Knocking Down History

The Salisbury House Foundation was founded in 1993 to preserve, interpret and share Salisbury House for the educational and cultural benefit of the public. Implicit in this mission is a role we have embraced since our inception as caretakers of the Weeks Family history: not just for Carl and Edith (who built the house in the 1920s), but for their forebears, their four sons and their later descendants. (Social media has proven an incredible asset in this latter regard, as we have connected with many Weeks grandchildren via our Facebook page). In 2012, we received a Historical Resource Development Grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa specifically to research and interpret Weeks family history, so we have spent much of the past year delving deep into local and remote archives to better tell the story of this remarkable family.

Of Carl and Edith’s four sons, only their third — Evert Deyet “Hud” Weeks — spent the majority of his life in Des Moines. Hud was born in 1912 and attended Hubbell Elementary and Roosevelt High School, where he was a state record breaking swimmer. He graduated from Wharton College at the University of Pennsylvania in 1934 and returned to Des Moines to help manage Carl’s business empire through the difficult days of the Depression. Hud served as a Naval Aviator in the South Pacific during World War II, then again returned to Des Moines and the family business, eventually becoming President of Weeks & Leo by 1954. Hud held this position until his retirement in 1986, at which point the business passed out the Weeks Family’s management and ownership.

nellieandhud

Nellie and Hud Weeks, 1938. (Photo courtesy Cooper Weeks).

Hud was an avid outdoorsman, pilot and speedboat racer. He married Ellen “Nellie” Cooper — the daughter of legendary speedboater Jack “Pop” Cooper and a record setting racer in her own right — in 1938, and the young couple moved into the gardener’s cottage at Salisbury House (now our Visitors Center and Gift Shop) by 1940. Around 1950, Carl and Edith Weeks subdivided their original Salisbury House property to produce a 2.5 acre lot at the western end, separated from the main house by a deep ravine, for Hud and his family (now including son Cooper and daughter Barbara) to build their own home, a task to which Hud applied his usual exuberance and creative elan.

The Hud Weeks home at 4111 Tonawanda Drive was a custom design that incorporated elements of two prefabricated Lustron Homes around a central atrium, with a large indoor swimming pool at its south end. Lustron Homes were viewed as an affordable and innovative solution to the post World War II housing crisis, and production of the distinctive porcelain enamel clad structures began in 1948 — then ended in 1950 when production problems and corruption scandals led to the dissolution of the company after about 2,700 homes had been manufactured and shipped. Only about 1,500 of them were still known to be standing by 2008.

Hud and Nellie lived in their double-wide Lustron Home on the knoll next to Salisbury House (visible from Hud’s boyhood bedroom) until 1988, when they sold 4111 Tonawanda Drive to the Muelhaupt family and retired to the Barbican Condominiums on Grand Avenue. The couple later relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, to be near their son, Cooper. Nellie passed away in 1995, and Hud followed her seven years later, the last of Carl and Edith’s surviving sons.

Fast forward to the present. Just before I became the Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation in April 2012, Chuck Muelhaupt — who had lived in Hud’s former home for 24 years at that point — passed away. Several months later, his widow put the house on the market.

Front view of 4111 Tonawanda Drive, showing the two Lustron Home elements (left and right) integrated into the custom home.

Front view of 4111 Tonawanda Drive, showing the two Lustron Home elements (left and right) integrated into the custom home.

In a perfect world of unlimited resources, Salisbury House Foundation would have snapped up 4111 Tonawanda Drive right away at that point, restoring Hud’s home and the land to our holdings, thereby improving our ability to preserve and tell the Weeks Family story. Of course, the reality is that we live in an imperfect world, and our financial position was (and remains) precarious to the point where we must strive mightily just to maintain the property we already own.

Despite a sympathetic donor making a very generous and gracious offer on our behalf, we simply did not have the financial wherewithal to acquire, refurbish, maintain and operate an additional house, garage, pool and 2.5 acres of land when time the opportunity presented itself to us. As Chief Executive of our corporation, I could not in good conscience recommend to our Board that we encumber ourselves with additional debt to acquire Hud’s home, as such a path could have quickly put Salisbury House itself at grave risk.

And, thus, the property was sold to a private developer in late 2012.

While we knew the developer planned to divide the 2.5 acre lot into two parcels, we were heartened when the plans he presented to the City’s Planning and Zoning Commission on January 3, 2013 noted that the existing single family dwelling would be retained, with only the pool house structure being demolished. The City approved the plans, and this gave us hope that we might, at some point in the future, still have the opportunity to acquire (most of) Hud’s home, and at least a part of his land.

Pool house at the south end of Hud and Nellie Weeks' former home.

