Just ten days after it was photographed for our winter issue, Graeme Nistler and Megan Leddy’s mid-century modern labor-of-love was torpedoed by a falling branch. But the Cliff May mavens are moving forward, determined to make their Harvey Park home even better than before.

Words: Katie Grogan

For realtors and self-taught designers Graeme Nistler and Megan Leddy, updating Cliff May houses is not so much a project as a way of life. Their mid-century modern abode in Harvey Park, featured in our current issue, is the second home designed by the famed architect that the couple has undertaken. After three years of renovation — most of which they did themselves — their mammoth remodel culminated October 1st of 2020 with a photoshoot of their home for Modern In Denver. Photographer Jess Blackwell was particularly excited about the exterior shots. The trees in the mid-century neighborhood of Harvey Park are tall and established and the two towering trees in the couple’s backyard framed the house in the twilight — a perfect scene for the cover of the issue.
Ten days later, the couple was enjoying a laid-back Sunday afternoon. A wind storm was picking up outside, but Nistler and Leddy were going about their business, he at the kitchen table and she in the kitchen. They heard a few twigs from their backyard silver maple tree pattering on the roof, but that was to be expected as silver maples are notorious for shedding dead or decaying limbs in the slightest inclement weather. Suddenly, a large branch came down on the picnic table outside. Nistler got up from his place at the kitchen table, surveyed the damage, and removed the branch, tossing it onto the patio. Not thirty seconds after he returned inside, there was an even bigger snap.
The image of Nistler and Leddy's home, taken by Jess Blackwell, that became the cover of our Winter issue.
“The only way I can describe it is ‘sped up in slow motion,'” recounts Nistler, “It happened so quickly, but processing something that traumatic made it feel like we were underwater, in slow motion.” The wind had snapped off a 3,500 lbs branch, catapulting it—like a spear—into their living room, just feet from where Nistler and Leddy were sitting. Miraculously, no one was hurt—which was lucky. Nistler says normally, the two sit on the couch which was directly in line with the trajectory of the branch. “We didn’t really know what to do,” explains Nistler, “but our immediate reaction was ‘Let’s get the hell out of here, the rest of it’s coming down.'” The couple grabbed their dogs, a few items, and evacuated to Leddy’s mother’s house.
After the dust settled and the branch the weight of a Honda Civic was removed from the roof, the damage ended up being worse than Nister and Leddy had anticipated. In piercing through the ceiling, the branch had torn through the skim coat over the dry wall, releasing asbestos in what’s known as an “asbestos spill.” Having left in a hurry (and understandably not knowing the protocol for when a tree branch stabs through one’s roof), Nistler and Leddy left the HVAC system on, which picked up the released asbestos in the living room and distributed the airborne fibers throughout the home.
Top: An image of the living room from our winter issue, which was later used in the claim Nistler and Leddy submitted to their insurance company. Above: The 3,500lb branch broke through the ceiling, releasing asbestos hiding in the skim coat over the drywall.
A naturally-forming, fibrous mineral, asbestos was used widely in construction from 1946 to 1980 due to its heat resistance, strength and affordability. As a result, asbestos is relatively common problem in mid-century homes like Nistler and Leddy’s 1955 abode. Fortunately, asbestos is harmless when left undisturbed so it’s most often encountered in controlled situations, like when considering a significant remodel, and can be removed without issue.
However, in Nistler and Leddy’s case, airborne asbestos fibers had been pushed all over their home, leaving only one option: asbestos abatement. During abatement, the exposed area is sealed off and asbestos is removed from the air and hard surfaces, such as walls, countertops, and wood furniture. However, once asbestos lands on soft materials or touches anything with a grill or intake (like appliances or electronics), it is impossible to remove. Therefore, the whole item is placed in a sealed bag and disposed of by asbestos professionals. “So any furniture, clothes, or any sort of textural element had to be completely destroyed,” explains Nislter, along with all their appliances,  electronics, and even their fireplace. In the end, Nistler estimates that they lost around 80-90% of all the physical contents of their home.
Remarkably, however, the Cliff May mavens are optimistic. Making lemonade out of lemons, Nistler and Leddy are taking this opportunity to make their home even better than it was before. “There were instances during the remodel where we compromised on our original vision because we realized it would require some major re-wiring or relocating and now, since everything is torn apart, we can really do the home 110% the way we imagined it,” says Nistler. Working with insurance, the immediate repairs—like to roof—have already been completed, but Nistler expects that the rest of the remodel will be completed by July.
In the meantime, Nistler and Leddy are still living in their home and while the situation isn’t ideal, Nistler says they’ve lived through worse. “During the first remodel, we lived through a quasi-triaged-tent situation when a construction mix-up left us without doors for about four months. We had plywood and plastic tarps over seven of our door openings so we had all kinds of mice and bugs. So as long as we’re sealed, we’re okay,” jokes Nistler.
Nistler and Leddy’s house may have fallen victim to the cascading misfortunes of 2020, but it’s their inspiring attitude and perspective that makes all the difference. Maybe, after a challenging year, Nistler and Leddy’s story is a model for picking up the pieces and moving forward in 2021. “With everything that happened in 2020, it seemed like everyone was saying ‘okay, what’s next.’ Then we had our big ‘what’s next,'” says Nistler. “But instead of wallowing, we’re going to try to be positive.”