The Famous Postmodern ‘Crayola’ House Is for Sale

(Bloomberg) — When Judith Bentley’s husband Paul bought a three-acre plot of land in Oostburg, Wisc. on the edge of Lake Michigan in 1999, it took some convincing to get her to move. The plan was for the couple to retire on the lake, but Bentley says she was tied to the city.


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“Paul said, ‘Well, how about I let you pick the architect,’” Bentley recalls, “and I knew immediately which one I would pick. It was Margaret McCurry.”

McCurry, who co-founded the Chicago firm Tigerman McCurry with her husband Stanley Tigerman, is known for her striking, often colorful contemporary vernacular. Her houses, which feature many windows, often incorporate metal cladding, bright trim, and atypical shapes whose form never gets in the way of function.

In 2001, Bentley sent McCurry an email “She responded that evening, and I was blown away, because we don’t live in that social class,” Bentley says. Adding to her surprise was that McCurry was amenable to the Bentleys’ initial budget, which ran from $800,000 to $900,000. (The final cost, Bentley says, was about $1.2 million, “slightly more than we expected to spend, but it was certainly worth it.”)

After more than a year of planning and two years of construction, the house was completed in 2005. Thanks to its multiply colored windows and exterior details, the house was unofficially—later, officially—christened the “Crayola House.” It featured in a spread in Architectural Digest

Bentley’s husband retired from his position as executive vice president of advertising firm Cramer-Krasselt Co.’s Milwaukee office in 2003. When Bentley retired from her job as an English teacher in 2007, the couple moved to the 5,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house full-time. Positioned with 190 feet of private lake frontage, the property’s lawn slopes down to a rocky shore.

The home was a “fabulous gathering place” for the couple and their four adult sons, Bentley says. “The whole family can be together in this house without being on top of each other—and still have privacy.”

Her family celebrated birthdays and holidays in the house, her husband fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a scuba diver (he volunteered for Wisconsin Historic Society’s maritime preservation program, documenting shipwrecks), and Bentley, to her surprise, took easily to country life. The house is only about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, and some two and a half hours from Chicago.

But when her husband passed away in May, Bentley decided to sell the house. “It’s lonely without him, and I’m ready at my age to live small,” she says. The property is listed with Mahler Sotheby’s International Realty for $1.175 million. Given that the Bentleys paid more to build it, this would represent something of a bargain to the house’s future buyers.

The Design Process

When she chose McCurry, Bentley says, “I didn’t know I was a modernist, but I decided I must be one,” because she was drawn to the “symmetry and peacefulness” of McCurry’s houses.

The design process began by McCurry asking Bentley and her husband to make separate lists of what they wanted from the house.

“I’m very practical. I wanted a bulleted list of how I wanted the house to work,” Bentley explains. The kitchen, she specified, should be in the center of the house because that’s where she spent most of her time, and she “didn’t want to be isolated from what’s going on.” She wanted a living room filled with books and a fireplace—without a TV. She didn’t want a dining room because “we have four sons, and they don’t even use napkins; [a formal dining room] seemed like an archaic thing,” she says.

Her husband, in contrast, wrote a story.

“He envisioned how a retired sea captain would live,” Bentley says, “and he talked of how he needed to see the horizon and the sky with storms coming in—and needed to be able to watch the waves and feel the air.” 

When McCurry received the two documents, “she just laughed,” Bentley says, though McCurry did do her best to accommodate both perspectives.

Out of the Way

Mostly though, Bentley says she and her husband deferred to McCurry.

“Paul and I shared this idea: We really respect expertise,” she says. “The idea is that you hire the right person and then you don’t get in the way.” On occasion, Bentley continues, her husband would suggest something, “and then [McCurry] would just go silent, which was her way of saying ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ And then he’d say, ‘Oh I forgot, I don’t want a Paul Bentley house, I want a Margaret McCurry house.’ ”

There was one exception.

Initially, Bentley says, McCurry designed the house with red paint on one facade and yellow on another, but “my husband thought it was too boring.” After consulting with friends, who used colored pencils on a printout of the facade to reimagine the trim, the couple fell in love with the riotous spectrum. McCurry, Bentley says, did, too. (Eventually.)

The ground floor of the home contains a kitchen and dining area in the center; flanking it are the two dedicated living areas. One wing of the house contains the garage, the other a screened-in porch. Upstairs, the master bedroom is in the center, with two bedrooms on either side. In total, the house has four bathrooms.

McCurry designed the beds, which have built-in storage. The rest of the furniture is as light and contemporary as the house, an aesthetic Bentley has grown to love. “I was looking at apartments,” she says, “and the only ones that were at all attractive were the ones that were open to the outside.”

“Crayola House”

The house has become relatively famous—it had the Architectural Digest feature in 2007 and has subsequently been in monographs of McCurry’s work and a coffee table book on postmodernism that Phaidon published earlier this year (“I was surprised to learn that,” Bentley says. “I didn’t know.”)

The home is on a dead-end gravel road that discourages sightseers, but Bentley has noticed that the house attracts kayakers and pleasure boaters. Locals, she continues, started calling it the “Crayola House,” a name the architects adopted. “But [locals] also call it the Lego House or, if they don’t like it, the Clown House.” 

The home, Bentley says, was everything she had hoped it would be. “We just had so much fun here,” she says. “Obviously, Wisconsin in winter isn’t exactly the best time—though it’s beautiful—so we had all these things in the house to look forward to.”

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