Harwell Hamilton Harris, FAIA

Mary and Lee Blair House, 1939

by Alan Hess

Current Photographs by Cameron Carothers unless otherwise noted

The ultimate emblem of America’s mid-twentieth century love affair with modernism may not be the iconic 1949 Eames fiberglass chair or the indoor-outdoor Eichler tract houses of the early 1950s. It was arguably Walt Disney Studio’s adoption of a stylized modern aesthetic in its popular animated movies Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953) — a far cry from the traditional Old World fairy tale look of Snow White and Pinocchio in the 1930s. And it was a female artist – Mary Blair (1911-1978)—who helped Walt Disney plot that new direction. So, fittingly, the 1939 house that noted Los Angeles architect Harwell Hamilton Harris (1903-1990) designed for Mary and her husband Lee (1911-1993) is equally significant.

The Blairs were not only modern artists, they lived modern at a time when the modernist movement in Southern California was at its most fertile and prolific. Mary’s watercolor, gouache or collage paintings defined the mood and look of Disney’s new films with stylized shapes, biomorphic forms and bold fields of vibrant color that were drawn from the era’s modern art forms, from cubism to surrealism. Her confident, colorful compositions rank with the work of modern graphic designers like Alexander Girard, Alvin Lustig and Ray Eames, and they seem to anticipate David Hockney. “Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of before,” Mary once said. At a time when women in the animation industry were mostly relegated to inking cells at low wages, she was one of Walt Disney’s favorite artists.

The house Harris designed for the Blairs embodied that emerging spirit of modernism in California. Tucked on a small hillside street overlooking the San Fernando Valley near Cahuenga Pass, the design was at the frontier of modern architecture when Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner, Gregory Ain and Richard Neutra (Harris’ former boss) were taking modern architecture in newcreative directions beyond the International Style. But over the years, the house had been added to, original windows removed, and new coats of paint added—until it was restored to virtually original condition by designer David Brudnicki.

Brudnicki and his team quickly realized the high quality of Harris’ original design and committed themselves to honoring his architectural concept and the results do justice to an excellent design. Some decisions were easier; scraping away layers of paint or peering behind hinges, they were able to determine the original soft gray-green color of the wood trim. The living room’s original wood and glass doors had been replaced, but with repairs most of them could still be used — even though they had been stored outside for fifty years!

In other cases, the original details were not as easy to determine, but Brudnicki reports that the design itself helped them. Harris used a regular module for the structure, so Brudnicki and his contractor Ray Wright could follow the logic of the structure in returning the house to its original state. Wright kept a close lookout for original construction details, such as the pattern of nails (not glue) on paneling, or the use of mitered corners. Restoration plumber Ryan Soniat went outof his way to find the original American Standard handles for the bathroom fixtures, and replated an original nickel light fixture. Brudnicki discovered another way to confirm their decisions: They found that when anything non-original was taken off, the house just looked better.

One historic detail they could confirm: Lee Blair helped build the house himself. Behind walls they found written notes that said “Mr. Blair hammer here” to guide him. With an architect of Harris’ caliber, there was always a reason for each detail of the plan. His creative genius at this early point in his career can now be fully appreciated. Though the house was published in Architectural Forum and House Beautiful when new, it is not widely known. Likewise, Harris is also not as widely known as he deserves to be. Restored, the Blair house shows off the rich range of sources and ideas the architect drew upon, and his own creativity in pushing those ideas to new places.

Harris had two huge advantages in becoming a modern architect in California. First, he is a native, born in the rich agricultural town of Redlands and he understood the region’s climate, landscape, and its forward-thinking people. Second, his first job as an architect (he had studied sculpture at L.A.’s seminal Chouinard Institute of Art) was in the office of Richard Neutra, possibly the best place to learn about modern architecture at a time when the architecture schools were still teaching Beaux Arts Classicism. In his own work, Harris quickly melded his knowledge of the place and culture with his knowledge of new materials and forms. The Blair house is convincing evidence.

The Blairs were a working couple whose clients included various animation studios and advertising agencies. And when possible, they devoted time to their real love—their own fine art painting. Both were part of the California School of painting which included figures such as Phil Dike, Millard Sheets, and Charles Payzant. So the one-bedroom house Harris designed for them was a perfect fit for their simple lifestyle. And the steep hillside site the house was built on helped determine its design as much as anything else. Too steep to carve out a flat building pad, the site caused Harris to stack the three levels one atop the other, taking advantage of the spatial play suggested by this arrangement. The first floor was for entertaining friends; it featured the living room, dining area and kitchen. The zig-zagging staircase leads to the one bedroom and bathroom.