Pool at the south end of Hud and Nellie Weeks’ home.

We watched over the ensuing weeks as a variety of contractors (including asbestos remediation crews) worked on Hud’s home, presumably preparing for the grading of the new lot and the demolition of the pool house. We saw nothing that caused us any alarm regarding our new neighbor and his intentions.

Yesterday morning, I had a doctor’s appointment, so I arrived at Salisbury House around 9:40, two and half hours later than my normal early bird tendencies get me here. Literally, as I opened my car door, I heard a tremendous smashing sound, and looked west . . . just in time to see a huge backhoe drive straight into Hud’s house with its arm swinging. The garage had already been knocked down at this point, and the Lustron and atrium portions of the house were flattened in less than 30 minutes, the prefabricated materials easily scattered by the power of the backhoe’s arm. Only the pool house remained.

Quick calls to the Des Moines Historical Society and to City offices revealed that the developer had filed a demolition permit that morning, and that the backhoe began its unfortunate work within minutes of the approval being received. Des Moines Historical Society volunteers arrived quickly, and were firmly asked to leave the property. We allowed them to document the demolition from our side of the ravine. At about 8:00 this morning, the backhoe went into action again, and we watched the pool house being flattened, leaving the top of the hill bare. By 8:20 AM, February 15, 2013, nothing remained standing from the home that Hud and Nellie Weeks had built next to Salisbury House.

Needless to say, we’re shocked and saddened by this turn of events. While the house had no formal standing as a historic property, and many Lustron buffs (often purists, like classic car collectors) would have dismissed it as a “modification,” rather than a true, collectible Lustron Home, it was an important part of the Salisbury House and Weeks Family stories, and it deserved a more noble end than it received. While we fully understand and accept that the developer fairly acquired an unprotected 60-year old residence on the open market after we were unable to do so, we were surprised at the rapidity with which his stated plans evolved, and the easy acquiescence he encountered from the City of Des Moines in the face of such changes.

While the end result may have been the same regardless of what Salisbury House Foundation, Des Moines Historical Society, Salisbury Oaks Neighborhood Association or any other aggrieved parties said or did — in private or in front of television cameras or reporters’ clipboards — our own historic mission would have been greatly served had we been at least given one last chance to photograph the property thoroughly before it was demolished. One hour of time, literally, would have made a difference in our ability to tell the full stories of Hud and Nellie Weeks and the Salisbury House property, and it’s tragic that we were not accorded that opportunity on behalf of our community, as an important piece of Des Moines’ history is now being hauled away in dumpsters, having not been property recorded for history’s sake.

In a nutshell, this is why historic preservation work is so important, and so deserving of your financial support. The Salisbury House Foundation was founded, explicitly, to counter present or future threats to the sanctity of the property and its collections, and to this day we work diligently to ensure that no other Weeks Family property ever leaves these grounds, or suffers from abuse, neglect, or lack of maintenance. Sadly, our mission did not include the acquisition and preservation of the land that Carl gifted to his third son, and the house that Hud built there, so when the limited time window opened for us to acquire it, we did not have the means to do so. Such are the challenges in the imperfect world of nonprofit public service.

But, still, even as we mourn the destruction of Hud and Nellie’s home, we feel that it is important to celebrate the lives that were lived there, happily, with great humor and warmth. We know from numerous sources that 4111 Tonawanda Drive was the site of many amazing parties, and many great family gatherings, and that Hud and Nellie and their children were important, beloved members of our community. And so we would love to hear from you if you have memories, photos or stories about Hud and Nellie’s time in their uniquely futurist home on the hill, so that we can record them for posterity’s sake, and share them with others who may also be mourning the destruction of this property.

You can either post your thoughts and memories in the comments below, or you can contact our Curator and Director of Education Leo Landis via e-mail here to share photos, stories, documents or anything else related to 4111 Tonawanda Drive or Salisbury House. Thank you for your ongoing support through this difficult development, and please take a look around your own neighborhood soon to assess whether there are historic preservation needs there requiring your attention and support!

About J. Eric Smith
Writer, Speaker, Trainer, Planner, Manager.

34 Responses to Knocking Down History

  1. Robyn says:

    This has been very eloquently written and while it is a sad story, this post will also serve as a strong representation of the care that went into preserving its history – whatever could be done given the situation. Cheers!

  2. desmoinesdem says:

    How awful. Iowans need to be more aware of the value of historic preservation. I had no idea any of this was going on. If you would be willing to cross-post this piece at Bleeding Heartland, I would be happy to put the diary on the front page. It only takes a minute to register for an account at http://www.bleedingheartland.com

  3. psm002 says:

    Talk about burying the lead.. this article should be rewritten.

