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St. Louis Magazine
Winter 2005

By Laurel Lecht

Photography by
Anne Matheis

Into the Woods

Designed by a dean of the Washington University School of Architecture, this woodland house had fallen into disrepair before these owners moved in.

Paul and Shari Bussmann describe a walk through their home as a relaxing hike on a nature trail. Their 2-year-old daughter, Ava, unknowingly adds to that ambiance.

"Fly, I'm a bird!" she sings while flapping her arms and bouncing on her bed. "Fly, fly, fly, fly!"

Along with the chirps coming from her bedroom, tokens of nature inside and outside the house help set the scene. A curvy branch extends from floor to ceiling in the kitchen. Layers of leaves and branches outside are the only covering for the windows and glass doors throughout the house; they shelter it from neighboring homes and the street.

The bustle of Manchester Road is just a mile away, but from this perch among the trees in Warson Woods, it seems like a place from another lifetime.

"When you come in from the road, you don't have a sense of what's up here," Paul says, remembering the first time he saw the house. "Coming into the house and stepping onto the deck, seeing the pond with a little dappled light, it was more about the context of the house than it was the house itself."

The house, of course, has had its great woodsy location since Buford Pickens, dean of the Washington University School of Architecture from 1953 to 1956, erected it in the '50s with a team of students. The traditional furnishings of the original owner, however, along with the drywall and popcorn ceilings popular during that period, prevented the home from working closely with nature.

Shari remembers being attracted to the "good, modern bones" of the house and its potential to open up to its natural surroundings.

"We realized how closed up a lot of houses are," she says. "The windows are smaller and you feel very indoors in a home. In our house, because there are windows everywhere and we're close to nature—there are trees right next to the house—it seems as if we're outdoors even when we're indoors."


Dr. Phil's Rx for Renovation Success

Expect the unexpected.

Whether working on a house that's 50 years old or just five, you're sure to discover a glitch or aspect that the original architectural team might not have done quite right.

"There's no problem that you shuld expect," says architect Phil Durham, "But any time you do a renovation, especially a major renovation – a lot of it depends on the era of the house – you're always going to run into conditions that are unknown. You should always be prepared for surprises."

Durham recommends homeowners have at least a 20 percent contingency fund during a major renovation "just to cover surprises." He says this is an important detail to remember "because you're going to find something. You just have no idea what it's going to be."

Learning Her ABCs

What's the story behind the block letters displayed along Paul and Shari Bussman's ceiling? Teaching tools for 2-year-old daughter Ava?

"During the renovmation, when we ripped out the ceiling, it so happened that I was counting the number of little alcoves, and curiously, there were 26 of them," says Paul., who owns a graphic design business with his wife. "Well, an immediate siren went off, because in design, typography is so foundational: color, type, visual image, etc. And I love type, so we began populating those little nooks with letters of the alphabet. So we keep our eyes open for them now."

"And," Shari adds with a laugh, "our friends keep their eyes open for them now, too."

Brilliant. Steal it.

Architect Phil Durham says that "a big wall of glass" is a typical feature of modern homes. "One of the first things you want to look at is the relationship of the house with the land, because all these houses depend on glass walls that have relationships to views or a sense of transparency," Durham says.

Windows already covered most of the walls in the Bussmanns' home when the couple first found it. During the renovation, however, they added even more glass, including sheets framing the staircase.

Paul and Sharie agree that these short glass walls made one of the most dramatic changes to the home, linking the front of the house to the back and the nature on both sides.