Another set of stairs leads to a spacious studio. Each level has its own private outdoor space. Harris crafted each floor – and its distinct function – to take advantage of the light, ventilation, expansive views of the San Fernando Valley, and easy access to the wooded hillside. Though the house is not large, Harris makes the space functional and flexible with built-in furniture and movable wall dividers.

A later owner added a mechanized funicular to get from the street-level garage up to the front door, but the Blairs used a switchback path up the hill. Twin front doors are made of ribbed glass,so that even before entering, visitors can see the natural light, filtered through the trees, that fills the house. The living room and dining area are one space – but this is not the undefined “universal space” of Mies van der Rohe’s version of modernism. Harris mixes window walls with solid walls clad in unpainted plywood as well as built-in furniture to maximize the use of the space. To the left, the brick fireplace is an abstract sculpture in itself. A built-in couch and side table next to it create a corner that feels safe and cozy. To one side, a floor-to-ceiling glass bay, cantilevered over the hillside, expands the view out to the canyon. On the other side is another wall of glass that looks out to an intimate but spacious patio and the wooded hillside beyond. This glass wall unites the living/entertaining area into a single indoor-outdoor room.
Harris’ subtle and logical decorative touches should also be noted: The movable French doors frame a solid piece of glass, while the fixed frames at the corners are divided into five horizontal panels to create a lively contrasting rhythm. At the other end of the living room, two solid walls clad in unpainted plywood panels define the dining area. Depending on how informal the hosts want to be, the kitchen beyond can be left open to view or shut off with a large two-panel folding door that matches the plywood, creating a seamless wood wall. The space is not large, but there is no sense of being cramped. Well-trained in modern principles, Harris makes the space itself the architecture; the walls and ceilings subtly shape it. The architect absorbed the lessons of his friend Frank Lloyd Wright: windows always turn the corner to break the boxy feel of traditional architecture; glass walls extend the living space to the outside; the ceiling height rises or lowers to suggest expansiveness or intimacy; a dropped soffit over the built-in sofa increases its intimate feel and hides indirect lighting (a relatively new idea in 1939) to reflect softly off the white Celotex ceiling (also a new product).

Harris clearly grasped the logical aspect of modernism. The house is a complex of many interlocking systems: Structure, walls, mechanical systems, openings for ventilation, sources of light (both natural and artificial), and so on. Like Rudolph Schindler (another Southern California architect and European ex-pat he knew and admired), Harris’ design draws its art from revealing that complexity, rather than disguising it behind a false simplicity. So the structure is exposed in the four-by-four wood posts along the glass walls and embedded in the solid walls. He celebrates them throughout the house by painting them gray-green to contrast with the light-toned walls and then emphasizing them with a delicate decorative reveal of thin wood moldings.

Compact stairs lead from the entry vestibule to the master bedroom. The visitor may not notice it at first, but a high window floods the stair with natural light from the side. It washes the walls to pick up different tints in the paint color and gradations in the shadows. As artists, the Blairs must have appreciated the ever-changing light. The house is a three dimensional work of art.

The master bedroom repeats the themes of the living room, but reconfigured for privacy. Built-in furniture has the efficiency of a ship’s stateroom. The roof of the lower floor becomes a private deck looking out to the view – while glass French doors let you step directly out onto the hill on the other side. Up one more flight of steps is the spacious studio where Mary Blair worked at her drafting table, with a built-in counter for supply drawers and a sink. A sloped ceiling catches northern light from the high clerestory windows and reflects it evenly through the room – the room is a machine for painting in. Like the other floors, a deck allowed Mary and Lee to enjoy the panoramic view of the Valley on one side. On the other side, a twelve-foot-long glass door slides completely off its opening to invite them to step outside onto the wooded knoll.

It was in this studio that Mary created many of her designs between 1939 and the mid – 1940s. Many were influenced by the 1941 South American excursion lead by Walt and Lillian Disney for the Blairs and several other studio artists. The native folk art and brilliant colors Mary discovered there became a major influence on her artwork. And even the intrusion of World War II didn’t disrupt her work—though it changed her base of operations.

