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Stars align for descendants of architect to buy back home

By MARIA YOUNG, The Charleston Gazette-Mail undefined

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — If you’ve ever seen the inner workings of a watch, how each tiny tooth on each tiny wheel fits so precisely into each open groove, propelling the onward march of time as it was meant to do, well then, you have a sense of just how precisely things had to line up to lead Emma Busse to the place she calls home.

“It really happened because of COVID, or a lot of it did,” she said.

Just like that watch, though, there were multiple moving parts. And they were inadvertently set in motion when Busse’s best friend from childhood, now a preschool teacher, decided simply enough last May to hand deliver Mother’s Day craft projects to each of her students. Pulling up outside of one student’s South Charleston house, she turned to her colleague and said, “This house reminds me a lot of where Emma grew up.”

It wasn’t just the midcentury style. There was a feel. And some uncanny similarities.

Chatting casually with the parents a few minutes later, the mom said, “‘Well, it was built by an architect who’s from around here. The last name’s Johe,'” said Busse.

The homeowners knew a lot of the history of the home, that the man who’d built it back in 1954 had also lived there with his family.

So her friend “puts the timelines together and goes, ‘I bet Emma doesn’t know that one of my students lives in her mom’s old house,'” said Busse.

A few days later, the mom called Busse and invited her to take a look inside. She went with her parents, who hadn’t been there in decades.

She had driven past before. But from the inside, the home was full of nostalgic family memories, moments Busse had heard about countless times as a child.

“It still has so many of the original parts that make it a true mid-century modern gem. I was absolutely floored by the untouched redwood ceilings, the book-matched cherry kitchen cabinets, the expansive open windows, the tectum ceilings and the slate stairway,” Busse said. It was “so fascinating to finally see where all of these stories I had heard my whole life took place.”

Turning to her mom, Busse said, “One of my favorite stories about this house, right before you guys sold it … you said, ‘Mom, Dad, can I have one last party at my house … have all my friends over one last time before we sell it?'”

And so she did.

As the story goes, “There were a couple of guys sitting in the backyard out there, and my mom and grandmother were in the bedroom right up there with those windows. And you looked out the window and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to marry that guy.’ It was the first time my grandparents met my dad.”

Sara Johe Busse smiles, remembering it all unfold.

“We’d just been out a couple of times. And I said, ‘I think I’m going to marry him. He’s fabulous.’ And Mom was like, ‘Really?’ And we have been married since 1987.”

Looking toward what used to be a family playroom, she said, “We had a desk there, and we had a TV there. … We sat on the floor right there and watched the moon landing.”

Those little dents in the window sill? That’s where a teething Sara Johe would gnaw as she watched the squirrels in the back yard.

That low, flat corner of the roof? Every elementary school-aged boy in the neighborhood did his best to climb up there and scurry over to peak through the skylight into the bathroom below.

And that kitchen window? In the midst of a 1959 home addition to make room for baby Sara, it was the only way to get her mother to the hospital when the time to deliver came much earlier and far more inconveniently than expected.

Because of the construction, at night, “They had boarded up the door. Well, Mom had pneumonia, went into labor. … And they got a board, a piece of plywood, and took my mom out the kitchen window — because it was open — to have me,” said Johe Busse. “She always said, ‘It’s a good thing I love you.'”

Then there was the time her dad decided to change the light bulb over the garage so trick-or-treaters wouldn’t fall — instead, he fell off the ladder himself and broke his hip — but not the light bulb in his pocket. They say there’s an old X-ray somewhere that shows both the clean break on his hip and the perfectly intact bulb still in his back pocket.

It was a family home shaped and defined by the memories of those who grew up and grew older there, who shared its walls. But it wasn’t just any family home.

Howard Johe attended college at Carnegie Tech — now Carnegie Mellon, at one point studying under famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

As family lore goes, that’s where his focus on residential flow and private spaces began. A senior student of architecture, Johe was at a dinner hosted by the dean of the school. Wright, then a visiting professor, was the guest of honor.

“And the guy’s real proud of his house because he’s designed it. And Frank Lloyd Wright says, ‘I need to use the restroom.’ (The host) says, ‘It’s right there.’ And Frank Lloyd Wright goes in and leaves the door open and unzips and goes to the bathroom without closing the door. … And he walks out. They’re all aghast and (Wright says), ‘Never put a restroom off of a public space where if the door doesn’t shut, you can see them.’ He said, ‘People should have privacy when they go to the bathroom. That should be tucked away.'”

