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House on the hill is perfectly preserved in

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Aiming4   Monday, 03/16/09 12:27:31 AM
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House on the hill is perfectly preserved in 1956



The Formenti boys grew up in a basement with concrete floors, an old slop sink and an exposed ceiling. Up a short flight of stairs, there was a spotless white kitchen, thick wool carpeting and a fully furnished two-bedroom home. But their parents had decided it was just too lavish for the family's everyday living. "Mostly, mom just wanted to keep everything nice for company," said Drew Formenti, 44, of St. Louis.

The modest, frame house from the 1950s, set in a row of tract houses in the Hill neighborhood, is a perfectly preserved relic of a bygone era. When the grown boys recently decided it was time to move their father into an assisted living home, they put their childhood house on the market.

The first real estate agent advised clearing out the bungalow, updating the kitchen and bathroom and getting rid of the dated draperies. But real estate agent Christopher Thiemet ended up with the listing and said its throwback style would be its selling point.

Perhaps in reaction to the current consumption culture, there is a growing desire for the workmanship and sustainability of the past. Retro is the new green living.

The "time capsule home" drew a cult following on various websites, and the boys who grew up in its basement decided to open the doors to those wanting to peek into the past.

Walking into the '50s

Elvis made his debut on national television, and "I Love Lucy" was one of the country's favorite programs. Families would gather to watch Edward R. Murrow deliver news on a black-and-white set.

But at 2204 Stephen Drive, the television set was largely off-limits.

The white Republic Steel cabinets stored company china and silverware. The Formica laminate countertop unused. A black, rotary dial phone hung on the kitchen wall. The original Magic Chef stove had been used exactly 28 times to cook 28 Thanksgiving turkeys. The rest of the meals were cooked in the basement.

On Christmas mornings, the three boys and their parents would venture into the formal living room. They would walk only on the patchwork carpet samples laid like hopscotch squares on top of the pristine carpeting. The furniture was covered in plastic, and the lampshades still had their original inventory tags hanging on the inside.

They would wait for Uncle Herman and Aunt Mary, the relatives who had helped their parents buy the house in 1956 for $15,000. It was one of the few times a year the family would sit together upstairs. And as soon as the company left, they moved back to the 1,000-square-foot basement.

It was not such an usual living arrangment for first-generation immigrant families back then, who wanted to keep their newly acquired piece of the American Dream as shiny and new as possible. Frank Formenti immigrated to St. Louis from Italy, and Elizabeth Bergroschtje had come from Germany. Her family was originally from Yugoslavia and ended up in a concentration camp during World War II. She lost her brother and mother in the camp, and Elizabeth came to the U.S. in her mid-20s alone.
She met Frank in an English class in St. Louis. They married, moved into the house on the Hill and raised three boys there.

There isn't a scratch, nick or dent on any of the furniture or wood floors. "We just didn't know any better," said Dave Formenti, 50, of Ballwin. "We knew we shouldn't be upstairs."

They didn't have their own rooms downstairs, just large metal desks for each of them and clothing rods to hang their clothes. They were allowed to sleep in their upstairs bedrooms at night, and in the winters they could bathe in the pink-and-gray mosaic tiled "company" bathroom.

When Pam Kueber, who writes a retro renovations blog out of her Lennox, Mass., home, heard about the house, she posted the information on her website and helped organize a home tour for local mid-century enthusiasts.

"The house is so special, we wanted to see it first-hand," she wrote in an e-mail. "We call these 'time capsule' homes and love to study their every detail so that we can replicate or restore them in our own mid-century homes."

She says interest in these types of home is increasing. She also launched a site devoted to saving pink bathrooms, which new owners may be tempted to gut and update. Web traffic to her sites has doubled in the past four months.

The tour Linda Sass lives in a University City home built in 1917 and still uses a 1958 Thermador.

She was one of a dozen people who showed up for the tour and was amazed by the care that went into perserving the home.
She says she is drawn to the quality and care that went into the building and furniture from that time period.

"Every purchase was a deliberate purchase. There was a lot of thought to form and function."

Another visitor explained her attraction to the house: "It's from an era of the '50s wife, the post-war, surreal happiness. It makes me smile to see things from the '50s," said Michelle Kodner, 42, a corporate trainer who runs a fan site for midcentury modern treasures in St. Louis.

Thiemet, of Circa Properties, pointed out that aluminum had been taped over the window frames, so the sun would not bake and warp the wood. When he saw the house, he was moved by the devotion to maintaining something that had been so simple, "so unispired" in its time.

He loved that Elizabeth appreciated it like she did.

The house actually sold for the list price — $129,900 — the day before it was entered into MLS listings. Thiemet showed a buyer the home before it officially went on the market. The buyer wanted to buy it "as is" furniture included (which he got). And even asked if he could have the clothes hanging in the closets (which he didn't get).

The visitors on the tour took off their shoes at the entry to protect the spotless carpet.

Dave Formenti says he has other friends who remember growing up in basements for the same reasons. It seemed normal back then. But when he gave the tour upstairs, Dave kept his shoes on.

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