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Discovering Eaglehead, Part 3

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May 22nd, 2014 No Comments

by Charissa Roberson

In the quiet of the old office, I sat down in a chair and laid a scrap of paper on my lap. It always fascinates me to find objects from many years ago, still surviving even though the hands that made them have not. I gingerly smoothed the worn folds of the newspaper clipping. Faint words and a faded black and white picture stared up at me. I began to read the article from days past, imagining someone unfolding a crisp, freshly printed copy, and reading it over their morning coffee. It was a simple, everyday advertisement: “A new trend in farm buildings is being ushered in with this type of stock barn, built from the Quonset 40 all steel prefabricated building, with its perfect arch roof. Dairy barns are now being built using the Quonset…giving a beautiful building with an extraordinary amount of hay storage space, and lots of room around the cows. We can furnish you the whole barn for use this fall…See BROSIUS & KELLER SALES CO.”

I smiled. I could see Bill and Lou Brosius, fresh out of the military, just starting their building career: erecting Quonset huts. Certainly not the most prestigious construction business, though they did manage to sell a Quonset to Arthur Godfrey. Bill and Merle, the newly-weds, living in a little city apartment above a restaurant in Frederick—the future ahead. I set the newspaper down, my eyes traveling to the small pile of papers at my side. Waiting to be read.

quonset

Merle liked the city. She had grown up the daughter of an optometrist, living in the suburbs of Sydney. Outside the window of her parents’ home was a beautiful view of nearby Balmoral Beach. When Merle made the move to Maryland with Bill, he took her to live in the biggest city in his home county; but Frederick in 1946 was just a small country town. It was difficult for Merle to adjust from the Australian beachfronts and the lively social life of Sydney, to the rented apartment on East 3rd Street.

Bill also wanted something more to offer his wife and the children they hoped to raise together. He wanted them to have a home of their own. But what did he know about building houses? He and Lou had only ever built Quonset huts, made for cows, not families. An idea began to stir his imagination. There was a possibility…well…why couldn’t it work? Bill purchased a lot on Ridge Road in Braddock Heights, and brought in one of his company’s Quonset huts. Then he began to transform it.

Bill covered the walls with custom-made paneling that resembled Aussie gum-tree wood. He designed built-in cabinetry throughout the house and installed radiant heat channels in a false ceiling. Large glass areas offered scenic views of the valley, and allowed sunshine to warm the house in the winter; in the summer, wide overhangs provided cool shade. When completed, the result was a unique, innovative house, comfortable and secure. In 1946 the Brosius family moved into the first house Bill had ever built. Here Bill and Merle welcomed their first two children, John William Brosius III (“Jay”) and Carolyn Fair Brosius.

In 1950, when the Brosius’ third child, Anita Maree, was on the way, Merle planned a trip to Australia. Merle had been away from her homeland since just before her wedding, and now she longed to return and share the Brosius children with the rest of their family. Bill had to stay behind in order to manage his company. In Australia, Bill and Merle’s second daughter was born, and Merle’s family was able to help care for the new baby and the two little ones.

family photo

While his family was away, Bill became interested in pre-fabricated houses—quality homes constructed of factory-made frames, which were then transported to the customers’ lots. The demand for homes was high in this time after the war, as veterans returned to America hoping to settle down and start their families. Pre-fabricated homes were affordable, well-made houses that could be erected in very little time. Bill became so hooked on this idea, that he left the Quonset huts behind and became a builder for National Homes. He organized Brosius Homes Corporation (BHC) with his brother Lou in 1950, and built his first pre-fabricated house in April 1951, at Lee Place. Bill had sold the adapted Quonset hut in Braddock Heights, and now he set to work building another home for his family, one of the pre-fabricated homes he was marketing. Bill did all the work himself, and when he was finished it looked nothing like a pre-fabricated home. It had a finished basement with a natural stone fireplace, a sunken patio, and a rock pond in the yard where his children could splash and play. The three youngsters absolutely loved it. In addition to completing his own home, Bill continued to build out the neighborhood at Lee Place with BHC homes.

