The Schweiss House: Bernoudy-Mutrux’s Parallelogram Dwelling

by Michael R. Allen

The Schweiss House, located at 4 Daniel Road in Ladue, is one of two diminutive houses on geometric modules completed in 1952 by the master modern firm Bernoudy-Mutrux. The other house is the triangular Pinkney House in Columbia, Missouri. (The firm’s Simms House, also from 1952, is based on a parallelogram grid but is not a small house.) William A. Bernoudy and Edouard J. Mutrux’s partnership had formed in 1946 and would last until 1965, with Henry Bauer added as partner in 1955. Together, the pair explored the use of parallelogram and triangular modular layouts for Modern Movement homes both small and large. The partnership’s work in applying geometric modules was inspired partially by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Usonian Houses, which include the Kraus House at Ebsworth Park (1949-1955) that dramatically employed a cross plan of parallelogram grids. As with the Kraus House, here the clients would do much of the construction work themselves.

Photograph of the floor plan.

Sculptor Ruth Schweiss, who had trained at Washington University and Cranbrook, and her industrial executive husband Frank, commissioned the architects to design the house in 1951. Bernoudy seems to be primary designer, but both architects worked on the plan and detailing of the 1,000 square foot, one-story small house. For the Schweiss House, the plan uses a parallelogram grid of modules with 60-degree and 120-degree angles. The effect and the use of red brick masonry, exposed wooden roof structure, concrete floors, provision of studio space for one of the owners and car port combine to give the house a strong formal connection to the Kraus House. Another connection is the use of natural ventilation, such as small French windows and vents in the flue that remove hot air from the house.

Looking at the car port.

While the two-story Pinkney House employs a hemicycle plan with an open center, the one-story Schweiss House zones public and private spaces through a central core tower containing the hearth, the bathroom and the laundry area. The joined living and kitchen areas share a tall window bank that wraps the corner of the house, which sits under irregular low-pitched, canted gable roofs. The studio enjoys the building’s most dramatically articulated bank of transomed windows.

Looking up toward the studio windows from the driveway.

The design responds to the natural contour of the house site by placing the car port seven steps below the house floor level. The rise upward through the roof forms from the port to the studio area is sweeping and poetic. Inside, the parallelogram grid is reinforced through brass strips that interrupt the green polished concrete floor, which ties the interior world to the lovely lawn outside.

Today, the Schweiss House sits empty after the current owners halted renovation. The owners accomplished a lot of work, however — new plumbing installation, bathroom and kitchen gutting and wiring repair. Remaining tasks include installation of kitchen and bathroom fixtures, HVAC system replacement and painting. The home may attract the attention of an owner who would follow the growing number of examples of sensitive renovations of smaller Modern houses in St. Louis. For example, the Schweiss House’s contemporary Harry Hammerman House (1952, Harry Hammerman), located at 219 Graybridge Road in Ladue, faced a similar uncertain future until architect Ray Simon purchased and renovated it in 2007. Rising energy costs and acknowledgment of the solid construction of small Modern houses have combined to raise a new generation of appreciative owners. The Schweiss House may benefit.

I wrote a version of the preceding text for a Modern STL open house event held on June 14, 2012.

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  • Ann Wimsatt

    According to the docents at Ebsworth Park, Bernoudy served as one of the ‘supervising’ architects for Frank Lloyd Wright’s parallelogram design for the Kraus House.

    Wright’s house is a stunning piece of architecture, utterly compelling by today’s standards.  

    The Schweiss house is a weak imitation.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    I have no doubt that Bernoudy’s Schweiss House draws heavily on the Kraus House program, but it also applies a similar solution to a near-exact client program. Bernoudy was one of the original Taliesin fellows and learned a lot about Wright’s philosophy directly. His work is more interpretive than imitative, and the Schweiss House exemplifies that tendency. So while it is not “original” — a term that actually can’t be applied to the Kraus House either given its relationship to earlier Wright houses — it is a fine work on its own.

  • dsinks

    I Love this little house. My heart aches because I know I would never be able to afford any of Bernoudy’s Houses.