in the 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. Her grand-uncle, Herman Lieber, operated a picture-framing and art supply store, 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 today as 4401 North Illinois Street, when it was built, the original address assigned to it by the City of Indianapolis was 4365 North Illinois Street. It was known as 4365 for nearly four decades. The propery's third owners changed the address to 4401 in the early 1960s, which required their neighbors to the north to relinquish the address; the house to the north then became 4411.
Construction of the 5,907-square-foot residence began in the fall of 1922. In filing for the building permit, 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 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 and 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 some English Country and English Tudor vernacular resulted in the exterior’s having a somewhat eclectic appearance. Since Vonnegut built the home for his own family, he may not have felt any constraints in choosing to incorporate 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 are built are too narrow for the combined widths of the entrance and more formal areas 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 to position 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 stained-glass windows that were incorporated into the home’s front entrance. The entry door window contains the letter V wrapped around the letters K & E (for Kurt and Edith Vonnegut) and the date 1923 (for the year the home was completed). Three windows alongside the front door contain the letters B, A, and K (for the 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 front and back stairways provides alternatives for access to and from the second floor. The front stairs, near the front door, living room, and dining room, were finished more elegantly and probably originally intended for use by adults and guests. The back stairs, easily accessed from the kitchen, back door, and garage, were more utilitarian and probably originally intended for use by children and domestic help.
The Vonneguts resided in the property from 1923 until 1938. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s, Kurt Sr.’s work as an architect declined, as few people had the money to build new homes or businesses. Too reduce their cost of living, the Vonneguts purchased a smaller home on West 42nd Street, just two blocks from their Illinois Street home. Interestingly, the sellers of the property that the Vonneguts bought in 1938 were the buyers of the Vonneguts' residence. The families traded homes.
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. The Clarks resided in the home from 1938 to 1961.
Architect Evans Woollen III and Nancy Sewell Woollen and their sons, Ian and Malcolm, were the third family to occupy the home. Like the Vonneguts, the Woollen family was well-established, having settled in Indianapolis in 1835. Evans’ 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. 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.
It was during the Woollens’ residency that 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 to the north, 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, thereby creating a dramatic two-story-high living room and eliminating 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 about 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 home are Paul L. Walton, M.D., his wife Cheryl H. Walton, and their son George. Dr. Walton is a highly respected 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.
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.