In 1949 a Hungarian-born architect named Marcel Breuer designed a flat-roofed house that was later built in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The prototype was commissioned in part to stimulate interest in modern design and explore an inexpensive way to house returning GIs. The goal was housing that was cheap, quickly built and highly functional, but the clean lines, flat roof and simple aesthetic of Breuer's model were a radical departure from the standard pitched roofs, wood siding and shuttered windows that pervaded U.S. suburbs.
Frank Kacmarcik, the son of a St. Paul upholsterer, was smitten. Just back from the military and a professor of art for St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., Kacmarcik lobbied to hire Breuer to design the abbey's church and a campus master plan.
The project was a hit, and the two became friends. Years later, when Kacmarcik bought land on a wooded bluff overlooking downtown St. Paul, Breuer agreed to design an 1,800-square-foot house for him.
Breuer's acceptance of the commission was surprising because he had by then designed the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the U.S. Embassy in the Hague, Netherlands.
Despite being busy with international commissions, Breuer visited St. Paul at least once to evaluate the site and the views, and designed a modern house tucked discreetly into the brow of the hill.
Kacmarcik filled the house, which was built in 1962, with rare books, furniture and an ecclesiastical art collection spanning the centuries. He lived there until 1983, when he joined the monastery at St. John's.
Fast forward to 2000, when Christopher Monkhouse, then curator for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, was entertaining a friend who was writing a book to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Breuer's birth.
They toured Kacmarcik's house, which had recently been listed for sale by the woman who bought it from Kacmarcik.
"As soon as I walked in the door, I just knew it was my house," Monkhouse said. "I've never had a piece of architecture speak to me so quickly."
Monkhouse bought the house and left it intact, hiring a carpenter to replace library bookshelves using the original plans and historic photos. He lived in the house for six years, until he was hired by the Chicago Institute of Arts.
Reluctantly, he decided to sell. He listed the house at $525,000, a veritable bargain for a home designed by a famous Bauhaus architect. But its concrete block walls, flat roof and austere detail windows aren't for everyone. Now vacant and aching for art and furnishings, the house has a monastic simplicity.
Shaped like an L, its two wings are designed for different functions. With a library, bedroom, bathroom and laundry, the right wing is for sleeping and studying. The left wing is for public functions, with a guest bedroom and a single large room that houses the kitchen, dining and living room.
Though the house is small by today's standards, Monkhouse said that it "lived large."
For Monkhouse, evenings with friends often started with drinks in the west-facing library until the sun slipped behind the St. Paul skyline. Then the party would proceed into the left wing dining room. After dinner, the party shifted just a few feet into the living room, where guests would gather around the fireplace sipping coffee and cognac
"There was this wonderful feeling that the house unfolded and there was a certain theatrical quality to the house," he said. "Which made every event in the house rather special."
And because every room in the house has a door to the outside and views through floor-to-ceiling windows, the house visually spills into nature.
"Each space was wonderfully enclosed, but there were always these wonderful conversations with nature going on," Monkhouse said.
The house proved to be perfect for Monkhouse, who like Kacmarcik had an extensive collection of rare and unusual books. Breuer designed the south-facing wall of the library with only narrow vertical slits that let slivers of light into the room -- just enough light to brighten the space, but not enough to damage the books.
Monkhouse said that the simple materials and lack of color are pure International style, but that the horizontal lines of the house borrow from the work of Prairie School architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright.
"The blend of these two traditions makes the house unusual and exceptional," he said.
Monkhouse is hoping there's a buyer out there who agrees. The house has been on the market since July and is listed with Burnet & Birkeland. Burnet agent Scott Acker said that there's been interest from across the country, including an East Coast design executive who has a cabin in the area.
"He wanted it like a painting -- just something to have," said Acker. "And if you like mid-century modern, by Minnesota standards, it's about as good as it gets."
Monkhouse agrees. "I had it all there," he said. "I had the perfect house for me and my needs, but a new job and a new challenge ultimately won out."
Though Monkhouse has already relocated to a 1960s townhouse along Chicago's Gold Coast, his relationship to the house -- and Kacmarcik -- endures.
Before Monkhouse moved, he invited Kacmarcik, who was in his late 80s, to visit. "He was pleased to see me living in my house and making it my home," said Monkhouse. "And he wrote something in my guest book that I will treasure forever.
The entry involved word play on "Monkhouse living in a monk's house," he said. Kacmarcik died six months later at 87.
"It was nice that he saw in me as the rightful heir," he said. "He went to his grave knowing someone loved the house almost as much as he did."
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376