During the war, Lee was stationed near Washington, D.C., and after, he established himself in New York as a TV commercial and industrial film producer. The couple moved from their hillside home by Harris to a house (also modern) in the Long Island suburb of Great Neck. Their two children arrived in 1946 and 1950, but Mary remained a career woman ahead of her times, commuting by plane to Burbank to work on different projects for Disney through the years. She also worked with advertising agencies in New York, wrote children’s books, and designed the sets for a Duke Ellington mini-opera at Radio City Music Hall. Walt Disney always kept a lookout for projects suited to Mary’s talents; of these, her best known is undoubtedly the design for the Pepsi-Cola and UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It proved so popular that Uncle Walt moved the whole ride featuring hundreds of international doll-like children back to Disneyland where it became universally known as “It’s a Small World.”

Today, the restored Blair house reminds us of the extraordinary range of creative design that Southern California generated in the mid twentieth century. Harwell Harris was part of it, and well aware of other architects’ work. The Blair house’s wide overhangs and horizontal redwood boards with thin battens echo Frank Lloyd Wright. The contrast of large transparent walls with opaque walls defining specific functions (like the dining area) reflect the geometries of Neutra houses. The design’s intricate three – dimensional interlocking of space, structure, form and function recall Schindler’s originality. Going back to an even earlier period, the house’s thoughtful redwood construction acknowledges the Craftsman designs of Charles and Henry Greene at a time when the brothers from Pasadena had been mostly forgotten; it was Harris’ wife Jean Murray Bangs who rediscovered their work and brought their contributions back to the attention of the architectural community – and Harris.

The design, however, is unmistakably Harris’ own creative vision. The similarities simply remind us of the fertility of the region’s rapidly evolving architecture. Harris and his colleagues all responded to key aspects of Southern California: the benign climate, the hillside sites, the panoramic views, the casual lifestyle that drew people there. He understood Californians’ lack of pretension and used natural, newly invented, and inexpensive materials like plywood, Celotex, woven grass carpets, and grass cloth fabric on sliding doors (echoing Harris’ interest in Japanese architecture) – he used them simply, yet with as much care as if they were luxurious materials. Harris built on what went before and took it further.

Placed alongside the work of John Lautner, Lloyd Wright, Gregory Ain, and A. Quincy Jones from the same year, the Blair house demonstrates the astonishing range of ideas that constitute modernism in California. It even appears to be prescient about the future of California architecture: In the top floor studio’s shed roof you can see the revolutionary shed roofs to be popularized by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull and Whitaker at Sea Ranch 30 years later. In this design, however, the clients added a unique dimension. The Blairs were Southern Californians who had painted every aspect of the region, from the cliffs overlooking the ocean beaches to the slums of Bunker Hill to the Okie migrant camps of the Depression years. They chose their house’s site for its peaceful rural beauty, and yet it was just minutes from the animation studios for which they worked, on the leading edge of popular technology and culture. The delightful and surprising quality of light captured throughout the house as the sun moves across the sky would not be lost on these artists. The way Harris overlaps three dimensional space is as freshly modern as the way Mary Blair used cubist concepts to flatten traditional Renaissance perspective in her paintings. Her work links Disney’s mass audience modernism with high art culture without diminishing either.

Jones House #1

Designed by A. Quincy Jones and Ruth Schneider

by Cory Buckner

Current Photographs by Cameron Carothers unless otherwise noted

In 1936, A. Quincy Jones relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles with his girlfriend and fellow student Ruth Schneider, seeking out the mecca of experimental modern architecture. At the University of Washington, Jones and Schneider, as well as fellow students Minoru Yamasaki and Roland Terry, had been greatly influenced by their professor Lionel Pries, a skilled artist and architect. Several students boarded at the Pries house, including Jones, where weekly soirees were held to discuss books or to listen to Pries regaling the group with stories of his worldly travels. While teaching the Beaux-Arts approach to architecture for the first two years, Pries also encouraged students to respond to emerging, experimental vocabularies in architecture as long as they followed the basic foundation course. The remaining three years students were encouraged to be creative, expressing each problem on their own terms. This unique education produced some of the finest modern architects of the time.

Not only the climate in Southern California but also the progressive political thought created a stimulating atmosphere for a young population of architects eager to experiment in materials and forms. Irving Gill’s 1916 Dodge House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barnsdale House, several of Richard Neutra’s houses including his own VDL House, and Rudolf Schindler’s King’s Road, Lovell Beach and the Howe House, were all standing when Jones and Schneider arrived. One can only imagine the excitement of seeing these structures, newly constructed, all different in their expression of modern architecture.