    • We’re not professional journalists, sorry. Feel free to ask our local print media to write it up properly on our behalf.

      Though they generally spell it “lede,” just for the record . . .

  4. Sara says:

    I own a Lustron; so I’m double sad about this. Not only is it sad the history was destroyed, but also the parts are being sent to the landfill. When my house breaks I can’t go to the local hardware store to get a fix. There is a community of Lustron owners that work together to find homes being disassembeled and sold for parts to keep our homes in good order.

    This particular home was very unique in that it was 2 homes put together. My understanding is the interior was largely modified, and didn’t really resemble the original home, but the outside was in great condition. The garage alone was a treasure I would have LOVED to purchase and relocate to my property.

    If you are looking for photos, I believe this home was photographed and featured in the Style magazine that accompanies the Des Moines register.

    • Thanks, Sara. We knew the panels were valuable to other Lustron owners . . . it was painful to watch them being crushed and then dumped unceremoniously into the dumpsters. Thanks for the lead on the Style photos . . . we will investigate.

      • Carole Nimitz says:

        Hi. I also own a lustron, but in Marion, IN. So sorry to hear of this, just terrible. It really is ashame that you all couldn’t purchase the property, but I totally understand with it being such a large price. The City of Des Moines sure is at fault here for putting its demolition on the fast track! God Bless.

  5. Cathy Kemper says:

    I fully appreciate (and share) your feelings of anger, sadness and frustration at the demolition of Hud’s former home. A sense of fairness, however, compels me to ask what attempts were made over the last few years to photograph and document the property, particularly once it was clear that SHF could not acquire it. It seems that it would not have been unreasonable to seek permission from the estate to do so.

    • We waited until after Mrs. Muelhaupt put the property on the market, out of respect for the passing of her husband, before requesting a viewing late last summer. We asked the realtor to keep us in the loop if an offer was made, but we did not receive such notification, and it was not until late November that we knew the house was out of our reach. The formal plan and approval for the re-zoning was in early January . . . and we did not feel a burning sense of urgency after that point based on the stated intentions for the property in the zoning plan, and also on conversations between the developer and a member of our Board. We had been talking internally how and when best to engage our new neighbor within the past week (about a month after we thought we knew what was going on over there) . . . never imagining that the house would be gone before we ever exchanged a word with him, and still hoping someday that we might buy it ourselves.

  6. Joni Madsen says:

    Very sad to read this news. I am a teacher and have brought many students to the Salisbury House and always loved to see Hud’s house on the knoll. I can only imagine what it was like for you and your professional and caring staff this morning. History must be preserved. Thank you for your ongoing mission in keeping the Salisbury Foundation a true educational experience.

  7. ruthrawls says:

    Reblogged this on Ruthrawls's Blog.

  8. Michael O says:

    It would have been nice if they would have offered to piece this home out. This is an outrage! I live in a Lustron and more and more, developers are knocking these homes down with utter disregard…Our government did pretty much the same at Quantico, and now this.

  9. Jen says:

    Thank you for sharing this well-written story. We appreciate all that your organization does to preserve, interpret, and educate.

  10. Tricia Sandahl says:

    Thank you for posting this story. It’s a tragedy. At a minimum the house should have been salvaged and recycled to the greatest extent possible. I visited Salisbury House during the National Main Street conference several years ago and our guide spoke at length about Hud’s house. Even though it wasn’t a part of your property, it was clear it was important to your staff. I really wish that Mason City had an ordinance protecting our historic architecture.

    • Thanks for thoughtful and kind reply, Tricia. I know it has been a struggle in Mason City to preserve some of your truly world-class architecture there . . . though happy that many of the prairie school homes and the Park Inn Hotel managed to dodge the wrecking ball . . .

  11. Aw man! There was a donor?! There was potential to have a double-Lustron Museum?

    • We had a donor who was willing to underwrite a significant portion of the house, but it was under contract to the developer (unbeknown to us) before we could take advantage of the gift to raise the remainder of the funds.

      • Home Explorer says:

        It would have been an incredibly odd and rich place to visit. I wish, oh how I wish. Thanks for this written account. Are there any original photos of the Lustron from the 50s when it was new?

  12. We are in touch with Hud’s son, Cooper, who has been really generous about sharing his old family photos with us, so I am hopeful that he may have some . . .