In 1954, Bill bought land on West Patrick Street, subdivided it, and began construction on the 52-lot Saratoga Village—which boasted the first cul-de-sac in Frederick. The village also had the first fully insulated homes and was the first to offer thermo-paned glass as a standard feature. Later, Saratoga Village residents entered themselves in a contest which sought to find the “Happiest Village in the USA,” a promotion for the new motion picture “Brigadoon” by MGM Studios. Saratoga Village won the contest! With Bill’s approval, the residents renamed their village Brigadoon. The christening was celebrated with fanfare and a parade, in which Bill rode through town in a convertible with the Master of Ceremonies. A National Homes Corporation (NHC) article featured Bill Brosius as the “Happiest U.S. Builder,” and his sales and recognition got quite a boost from the publicity.

Bill’s goal as a homebuilder was to make quality housing accessible to everyone, especially to those with low incomes, so Lee Place Homes were $10,000, and Brigadoon Homes were $9-12,000. A newspaper touted this success, stating that “Builder Bill Brosius has joined the They Said It Couldn’t Be Done Club…Taking advantage of a rolling hillside terrain, Brosius locates each house on its lot in a way that will offer the owner the best view, maximum privacy and most efficient use of the land…at a cost of less than $10,000…” Bill also offered buyers the option of purchasing an un-finished house and completing it themselves, which lowered the price further. Jay, Bill’s son, remembered people coming to him and saying that if it weren’t for Bill, they never would have been able to buy their own home.

pinecliff

Making quality homes affordable was a distinguishing trait of Brosius Homes, notably evidenced in the subdivisions of Carrollton and Maplewood. Bill was in the midst of planning the 400-home Carrollton village when the black community approached him, asking for a place where they could purchase houses. In that era Bill could not provide mixed race housing. So he split the village into two portions, Carrollton and Maplewood, with a shared communal park and shopping center between them. Though financing was generally unavailable for African American buyers, Bill was able to solicit funds from a group of twelve insurance companies, who participated as a good will gesture. Bill offered each population a place to live, as well as a place to come together as a community. It was a risk for Bill to take; he couldn’t be sure that people would buy. But they did, and the community thrived.

One of Brosius Homes’ next subdivisions, Briarwood, “the prestige community of Laurel,” received an award for Best in Family Living. The houses featured walled courtyards, garden kitchens, and innovative ideas in construction. Unlike most builders, Bill designed many of the homes he built. Around this time he also created Pinecliff, a community where the houses were built into steep hillsides, which people had said was impossible. When Bill proved this otherwise, it was a ground-breaking accomplishment. “A home should fit its site,” Bill would say. “It should look like it grew there.” The Pinecliff community was unique for another reason—it combined several different types of houses, from those custom-built by Brosius Homes Corporation to more colonial style homes. Lou Brosius settled his family into a home there, where he and his wife, Angie, raised their four children: Carmen, Anita Louise, Myra, and Bo. Their house was built in the Spanish-style of Angie’s home country, Puerto Rico. The community of Pinecliff still stands today, an eclectic mix of houses and people.

In 1958, Bill’s family left for another visit to Australia, this time with their return date undetermined. Their extended stay gave Jay, Carolyn, and Anita the opportunity to experience Australia’s culture and way of life, attending school there and seeing the country from their mother’s point of view. Because of his business, Bill again stayed behind. Merle had frequently suggested that Bill move his work to Australia, and he seriously contemplated the idea. Following a home-builders’ conference in Hawaii, he extended the trip and continued on to meet his family in Australia. A reporter at the airport snapped a photo of the adoring father draping leis around the heads of his gleeful children. While in Australia, Bill spent time with his family, studied the local building designs, and explored business opportunities.

61dollar house

After his return to America, Bill began designing and constructing a new house for his family in Bethesda—nearer to Washington, D.C, and the city life which Merle loved. The house was extremely inventive, its design influenced strongly by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, which Bill had been studying keenly. When Merle returned with the children in 1960, the house was still in progress. In fact, she walked in and found a table saw standing in the middle of the living room surrounded by a pile of wood dust. But as Bill completed the house, his vision began to materialize before her.

The house was L-shaped, and built snugly into the land. All the trees surrounding it were preserved, including one which grew right through the roof overhang. An outdoor pool was tucked into the angle of the “L”, and all the walls facing it were glass. There was a covered lanai, a brick walkway leading through the house, and a large deck with wooden lanterns, a grape trellis, and a gazebo. The entire structure had a Japanese flair to it, complimented by the koi-pond built outside the kitchen window, and full-sized Japanese artwork in the dining room and living room. Outside, a network of tree lighting cast a gorgeous nighttime glow over the yard. An indoor tropical garden and a vaulted ceiling in the living room added to the elegant ambiance. In the patio area, natural rocks and a lichen-covered rock obelisk were built into the layout. The house contained such cutting-edge features as a dishwasher, sub-slab heating for the patio, a house-wide intercom system, master lighting controls, and automatic sprinkling in the arboretum. There was also a huge master bed-room, a creative shower room shaped like two hexagons, and a precautionary bomb-shelter. Bill even added a built-in blender!