Schneider and Jones married in 1937 and soon both landed jobs as interns to architects; Jones worked first for Douglas Honnald from 1936 to 1937 and Schneider and Jones worked for Burton A. Schutt from 1937 to 1939. Both architecture firms were highly regarded as modernist design firms. This creative atmosphere soon filled Jones and Schneider with a desire to express their own design skills and build a house of their own. After a brief search, the couple found a lot within their budget but also considered unbuildable. Located in Laurel Canyon on the southeastern slope of Lookout Mountain, the steep lot presented a challenge but the architects were not deterred. Jones and Schneider spent hours designing their dream house while obtaining the soils reports needed to prove the property buildable. The architects came up with a practical plan to afford the construction since their meager $35-per-week salary was hardly conducive for creating a grand residence. They conceived of two structures side-by-side, separated by several feet but sharing a large deck, one of which would serve as a rental property and the other as their home.

Carved out of the hillside, the structures rise out of the ground on a base of concrete, which supports both structures and contains the garage on one side. The upper floors seem to float off the base with two very distinct structures faced in redwood with walls of glass. One structure cants forward at the top and the other originally canted in the opposite direction, creating an active dialog between the two. The panoramic view east toward Los Angeles is the focal point of both the rental unit and the house structure.

The influence of Japanese architecture is apparent in the use of the horizontal wood siding and the way the structure blends into the hillside. Jones was influenced by Japanese architecture at a very early age during years spent on his grandparent’s farm, which neighbored the Kobata Nursery. The Kobatas were a close-knit family with an acute attention to detail and a drive for excellence. This was Jones’ first introduction into the Japanese sensibility that was to influence him throughout his career. Jones and Schneider selected a hewn timber to act as the support post at both staircase areas recalling an element often seen in traditional Japanese architecture.

Building two separate structures proved ideal in a way the two would not have been able to imagine. Both Jones and Schneider sat for the architecture exams in 1942. Jones passed and received his certification but Schneider did not. The marriage was not able to survive this unequal standing and ended the same year as Jones’ certification. It was also the same year Jones entered military service and served as a lieutenant commander in the Pacific on the aircraft carrier Lexington.

Jones married Anne Bruce Austin in 1943. While in the service, Jones designed the remodel of the Laurel Canyon structures. The structure to the south, which served as the rental property, became his office with several drafting stations for future employees. The over-scaled brick fireplace in the rental unit became part of the drafting room. At the same time, the other structure to the north was remodeled. The deck at the front of the house was incorporated into the living area. The dramatic bookcase that reflects the same angle of the canted exterior wall hides the structural support. The original glass wall was removed and a window wall added inline with the canted form creating a dramatic view window to the city lights beyond. Canted glass became an element in many of Jones’ future designs since angled glass will not reflect the interior space at night as vertical glass does, freeing the eye to see the nightscape beyond the perimeter.

As Elaine Sewell Jones, Jones’ third wife, liked to recall, Jones opened his office the day of his discharge from the Navy and had his first client by the end of the day. That was to be the beginning of a productive career that spanned thirty-four years until his death in 1979. There are many features in the Jones House #1 that were springboards for elements seen throughout Jones career. The roof rafters at sixteen feet-on-center run the length of the sloping roof and are left exposed. This was the beginning of Jones interest in exposing building structure and material. The later housing projects he designed typically have exposed post-and-beam structures and exposed finish materials. Since a certain amount of blocking between rafters was necessary and the designers felt that most ceilings were too dull, they devised a richly painted egg-crate effect for the rafters and blocking, which carries through to the outside overhangs. It was Jones’ first coffered ceiling, an element he would use many times during his career. Jones used this element for his second house with Anne, the Jones House #2, a steel house built in the Crestwood Hills area of Los Angeles. The egg crate construction made of wood is used as a skylight area, creating a warm juxtaposition with the steel construction.

Often turning the egg-crate on its side to create a screen, Jones used this element on the Nordlinger Residence #1, Palm Springs Town and Country Restaurant in Palm Springs, and the Bel Air Garden Apartments. It’s interesting to note that the client, Nina Anderton, owner of the Bel Air Gardens, was also the person from which Jones bought the Nash Drive lot. That initial purchase became a profitable one for Jones, leading to commissions including several additions to the Anderton home in Los Angeles, a confectionary shop in Santa Monica, and several referrals with Anderton’s friends.The egg-crate idea morphed into the waffle design or the air-distribution flow system that Jones developed with a grant from the Public Health Research (HEW) to present to hospitals. He believed this system would provide a clean and efficient way to accommodate change, something mandatory in a hospital environment. The system of floor ducts makes it possible to punch into the concrete flooring to reach vaults running in eight directions. Lines for utilities or communications can be inserted and run in any of the directions.

