Mid-century modern work highlighted in Duluth home tour

The Hart House at 1545 Skyline Drive soon after construction was completed in 1952. The Chester Bowl ski jump can be seen in the background to the left of the house. (Photo courtesy of Aethan Hart)

The legendary Frank Lloyd Wright may not have been the architect but his influence is all over a striking little house tucked into a wooded lot just around the bend from Chester Park.

Known as the Hart house, the property at 1545 Skyline Parkway will be one of six featured homes in the 2022 Duluth Preservation Alliance Historic Properties Tour beginning at 11 am Sunday, Sept. 18. The annual event allows ticket holders to roam around inside some of the most beautiful homes in the city, this year featuring a collection of unusual mid-century modern works.

“Historic homes are among the most common museums in the country. Every home out there tells a story of a family that was part of the community and shines a light on their lives,” said Duluth Preservation Alliance President Blake Romenesko. “Unfortunately, our group cannot record and share the legacy of every home in Duluth, but our tour gives us the opportunity to offer a sampling of the stories that can be discovered in our neighborhoods.”

A young Aethan Hart poses in front of his family home, which featured a now-removed upper level deck. (Photo courtesy Aethan Hart).

Artist Viola Hart and her husband Avon Hart, a Downtown Duluth audio-visual store owner, purchased the property above Skyline Drive and built the house in 1952. Robert Warn served as the architect. It was his first commission after studying at Wright’s Taliesin school of architecture.

“The original floor plan was 22 x 22 feet, which is like the size of a garage nowadays,” said Aethan Hart, who was raised in the house. The lower level is where the bedrooms were. There was my parent’s bedroom and then I slept, basically, in a closet.”

Additions were completed twice in the 1960s to give the family more space. Features like redwood siding, large bay windows and a sharp-angled roofline made the house distinctive but it was a narrow 3-foot-wide deck across the front that generated a neighborhood nickname.

“It was referred to as the chicken coop,” said Hart. His father had installed wire fencing below the deck railings to prevent a young Aethan from falling through the openings some 10-feet below into the yard.

Hart said the house was chronically short on closet space and his mother did not like the kitchen layout but the family made improvements. For example, a Duluth police officer, working as a carpenter, installed Honduran mahogany kitchen cabinets and a 1967 addition added art studio space and a garage.

“Chester Bowl was our backyard,” said Hart. “My mother and I would walk up that road to the ski jumps. There was nothing there then and we would take a toboggan and slide down all the way to our house.”

Viola Hart died in 1984. Avon Hart died in 1995 and the house was sold in 1996. Two owners later, Trilby Busch purchased the property in 2018.

Trilby Busch poses with her dog Viggo in the front yard of her home. (Photo by Mark Nicklawske)

Busch said the house had lost its narrow front deck and suffered from deferred maintenance but she fell in love with it right away.

“I was so lucky to get this house,” she said. “I wanted a small house and this is just the perfect retirement house.”

Busch and her husband had restored and lived in a 13-room, three-story Victorian home in Uptown Minneapolis for decades. Fed up with big city problems, she decided to move to Duluth. Busch knew older houses posed all kinds of building and repair issues, but she couldn’t pass up living in a house connected to Frank Lloyd Wright.

A bathroom was gutted and remodeled, the house exterior was repainted in its original redwood color and some interior rooms saw all new paint and wallpaper. Busch decorated the space with her eclectic antique collection, moved a 1924 Gabler piano into the living room and purchased a mid-century modern dining table.

A 1924 Gabler piano serves as a living room centerpiece.

After attending a class on Wright’s work in Chicago, Busch learned about his five principles for good home design:

  • An entryway with a sense of compression
  • A large, open living space
  • A fireplace at the center of the home
  • An abundance of natural light
  • A functioning lower level — or as Busch put it: “No sadistic basement.”

“This house has all five of those things,” she said. “(The Harts) hired Warn because they wanted a Frank Lloyd Wright kind of jazzy, modern house. This is one of his Usonian houses that were for the common man … woman.”

As a special tour feature, Busch will have Aethan Hart hang three of his mother’s modern art paintings throughout the house.

Viola Hart painted this family portrait sometime around 1960. Three of her works will be on display at her former home during the Historic Properties Tour.

Romenesko said the Duluth Preservation Alliance is eager to show off local mid-century modern highlights. He called it “uncharted territory” in Duluth.

“The idea that the modernity of the post-World War II era as being ‘historic’ is a relatively new phenomenon; especially in a city that is defined by the old brick and brownstone of our boomtown years,” he said. “We have been wanting to feature mid-century modern properties for a few years and this was the year where we finally made the jump.”

Other homes included in the tour are:

  • Walter & Edna Johnson House, 219 S. 26th Ave. E.
  • Marvin Gollinger House, 1955 Hartley Road
  • Dudley & Elizabeth Russell House, 2700 Minnesota Ave.
  • Lewis & Gwendolyn Erickson House, 3328 E. Superior St.
  • William & Mary LaRue House, 2131 E. Second St.

Tickets are available for $25 and allow access to all six properties. For more information visit duluthpreservation.org.

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