Normandy Clos

By+Kathe Brunton


Normandy Clos: The Legacy Lives On

 



In the 1930s, Dr. F.W. Carter “had a mind to build a house.” But he didn’t. Build just a house, that is. Rather, he built a legacy.



Tucked away in the middle of South Bend, a stone’s throw from Potawatomi Park, a couple of secluded acres make you forget you’re at the 41st parallel in northern Indiana. A few steps onto the grounds of Normandy Clos and you sense you’ve entered the medieval world of northern France.



Jim and Karen Gleason are the current “caretakers” of this historic home on Jefferson Boulevard built by Dr. Carter and his wife Josephine. The Gleasons have owned the home for 33 years, but it had been on their mind—and in their sights—long before the purchase.



“I was a graduate student at Notre Dame,” Jim explains. “Karen and I were driving around and we just happened to see a house that caught our eye. We liked its style and wanted a closer look.”



A bit of subterfuge enabled that desire. Noticing a neighbor in the next yard over, Jim and Karen stopped to compliment her on her flowers. The neighbor was thrilled and didn’t hesitate when the couple asked if they could look at the garden in her backyard. While there, they surreptitiously peeked over the fence and got a glimpse of what would become their future home.



What they saw astounded them. The house, as they already knew, was captivating. But contained within the backyard were three similarly designed structures. One appeared to be a small medieval tower. Another ivy-covered stone building, they later learned, was a studio with beautiful leaded glass windows. And the third was a quaint guest house with a terrace. Intertwined throughout were pathways and gardens and statues and fountains and an armillary and shrubs and a brook, all bordered to the rear by a fragrant pine forest that provided a visual break between Normandy Clos, as Dr. Carter named the property, and the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks.



The Early Years

 



For many years, Dr. Carter served South Bend as the top officer of the Board of Health. He had a thriving private practice and was known nationally in the field of public health. But it was early in his career when he purchased the two-acre lot. At that time, in the 1930s, the property was flat farmland. Dr. Carter spent the next several years gradually contouring the land with huge boulders, paving blocks, berms and swells, and planting a variety of trees and flowers along the way. At one point, he laid a garden hose on the ground, turned it on and watched where the water flowed. This natural course he turned into a babbling brook that graces the property with its song and spirit.



By the time the Carters began construction in 1942, the lot was appealing to the eye. Except, of course, for a huge hole dug where the house would be built.



Enamored of the Normandy style of architecture, Dr. and Mrs. Carter envisioned a two-story structure with exposed beams, stucco or stone walls, and a high-pitched slate roof. They had, in fact, traveled a time or two to Normandy, a province in northern France.



However, even on a doctor’s salary, recreating a Normandy manse was prohibitive. Did that stop Dr. Carter? Not at all. Over time, he scavenged demolition sites and junk yards for building materials, and bartered labor—even trees and seeds—from his patients who weren’t able to pay their bills.



Two of his best finds became, literally, the foundation and frame of the house. The first was an old grain elevator in Elkhart County on the verge of being demolished. For just $75, he obtained several 50-foot square oak beams and many 2x6s of yellow poplar. His second find was stonework, purchased for $5, the relics of an old razed schoolhouse.



Dr. Carter also obtained beautiful sapphire and amethyst panes of glass salvaged from the Belgian Village at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34, which he used in the studio’s two large leaded glass windows. Also in the studio, he topped the immense fireplace with carved stone faces, said to represent the four Native American tribes of this area, that were once part of the portico in the old South Bend post office.



Another treasured find holds pride of place in the front courtyard. The Dolphin Boy statue is a playful cherub that rides a dolphin and tries unsuccessfully to keep the water in the animal’s mouth. By accident, Jim discovered that Dolphin Boy had been part of an elaborate fountain at Howard Park. Four Dolphin Boys, actually, surrounded a central fountain in the park. Somewhere along the way, Dr. Carter obtained one of the statues and placed it in his front yard. Since the Howard Park fountain was dedicated in 1908, the Gleasons held a whimsical garden party to celebrate Dolphin Boy’s 100th birthday in 2008.



At the entrance to the dining room is a unique set of doors that Dr. Carter stumbled upon while in Brittany, a neighboring province of Normandy. The French oak doors are intricately carved with scenes typical of that province, such as a girl offering her young male friend a glass of cider. When Dr. Carter moved away from Normandy Clos, he took these doors with him. Eventually, Jim convinced Dr. Carter to sell them back to him, thus preserving the historical integrity of the home.



Normandy Clos Today

 



As Jim and Karen Gleason gazed upon Normandy Clos in the mid-1970s, they knew they wanted to see more of the magnificent place. Eventually, after the Carters moved on, they were invited to parties at the house by subsequent owners. 



Three families owned the property between the time of the Carters and when the Gleasons purchased it. Today, Jim and Karen treat Normandy Clos with reverence—and not a little whimsy.



The name, by the way, comprises the origin of the architectural style—Normandy, France—and the French word “Clos” meaning enclosure. Specifically, “clos” refers to a medieval great house surrounded by a moat, walls and sentry towers. Dr. Carter decided against the moat, obviously, but he did build a small tower at the end of the driveway that was used for an on-site performance of Romeo and Juliet at one of their many parties. Mrs. Carter was right on the mark when she once fondly reminisced, “We partied every nook and corner of that house.”



In fact, numerous theatrical productions were carried out in the back courtyard in those early days. There were also puppet shows performed in the studio (where a stage was built expressly for that purpose), with the good doctor stepping in as puppeteer.



