Home Of The Month: Midcentury Makeover

A Bloomington home blends atomic era style with contemporary tastes.
Photo by Sarah Shields

MIDCENTURY modern design is everywhere in Bloomington. In fact, split-level and ranch-style homes are as common in the suburbs near Indiana University as the unbothered neighborhood deer you see crisscrossing property lines and gazing in wonder at passersby on city sidewalks.

Today, a newly renovated midcentury modern home stands out among the rest. Originally built in 1958, the house is dressed to the nines in limestone (the same material famously used to build the Empire State Building and the Pentagon) and inhabits one of the city’s older subdivisions.

Susannah Gray bought the home in summer 2020. A Bloomington native, she and her husband lived out of state at the time. When they decided to purchase property in Indiana, Gray sought a landing pad to help her readjust to her hometown. The house is a stone’s throw from her dad’s place and about two miles from the IU campus. Most of the lots in the area are still an acre or more, a nice blend of townhome meets countryside—just the sort of place someone might want after living in a larger metropolis.

“I spent the first half of my life wanting to get out of Bloomington,” Gray recalls. “I wanted to live in a big city, but now that I’m a bit older, there’s something very pleasant about Bloomington, with everything it has [and] at the pace it offers.” Gray’s story isn’t unusual. Locals call Bloomington a “boomerang town”—people who move away tend to come back eventually.

Coincidentally, Gray’s connection to the property has deep roots. “When we pulled up to the curb, my sister Julie says, ‘That’s the Martins’ place.’” It turns out, the house is the former home of their mom’s best friend. As a kid, Gray played there. The nostalgia factor and its small footprint prompted Gray and her husband to buy the home, which was virtually untouched. It had been occupied by only one other owner aside from the Martins. The Martins had made an addition to the original floor plan to connect the garage to the main house, then the subsequent owner put on a second addition and flipped the house without altering the interiors. Though still true to its original design, the house felt like a labyrinth brimming with outdated features. Exhibits A and B: the purple shag carpet in the basement and the wall paneling located almost everywhere else.

Photo by Sarah Shields

For help reimagining the abode, Gray’s sister suggested reaching out to an expert designer: the owner and creative director of Susan Yeley Homes in Bloomington. Yeley and her team are known for their clean, crisp modern designs. So, who better to transform Gray’s new mid-mod digs?

Like her client, Yeley also made her way back to Bloomington after living elsewhere. And surprisingly, the two had sort of crossed paths. “It’s such a Bloomington story because there are so many dots that connected me to Susannah,” Yeley explains.

When Yeley was an undergrad, she took a theater course being audited by IU trustee P.A. Mack, and the two became friends afterward. After undergrad, a winding path led Yeley to a high-profile career in interior design, which eventually prompted Mack to establish a scholarship in her name at the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture, and Design. Years later, over coffee and a piece of pie, Gray’s sister Julie interviewed Yeley and Mack for a university publication, and another few years after that, Julie connected her sister to Yeley. “It all felt so kismet,” says Gray.

Yeley needed a little convincing to take on Gray as a client. “She was really busy working on other projects, and I told her, ‘This is a great house. You’re really going to have fun with it,’” says Gray. When the two women finally collaborated, they viewed house renovations similarly: They wanted to give nods to the home’s history but didn’t feel the need to preserve or recreate it in the strictest terms. This wasn’t the Frost House in Michigan City or the Miller House in Columbus—though Yeley and her staff did tour the latter for design inspiration.

The team used midcentury design as a guiding principle but turned to different aesthetic styles and eras for inspiration. This explains the colorful monkey tile in the laundry room. The tile was handmade by Good Press Ceramics in Seattle and was inspired by the Milton Bradley Barrel of Monkeys game. “I like monkeys. They’re a little bit cheeky, and it’s nice to have a space that isn’t serious,” says Gray. “It’s not a museum—it’s a house and should have a sense of humor.”

Photo by Sarah Shields

The creative team included general contractor Rusty Peterson, “another classic Bloomingtonian,” says Gray. “He went here for school and loved it so much he stayed.” Peterson clad much of the home’s interior in white oak, a material that recalls the original wood paneling but invokes a muted warmth. It has a fresher vibe than the old paneling and can be readily found in the ever-popular modern farmhouse and trending cottage-style dwellings. The oak they chose was rift sawn (cut so that is has a very straight grain pattern) and sourced in Bloomington. “The paneling extends well beyond the living room and is picked up in custom cabinetry in unpaneled rooms,” says Yeley. “All of it—paneling and cabinetry, and the floating basement stairs, too—was made by one local man.”

Even the home’s lighting is a mix of older and newer styles. Pieces by mid-century European lighting greats like Lelli, Ingrand, Adnet, Henningsen, and Bitossi rub elbows with recent styles by Fornasetti, Teixidó, and Wearstler.

For Yeley, great design is always a mashup. “I come from a background in literature and words more than design,” she explains. “I do design to tell a story—and a story has lots of different players.”

For example, a white club chair in the corner of the primary bedroom is an updated Edward Wormley Cube chair. “It was designed for and built by Dunbar, a company based right here in Indiana, in the mid-20th century and reupholstered in a Holland & Sherry wool by our local one-couple upholstery team,” Yeley says. “I struggle to use words to apply to the designs we come up with. I don’t like to pigeonhole.”

But perhaps more importantly than bridging the gap between midcentury and modern design, the Bloomington house also encompasses the overlap between midcentury and contemporary approaches to living. In the atomic era, when midcentury modern designs were being created, it was all about working with a smaller footprint and bringing the outdoors inside. The Covid-19 pandemic and recent increases in inflation and the cost of living have forced contemporary homeowners to revisit the same aesthetic and space considerations.

Photo by Sarah Shields

The design and building team enlarged two of the home’s bathrooms, converted one of the bedrooms into a study, reworked the kitchen to feel more open, and copied the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the house in the primary bedroom, recreating the same look at the rear of the home. The emphasis was on maximizing space and reconnecting with nature. A landscaper revitalized the outdoor spaces and built a patio alongside the primary bedroom to further create a seamless transition between indoors and outside.

The newly reimagined midcentury-modern abode is also a lesson in sustainability. Yeley mentions climate change as an increasingly critical concern that may impact design choices. “I think we’re going to have to start reconsidering footprint again. And maybe not be quite so lavish about our use of space,” she says.

At 2,500 square feet, the house isn’t a sprawling one, though it still has three bedrooms and three baths, all carefully revamped for a modern family. “It’s not large, but it feels like a little jewel box now,” Yeley says. “It feels so soft, calm, and welcoming, and, in a very Midwestern way, very unassuming—even though a lot went into its creation.