Merle was delighted with her new home. The beautiful dining room was a place where she could host sophisticated dinner parties and entertain the higher levels of society—which she did. The Brosius family dubbed the place Fernwood after the street on which it was built, and even now the children remember their home with the same wonder they experienced then.

Bill Brosius kept building. His sales were deemed “an unprecedented achievement for any kind of building in the Frederick, Maryland, area,” according to a NHC article. In Hagerstown, Brosius Homes Corporation started the Greystone Manor and Carroll Heights subdivisions; at Yellow Springs in Frederick, they erected White Rock, a subdivision of low-cost homes; and they built the second condominium in the state, Sans Souci. Bill and Lou also designed and built a medical center around an atrium garden for a group of doctors who had approached them with a financial need. During this time period, BHC custom built individual houses throughout a wide-spread area.

In the late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s, Bill became the biggest home-builder in Western Maryland, “with over a dozen communities in the County, Hagerstown and Westernport” (National Homes). Beyond homebuilding, Bill employed his leadership abilities in numerous influential positions. In 1952, Bill had joined the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Shortly thereafter, he started the Frederick Chapter, of which he was president for two terms. After Bill, Lou became president of the Frederick NAHB Chapter. Eventually, Bill was asked to be the National Director of NAHB, and after ten years of faithful service, was made Life Director. He headed the Business Management Committee for NAHB, standardizing business forms, accounting methods, book-keeping, nomenclature, and job costing. Bill helped found the State of Maryland Institute of Homebuilders, representing NAHB before state legislative committees. He was national Chairman of the NAHB Institute of Environmental Design; this group encouraged builders toward an understanding of the land, and sensitivity to the environment. Bill also served two years on the first zoning commission of Frederick County, writing the Planned Unit Development and Land Use Intensity sections of the zoning and subdivision laws of the county.

magcover

Throughout this time, Lou continued to be Bill’s trusted and beloved working partner. Officially, Lou was the superintendent of construction (a position his father had once occupied with MJ Grove Lime Company), as well as being a carpenter, electrician and plumber. Dearly loved by the team of workers he supervised, Lou’s people-oriented personality and excellent management of the crew was of great benefit to Bill. It allowed him to focus on research and design, the things he did best. Bill was the planner, the one with the ideas. Lou was the one who made it happen.

And there were many new ideas for Bill’s consideration. The term “environmental design” was just beginning to be defined, and people were slowly becoming aware of environmental preservation, with which Bill was already familiar from his farming background. He had always practiced it in his building, as he preserved the trees and nestled his homes into the landscape. He was known to say, “Back in my day, we just called it conservation.”

Two of the “radical” new communities promoting the phrases of environmental design and preservation were New Seabury and Sea Pines. Bill took a trip to see these communities with a group of colleagues called the Young Turks. They were an informal guild of builders, usually under the age of forty, who all built more than fifty homes a year and were recognized nationally. They toured the country on a regular basis, studying new ideas in design and construction. The concepts being introduced by New Seabury and Sea Pines interested Bill. After his initial visit, he returned and brought his family with him, eager to share the excitement of this new approach to building.

I picked up the last paper at the bottom of the pile, a Brosius Homes Corporation brochure. The pieces I had selected to read were only a small fraction of the information packed within these walls, and I had yet to discover it all. For now, I would have to settle for these few glimpses into Bill Brosius’ life.

I read an excerpt from the article entitled, “The Brosius Story”: “The Brosius Homes Corporation continues to develop a reputation based on the highest standards of home construction and family-tailored design. Before you choose a home, compare a Brosius home…you will find that they are measurably better.”

By 1968, Bill had built more than 1200 homes. He had made a name for himself in the career of his choice, and had a secure position with his company. Bill could have stopped there. But that was never his way. All around him new ideas were blooming; the first Earth Day was still a few years away, and the term “ecology” was not yet in common use. It was a time of stirring and anticipation, as society took its first steps onto untested ground. And Bill Brosius would not be able to resist the chance to put his mark on this new age.


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