The air-floor system eliminated the need for dropped ceilings to conceal mechanical runs and reduce the typical floor-to-floor height. While the system was not adopted for hospitals, Jones did implement it with the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California and the Graduate Research Library at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus, Honolulu, allowing the user to make changes in the sub-floor connections for media equipment or utilities.

The sofa Jones designed for the living portion of the Jones House #1 expressed Jones interest in built-ins. Part of the modernist aesthetic was to keep furniture to a minimum, easily achieved with built-ins, which Jones designed throughout his career. One sofa unit removed from one of Jones’ designs is currently owned by the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

When put into the context of other modern residential structures designed in the late thirties, the Jones House #1 stands as a completely unique structure. The two architects do not appear to have been influenced by current styles but chose to design to their own program and to address the site specifically. Their creative solution is to be admired and respected. It is a small structure with a large vision.

98 Bell Canyon Road Bell Canyon CA 91307


Cliff May, native Californian & a self-taught builder of genius, built his entire career on the premise that houses here should all but compel us outdoors into the sunshine every day. Here is May’s model home for Bell Canyon, one of his last master-planned horse communities. This meticulously renovated property is in May’s “Atomic Ranch” Modern style on a grand scale. The long, low lines of the one-story structure are penetrated by a glorious open porte cochere, dividing auto court, 3-car garages, workshop & two horse stalls from the residence proper. The flat 4/5+ acre lot affords a separate central recreation area with both covered & open patios and a pool, sheltered by bedroom and public wings to either side of a classic May-style skylit, gabled living room. Secure & gated, the unincorporated community’s HOA dues also maintain May’s original Community & Equestrian Centers.

3580 Multiview Drive, Los Angeles CA 90068

The Kallis-Sharlin Residence

First offering: City of Los Angeles Cultural Historic Monument #380, The Kallis-Sharlin Residence, 1946, by architect Rudolph Schindler, with later additions by Josef Van der Kar, and L.A. Twelve architect Leroy Miller, F.A.I A.

Art and Music have always flourished in this dynamic space originally designed for artist Mischa Kallis as a residence and art studio. In 1960 Kallis sold the property directly to his cousin Jacqueline and her husband William Sharlin. Jacqueline was a noted concert pianist who had actually performed at Carnegie Hall.


Read More by clicking on the image!

490 La Loma Road, Pasadena CA 91105

Theodore Pletsch, Architect

The Crowell Residence, 1967The Crowell Residence

The Crowell Residence, 1967, by architect Theodore Pletsch in collaboration with owner/decorator Jean Crowell. Eleven years after its completion, an article in the Los Angeles Times Home Magazine celebrated the timelessness of the property, attributing this quality to Crowell’s design sense acquired while living abroad. Structures on-site exude a rare hybrid of the modern & the classical, combining an old-world sense of color & material with a contemporary sensibility. Three sets of massive glass doors open to the formal garden & Greco-Roman swimming pool, which was originally part of a sprawling Orange Grove estate by the venerable architecture firm Bennett & Haskell. The main residence incorporates a double-height living room, formal dining room, 2 bedrooms, 3 baths, a laundry & an attached 2-car garage. The entry passage draws the visitor into the back yard where the guesthouse – with its open plan living area, kitchen, bedroom & bath – anchors the vista across the pool.

1221 North Lake Way


Historic Modernist Home Ocean to Lake

Belford Shoumate Architect Modernist Home

1221 North Lake Way was built in 1937 and designed by Belford Shoumate, one of the most popular Modernist architects on the island of Palm Beach. Designed as a 6,000 sq. ft. “Nautical Mansion,” the “Fore and Aft House” was featured in the 1939 World’s Fair as one of the House of Tomorrow. That fair’s lasting influence on American Architecture, and its fascination with industrial design and speed, can be seen in this unique property.