The lesson stuck. So the bathrooms and bedrooms are all tucked away in the old Johe home. So is the kitchen. There are acoustic touches for both private conversations and large gatherings.

“There’s a lot of really grand spaces. But then at the same time, some intimate spaces. So he made, like, human-sized spaces because I feel like this little alcove over there is human-sized,” said Busse. “That a small family can sit in there and feel very intimate. Then we walk into that room that has 30-foot ceilings, redwood beams throughout over there, and it feels so grand and open.”

In the master bedroom and office, overlooking the two-story living room with a stone fireplace and large, wrap-around windows, there’s a sliding panel to allow someone working to check on the kids playing below or close things off as needed. In the kitchen, there are thoughtful, built-in cutting boards, and a space for storing onions and potatoes.

Howard designed plenty of other buildings, too — including the Charleston Civic Center, the Culture Center and the West Virginia University coliseum. They were all special. But homes were personal.

“He built lots of homes in Charleston,” said Johe Busse. “He used to bring clients here just to say, ‘Do you like this? Do you like that?'”

The South Charleston residence was the Johe family home until the mid-1980s. By then, that broken hip had made it impossible for Howard to trek up and down the stairs — the need to leave all those memories was unavoidable, but wrenchingly hard. So when he designed a home for Sara and her new husband, that fabulous guy she had pointed out to her mom, he thought ahead and made it accessible from one floor, something she would never have thought of at that tender age.

Showing the family around the old Johe home that day in May, the owners had the original blueprints to the home in Howard’s familiar, architectural print. They had renderings and detailed, original lists of supplies and equipment, and plans for someday upgrading the outdoor space. The lot, just under an acre, was roughly $3,000.

“And I know that the total for the materials in the house was about $13,500,” said Busse.

It was so similar in tone to her parent’s home, where she spent her entire childhood, that there was an instant sense of belonging and comfort. It was gratifying, too, to view the sight of so many moments — but at the time, Busse thought that’s how the story would end.

The next six weeks were about to get a little crazy.

A few days after that informal tour, the owners called.

“They said, ‘We want to sell it. We’re not in a huge hurry to get out of it. We’ll take a contingent offer. Do you have any interest in buying it?'” said Busse.

She never thought it would work.

“I couldn’t afford to buy two houses at once and I’m in the back of my mind thinking, ‘I’d have to get a bank to approve me for a mortgage in the middle of COVID and do all these things. This will never work out. But sure, let’s try it.'”

Busse’s home in Fort Hill was only shown twice — in the same night — and sold for more than she expected before she ever formally put it on the market.

“The second people that saw it wrote a letter and … it was kind of wonderful,” said Busse, nodding to her mom.

“They said that they’d seen a cross stitch that you did for your parents that I had hanging in my bedroom at the house. And (the buyer) said, ‘My grandmother did that same cross stitch. And I walked into the bedroom and I just realized, this is it. We’ve been looking at houses for eight months, have not found one that we liked. We keep running into problems. And this is my dream home.'”

The price on the new home was more than Busse would have been looking to spend, had she even been looking. Then again, “the whole family story of it” made it worth the stretch, she said.

The universe, it seemed, just kept lining up. And there was the unmistakable sense that her grandparents, who had both been gone for quite some time, would somehow approve.

“Here’s the crazy thing,” said Johe Busse. “We found out all the paperwork and everything was all lined up and approved on June 23rd — which was my parents’ anniversary.”

And then, “I sold my house and bought this house and moved in, all on the same day — which was, uh, exciting,” said Emma.

“It was my mom’s birthday,” said Johe Busse. “July 8. Is that the stars, like, aligning? … I mean, we stood at the kitchen window that day when (Emma) moved in and just cried.” But they were happy tears.

Home and heart, so carefully intertwined in the moment, can be unraveled — forgotten, or lost, in the constant march of time. For Emma, though, the past and future have come together under one roof — and while she has a long list of projects, she doesn’t plan many big changes.

“These are the original (kitchen) cabinets and I have friends who said, ‘Oh, you could update so easily, do all these things.’ But I love the cherry. I like it the way it is,” she said, looking around. “I don’t think I’ll do a whole lot, honestly.”