Inside the main house, the ground floor features a modern kitchen and a spacious dining room with a soaring ceiling and 18-foot exposed, dark wood trusses. A cozy living area with a fireplace and a newly expanded den, also with a fireplace, round out the downstairs. Near the front door, varnished wood circular stairs lead up to two bedrooms and an office. The den addition and the upstairs office are new; otherwise, the house remains essentially the same as when the Carters built it, including—and here is a bit of fun—an English pub in the basement.



Pour Me a Pint, Publican

 



At the bottom of a second set of winding stairs, a heavy old world door stands solid. As the portal is pulled open, the centuries fall away and the din of an English pub is easily imagined. Here, then, is “Ye Olde Rooster Tree Inn with the Crooked Window.”



The 20x30 low-ceiling room features a bar along the left side and a long padded bench upon the right. Both were constructed of beams from the old grain elevator, as was the three-inch thick oak wainscoting lining the walls. Opposite the door stands a huge fireplace made of Indiana limestone, salvaged from a bridge over which New York Central trains passed. The floor, laid by Dr. Carter himself, is old paving brick, another treasured find from the New York Central Railroad.



Perhaps the most unique part of the pub is the story that goes along with one of the two windows that shield the exterior window wells. As the story goes, when the original builder poured the foundation of the basement, a form warped, leaving one of the windows crooked.  Anguished that the whole town would know of this defect, the contractor insisted on tearing it out and starting over. But Dr. Carter had another idea.



After much pondering, he wrote a 150-word fable about a “good queen” on a fox hunt, who happened upon an “ancient tavern,” where “great was the frolic and fun.” The queen settled a dispute among the folk about whether a window in the tavern was crooked (yes, she declared) and whether roosters grow on trees (most certainly, she insisted). And so, Dr. Carter concluded in the fable, “to this day this ancient and respected tavern is referred to as ‘Ye Olde Rooster Tree Inn with the Crooked Window.’”



Furthering cementing this historical tale, the Gleasons had windows designed with scenes that reflect the fable. The windows are backlit, and Dr. Carter’s original fable is framed on the near wall.



No matter the name, “The pub is one of our favorite places,” Jim says. “We have had many great parties here. In fact, in addition to the pub and the studio, there are no fewer than eight spots outdoors suitable for picnics, cocktails or soirees.” 



Parties are a tradition the Gleasons are more than happy to continue, although their guest list doesn’t quite rival that of the Carters, whose invitees included local, regional, national and international stars.



A pianist herself, Mrs. Carter delighted in bringing prominent musicians to Normandy Clos. Just a sampling: Van Cliburn, the famed pianist who played for presidents and heads of state the world over; Arthur Rubenstein, one of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th century; and Hoagy Carmichael, the Indiana-born composer of “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind.” Also enjoying the grounds of Normandy Clos were presidents of the University of Notre Dame, mayors, governors and even the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Many black-and-white photos of these and other guests adorn the curved walls of the down staircase.



Something Magical

 



Currently, the Gleasons are replanting the small pine forest of about 150 trees at the rear of the lot. Many of the pines planted by Dr. Carter are nearing the end of their life cycle and it is time for new growth to take hold before all the old trees are gone.



In much the same way, Jim and Karen strive to maintain the historical integrity of Normandy Clos, while at the same time preserving and keeping alive the legacy started by Dr. Carter. Over the past couple decades, they engaged Haupert Construction of South Bend for a variety of renovations. Most recently, Haupert built the two-story den addition, modernized the dated country kitchen, and renovated the guest house kitchen.



The house isn’t on the historical register, but Haupert Construction treated the project as though it were. The den addition had to match the exterior, with its stucco, slate, cedar beams and copper guttering. Inside, the paneling was custom-made and the hardwood flooring was matched to the rest of the house.



Following the renovation, Normandy Clos was featured in the fall Showcase of Homes. It is amazing that one cannot tell where the old ends and the new begins.



“Much credit goes to the architect in keeping the style of the home intact, but an equal measure of credit goes to Haupert Construction in sourcing materials and bringing in craftsmen able to replicate the masonry, slate roof, hardwood flooring, stucco work, etc.,” Jim says. Interestingly, he adds that each of the wood members on the exterior used the original style of joinery, which required that tenons and mortises be hand-fashioned for each piece, then pegged together.



Jim and Karen have also added their own touches and traditions. The medieval tower, with its Romeo and Juliet balcony, was another renovation by Haupert Construction. The Gleasons requested that the bottom part of the tower be weatherproofed for holding gardening tools and supplies. The upper room, however, with access via an outside staircase, was completely redone. It is now a pleasant seating area that features an old winepress-turned-table under the steeply pitched, pointed roof.



“We now call this our Guard Tower,” Jim explains. “Our nephew was a member of the Irish Guard at Notre Dame and every year since, we have invited the current group of guardsmen and their parents to Normandy Clos.” Photos along the rounded wall portray the Irish Guard through the years and, in fact, the blue plaid valance over the balcony window is an actual sash from a guard uniform. 



It is quite an endeavor to keep up with a history as rich as Normandy Clos. But it is worth every cent and drop of sweat.



“I’ve always felt that there is something magical about this place,” Jim says. “Clearly, Dr. Carter brought his artistic sense to bear on Normandy Clos, and we have tried in our 33 years here to remain true to his vision.”