Home Tour: Terrace Park couple try to brush Toilet Bowl label from their International Style house

'I've always wanted to live in a cool house'
Home Tour: Terrace Park couple try to brush Toilet Bowl label from their International Style house
Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-11 05:00:46-05

TERRACE PARK, Ohio -- Chris and Ali Webster might not hear anyone call their home the Toilet Bowl House anymore -- not after about 200 of their neighbors got inside it during the village's Oct. 16 home tour.

Sure, part of the 1941 white, concrete-block place still has the shape of a porcelain throne. But ever since the Websters lengthened the house with an architecturally seamless two-story addition, replaced all the steel casement windows, added a yellow-portal front door and gave it a bright white paint job, it hardly seems to be a worthy target of bathroom humor.

When 50-year-old Cincinnati concrete construction foreman Donald Hopkins designed and built the International Style house at Stanton and Floral avenues to share with his wife, Edna Mae Schwein, he probably knew it would stand out among the all-American homes in tree-lined Terrace Park.

Its rounded, Stanton Avenue end and curved glass-block windows could have earned it a nicer nickname, such as Bull-nosed Block House. But it's unlikely Hopkins foresaw the Toilet Bowl House reference his future neighbors would use.

"Everybody knows it as the Toilet Bowl House. I like to call it the Boat House, the Ship House or the SS Stanton," said Chris, an experienced electrician and all-around tool guy who mostly worked alone on the home, while his interior designer wife designed the decor.

It was a huge project and took the better part of 2012 and 2013 to complete. The Websters, who remodeled three homes together in Boulder, Colorado, stayed positive knowing they were restoring a gem.

"A lot of neighborhood people had never seen it inside," Chris said. "It's not your typical house in any way. People wanted to get a peek inside."

The general reaction from those who toured it was very positive, he said. "I can't count the number of people who took me aside and said, 'We're so thankful you saved it.' It would have been on the chopping block."

Uncommon architecture

International Style homes are rare. The Rauh House in Woodlawn, which was designed by Cincinnati architect John Becker in 1938 and recently won the Cincinnati Preservation Association a prestigious national award, is one of the first two of its kind built in the United States.

The Websters' house is comparable, but Chris said its modern architectural curves place it in a subcategory known as "streamline," a mid-century term more commonly applied to moving objects such as automobiles and trains than stationary buildings.

When the Websters -- he's from Connecticut, she's from Florida with immediate family in Greater Cincinnati -- defied their real-estate agent's advice and became the house's third owners in 2011, its most modern feature might have been the mold growing on its interior walls. The house's overall age and lack of consistent maintenance created a multitude of other challenges, but the couple was up for all of them.

"The plan was that I would do as much as I could do until we ran out of money, and then I'd go back to work," said Chris. He had been an electrician with a custom-home builder in Colorado -- which is where he met Ali -- before they decided to move to Terrace Park to be close to her mother.

"It took the better part of two years," said Chris, who owns a small tool business here.

They installed new septic, electrical and interior-air systems, redid floors, reconfigured the foyer, converted a back porch into an all-modern kitchen and a single-car garage into a studio/family room, added a 10-by- 28-foot screened back porch and replaced casement windows with a sliding door to the porch from the dining room.

The biggest project, however, was the addition of a three-car garage with an open deck and a master-bedroom suite above it. Not only did the Websters add 1,000 square feet to the old 1,400-square-foot house, they created an oasis just for them: a spacious bedroom full of natural light, a designer bathroom with extra-large glass and tile shower, a walk-through closet, and a laundry room with ample storage and a folding counter.

In love with light

Once construction ended, decorating became the focus. Ali took charge and mixed mid-century modern reproduction furnishings with some vintage and heirloom pieces, carefully placing pops of color throughout the house.

She picked a variety of paint colors, which included pink and blue for her daughter and son's rooms. Downstairs, however, none of her choices seemed appropriate.

"It wants to be white," she said. "This house does speak to you. It tells you when it doesn't like what you're doing."

In the Webster house, white means light, lots of light, and the home's many windows, especially the glass-block ones, are Ali's favorite feature. That affection, she said, came as a complete surprise.

"I grew up in Florida, where there was glass block everywhere, especially in bathrooms," Ali said. "If you'd asked me at first, I would have told you I hate it. But in this house, it is used appropriately."

The interior designer in her comes out when she points out how unusual and practical the curved block windows are in the living room. The outside of the blocks have vertically etched lines and the inside lines are horizontal, creating a checkerboard effect that diffuses light in a special way and blocks their view of traffic on Stanton Avenue.

"It just feels happy to me," Ali said.

Take the tour

To the left as visitors enter the Webster house is one of the streamlined features: a rounded glass-block window that's visible from Floral Avenue and contrasts with the blocky facade. Straight ahead are stairs that turn right at the landing as well as an opening to the dining room.

To the right is a powder room and door to the studio/family room that features a long table Chris built to be the couple's computer station, an electronic keyboard, a play area and magnetic bulletin boards on which to tack art crafted by the kids. A second office room door accesses the former kitchen the Websters equipped with built-in shelves and use as their mudroom.

Back in the foyer, guests will be most tempted to move to the left of the front door into the bull-nosed living room. It's a curved-step down from the rest of the house and features the original concrete flooring the Websters had stained a glossy charcoal.

The glass-block windows dominate the room, but it also features a gas fireplace with a marble surround and rounded, composite hearth that's painted yellow. A modern metal sculpture of a flock of birds over the mantel casts shadows created by a spotlight in the ceiling.

Open to the living room is the all-new kitchen that Ali designed. Its white cabinets by Michaelson Homes of Milford and marble-like, gray-veined quartzite countertops blend with the 1940s style of the house. The backsplash made of white penny porcelain tile adds texture. A chandelier Chris made of a cluster of 19 clear glass bulbs dangles above the kitchen island.

The back-of-the-house kitchen opens up into the dining room, which features a long table with vintage chrome and composite school chairs and a reproduction of a 1958 Poul Henningsen artichoke pendant light.

A mighty elm tree

The backyard of the double-sized lot proved to be a challenge for the Websters' expansion plans. If it weren't for the proximity of a 100-year-old elm tree to the back of the house, Chris said, they might have expanded it in that direction. As it is, the screened porch they added almost abuts the tree.

That big elm is one of about 10 mature trees on the property and paramount to having fun in the family's backyard. It supports three swings and a zip line that descends to the kids' trampoline in the far back corner.

That yard, the house's closeness to the kids' school and the Little Miami Scenic Trail, and the friendliness of the neighbors, the Websters said, make Donald Hopkins' house an idyllic place to raise a family. They said they plan to stay in Terrace Park for a long time.

"After all the work Chris went through on this house, he was, like, 'We're not selling,'" Ali said.

"I've always wanted to live in a cool house. I love it now. Even our kids think it's cool. All my friends who have a bigger house and a better basement know we live in a special house."

About the builder

The International Style house was designed and built by Donald Hopkins in 1941. Hopkins (1891-1987) was a World War I veteran and a foreman with Ferro-Concrete Construction, a Cincinnati company once located at Third and Elm streets.

In 1902, Ferro was contracted by architects Elzner & Anderson to build the world's first reinforced-concrete skyscraper, the Ingalls Building, at Fourth and Vine streets Downtown. Hopkins was a boy at that time, but the 1910 Census shows he was working in concrete at age 18. It is likely he helped Ferro build the Cincinnati Masonic Center on East Fifth Street in 1926 and the Times Star Building at Eighth Street and Broadway in 1933.

These experiences exposed Hopkins to skilled designers and builders, and his lessons paid off when he built his home in Terrace Park.