  13. Hi ERIC, I AM SUZANNE SENNEFF WEEKS-BRADY, ORIGINALLY FROM MASON CITY,WHERE LAFE AND I WERE MARRIED. WE THEN DROVE DOWN TO SALISBURY HOUSE FOR OUR WEDDING NIGHT, IN THE QUEEN ANNE SUITE……NEXT AM WE WENT TO HUD AND NELLIE’S FOR BRUNCH,.. THEN ON TO ACAPULCO ,MEXICO FOR A VERY LONG HONEYMOON. THEN TO CALIFORNIA, NEAR CHARLIE( OLDEST BRO).SPENT ALL OF OUR MARRIED LIFE IN THE PARADISE STATE AND RAISED 7 CHILDREN. LAFE AND I VISITED DES MOINES OFTEN AND KEPT UP WITH HUD AND NELLIE.
    SO VERY SAD TO SEE THEIR HOUSE GO…ALONG MANY HAPPY MEMORIES, TEARS….COOP AND BARB.

    • Hi Suzanne . . . thank you for a wonderful note, we appreciate it very much! I have spoken to Cooper and Barbara this week, too, though I hated to be a bearer of bad tidings. I am glad that they didn’t have to watch it being knocked down, the way we did. Terrible. We’re very grateful for the history, news and stories that all of the Weeks family members are willing to share with us to this day. We are always happy to see you on Facebook or here, and we would always welcome you back to the House whenever you are able to travel to visit!

  14. I post the following note sent to us by Hud and Nellie Weeks’ children, Cooper Weeks and Barb Phinney . . . . with thanks to them both for sharing their thoughts on the destruction of their home:

    ****************

    It is with great sadness and regret that my brother and I have learned of the untimely destruction of our childhood home of 40 years on the wooded property at 4111 Tonawanda Drive, adjacent to the Salisbury House and Gardens Museum, which was built by our grandparents, Carl and Edith Weeks.

    We understand from the Salisbury House Foundation, the Des Moines Historical Society, neighbors and friends that permission from the Planning and Zoning Board was granted only to subdivide the lot and remove the attached pool structure, while retaining the existing main home. Yet, on February 14th, bulldozers razed both the pool and the main house within an hour of receiving the demolition permit which people were led to believe was for the pool house only. Because it was generally known that the house would be kept intact, the manner in which the house was destroyed is a disconnect. We hope that the City Council meeting on Monday, February 25th will look into this and address the real intentions of the new owner.

    It is a real shame that the new owner did not have the courtesy to provide those who are interested to at least document the house before they destroyed it. At the very least, the curators of Salisbury House could have been allowed to document the house for posterity.

    Admittedly, it would have taken a special person to live in a Lustron Steel paneled home of the 1950’s but it was reportedly in great shape, having been significantly remodeled after our family moved out in the late 80’s. Because the Lustron Corporation, one of the first builders of post WWII pre-fabricated homes, went out of business in the 50’s there is a shortage of spare parts. There are quite a few Lustron homes in Des Moines and hundreds around the country where owners struggle to keep them in good repair. As one homeowner put it, we can’t just go to the hardware store when a Lustron part breaks. There is an association for these historic and unusual homes and parts could have been sold, recycled or given away, thereby creating some kind of useful good will instead of anger and confusion and filling the landfill.

    While we understand that many things, and homes, need to be updated as time passes, it is laudable that people have formed organizations, such as the Salisbury House Foundation which are dedicated to preserving significant places and stories that will resonate for generations. Salisbury House was saved from the wrecking ball. It’s a pity that our childhood home wasn’t as lucky.

  15. Chris "CJ" Johnson says:

    Mr. Smith- Valentine’s Day 2013 will not easily be forgotten by many. As a freelance photographer I was notified by fellow members of The Des Moines Historical Society that the Weeks Lustron Home was being smashed and hauled away at that very moment and they needed volunteers to try and at least photograph the remaining home for documentation.

    When I arrived the garage and main body of the home were laying in a tangled mess of Lustron porcelain & steel panels, modular storage cabinets, and broken glass. I retained permission from one of the demo workers to stay clear and photograph what was left of the pool area. Shortly after which I was approached by two other men who seemed to be surveying the area and asked what I was doing, and asked me to cease, and leave the property. I left the property and continued to photograph the destruction from the parking area of the Salisbury House. I met you, Mr. Smith, while shooting photos from your property amid the crunching and smashing of this historic home only yards away. I appreciated and respected our conversation regarding the history of this home and it’s importance in telling part of the story of the Salisbury House and the Weeks family.

    As I write these comments I have just finished reading an account of last nights (2/25/13) Des Moines City Council meeting where the President of The Des Moines Historical Society and concerned others voiced their dismay at the demolision process, and called for changes in city policies regarding demolision of Des Moines historic structures. This home is gone forever, but I sincerely hope that in it’s wake will rise some positive changes for historic preservation in our city. Until then I will continue to photographically document our cities history. C J

  16. Article in the “Business Record” about 4111 Tonawanda:

    http://tinyurl.com/ba5aqn6

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