Architect saves 1923 Webster Groves bungalows


By Mary Delach Leonard Specially for the Post-Dispatch

In early 2020, architect Nathan Dirnberger rescued two small, dilapidated cottages in Webster Groves and gave them a new lease of life, ensuring they would live to 100 years with grace on the outside and contemporary style on the inside.

The identical twin bungalows, built on adjoining lots, were priced as demolition, and they looked good: dull, dirty shingles. Uncared for lots. Garages full of junk. Filthy, cramped living space carved into four rooms that reeked of vermin and neglect.

Architect Nathan Dirnberger has cleaned and painted the exterior of the two century-old bungalows he bought to retire in Webster Groves.

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Dirnberger, who was in the process of selling his renovated home in St. Louis, needed a place to live and saw the houses as a new project. When concerns about the impending COVID-19 pandemic briefly froze the real estate market, the seller cut the price in half.

“The houses were listed for $90,000 each, and I woke up one morning and they were $45,000 each,” Dirnberger said. He doubts that someone else would have bought the buildings to renovate.

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“I always buy houses that look unhappy because the price is low, and it encourages me to do something with them,” Dirnberger said. “I think I can intuitively see the value. But that was hard to see in these houses.”

Dirnberger refreshes the exterior of the homes while retaining their original character. He cleaned the shingles and painted one house red and the other bluish green. He replaced the old garages with sturdy new constructions that blend into the houses. The most notable exterior change is the wooden walkway Dirnberger built to the porch of the red house, which he first renovated and where he now lives.


At home with architect Nathan Dirnberger

Dirnberger removed the original 30-foot ceiling and all other beams to create what he describes as the feel of an old country chapel, while preserving the integrity of the structure.

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“The slope was steep as I came out the front door, and it felt like the house was in a low depression. Psychologically, it felt downhill,” Dirnberger said. “The bridge allows the house to feel a little prouder and more confident.”

The transformation within is as dramatic as it is unexpected. Dirnberger ripped out the ceiling and walls to create an airy, open space with a 14-foot ceiling and curving walls bathed in natural light. The living space remains a compact 750 square feet, but the height makes the rooms feel larger and more modern. This also applies to the curved wall that gently demarcates the kitchen and living area.

Dirnberger, who is also a builder, taught himself how to plaster a curved wall through a process he calls “trial by fire.”


“You only have so long to put the plaster on the wall after mixing it with water. There’s a learning curve to creating rounded edges,” he said.

At home with architect Nathan Dirnberger

Dirnberger built the kitchen cabinets so that they would feel sturdy enough “for an elephant to walk over”. He painted the cabinet-grade plywood with high-gloss automotive paint.

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Dirnberger designed the robin’s egg blue kitchen cabinets with efficiency and mid-century style in mind. He finished them with high-gloss automotive paint, which made them look like porcelain metal.

During the renovation, Dirnberger lived next door in the green house, which he calls the “hobo cabin.” He plans to replicate the same open floor plan in that house, but without the curved walls that were so laborious.

Dirnberger grew up in rural Cape Girardeau. He studied architecture at Kansas State University and then traveled Japan to study architecture. He worked for an architectural firm for 10 years.

He is drawn to what he calls creepy projects, which require creative problem solving with space and materials. An example is Earthbound Brewing on Cherokee Street, where he used chains to hang a mezzanine from the ceiling.

Dirnberger regularly works on projects with his brother, who also rehabilitates homes in St. Louis. And he credits his father, who built a passive solar house in 1985, as the impetus for his interest in architecture and his concern for the environment.

Renovating existing structures limits the impact on building materials production that a new home would contain, Dirnberger said.

“And I always like to create a design that makes people comfortable and satisfied, so that they appreciate the space and hopefully don’t start renovating and contributing to global warming or climate change again,” he said.

Dirnberger’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in his Webster Groves neighborhood. He received an e-mail from a woman thanking him for saving the houses, which were built in 1923 by the owner of a hardware store.

Communities need different house sizes, including affordable one-bedroom homes that are beautiful and comfortable, Dirnberger said. And the preservation of small older homes has added value.

“It’s all part of Webster’s character — why we want to be here. The tiny houses and the creepy houses,” he said. “It’s the history, the culture. When you eliminate history, you eliminate culture. What do you have then?”

At home with architect Nathan Dirnberger

Architect Nathan Dirnberger sits for a portrait in the living room of his 750-square-foot home on Monday, February 13, 2023, along Laclede Station Rd. at Webster Groves. Dirnberger hand-renovated the house with curved walls and doors and custom cabinetry. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, [email protected]

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