The southern elevation at 1221 has concrete porthole columns that repeat along the windowed curtain wall and the upper decks feature steamship railings. The Aft (eastern elevation) has a 2-car Y shaped garage with 3 exits. The Fore (west) features the pool overlooking the Intracoastal view and dock. The house sits on 65 feet of Intracoastal frontage, offering stunning views and amazing sunsets as well as a deep-water dock. The nautical-like design has the effect of a boat, sitting on the lot overlooking the Intracoastal. Equally important, the Fore and Aft House is the only Lakefront house in Palm Beach with its own deeded oceanfront cabana down the block.

Most of the original details remain, including some custom furnishings. The Fore and Aft House was designed with 5 bedrooms with exterior doors to enter and exit the exterior decks, not unlike steamships of the day. Many of the original bathroom details remain, and any missing elements could be easily found and restored.

265 Sylvan Road Glencoe IL 60022

Frank Lloyd Wright

The Sherman Booth Residence

Frank Lloyd Wright Sherman Booth Residence for sale

A unique home from Prairie School master Frank Lloyd Wright is up for grabs in the North Shore suburb of Glencoe. Know as the Sherman Booth House, the three-story house was built in 1916 for Frank Lloyd Wright’s attorney, Crain’s reveals. The spacious home, which features five bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms, is the largest of six other Wright-designed homes in the Ravine Bluffs subdivision. The house has a distinctive Prairie look to it, but also has some other features that are not common in Wright homes. Most notably, the home has a rooftop deck with a brick fireplace that was part of Wright’s design. According to Crain’s, the current owners purchased the house back in 1967 and are only the third family to own it. They purchased the home from Northwestern University for $74,000 and have renovated it since. However, the current owners have been careful when making any changes as to ensure the home’s architectural integrity. Many of the home’s original fixtures and finishes designed by Wright remain. The Booth Residence is available for the first time in nearly 50 years.

4241 Newdale Drive Los Angeles CA 90027

Milton J. Black, Architect

Streamline Moderne in Los Feliz

Architecture: Streamline Moderne in Los Feliz


Victor M. Carter Residence, Milton J. Black, Architect, 1935. Milton J. Black’s most notable work in Los Angeles spanned several architectural styles, from a Spanish Colonial Revival residence for film star Dolores del Rio, the Deco Mauretania Apartments in Hancock Park, and the legendary hot dog stand, Tail ‘o the Pup. Here, one of his rare residential works survives on a quiet, cul-de-sac street in Los Feliz. The aerodynamic curves and more elegant elements of the Streamline Moderne style in the residence are intact, with original casement windows, exterior copper trim and street address, interior magnesite staircase with chrome handrail, and built-in powder room vanity. A porthole window in the front door invites you into the elegance of the first floor formal dining room, and step down living room with fireplace and curved ceiling detail. 4 bedrooms with a 2nd story patio off the master bedroom, 4 bathrooms, den with built-in bar, and terraced backyard with fruit trees.

The Modern House – Conell’s White House


By Stacy Downs

Photography by Bob Greenspan

The international legacy of Bruce Goff continues to grow. Along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, Goff in recent years has become considered one of the few American “starchitects.” Buildings designed by Goff (1904-1982) remain ahead of their time. German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz lets Goff architecture speak for itself in the 2003 documentary “Goff in the Desert.” There is no commentary about the 62 buildings featured in the film — noise comes from nature — so that the viewer can let the mind’s eye do the talking on the details that are purely Goff.

Unusual exteriors.

Goff residences stand out in neighborhoods because of their curious shapes including tepees, ships and canoes. Geometrics. Floor plans might be octagonal with a circular family room and triangular windows.

Shiny Things.

Ornamentation is abundant. Objects such as sparkling paisley tile and glass dime-store ashtrays play with light and cast reflections. Strips of cellophane were used as chandeliers and turkey feathers were attached to ceilings so they danced as a home’s occupants strode through. Even coal was used as a decorative application.

Color Everywhere.

Walls, tile, countertops, carpet and ornamentation are in bold hues including emerald green, sapphire blue and bubblegum pink.

Lots of Light.

Although his houses stand out among the landscape, people can connect with nature because his houses are surrounded by windows and contain large skylights.

Sensible Floor Plans.

Living space is huge for entertaining. Private spaces, such as bedrooms, were kept small. Cabinetry and tables often were built into the home. In 1966, University of Kansas architecture student Kurt Youngstrom knew about Goff and the details that made his buildings unique. He encouraged his parents, Karl and Glenna Youngstrom, to work with a forward-thinking architect when they wanted to build their empty-nest retirement home in Lake Quivira, Kansas, a lakeside community in the Kansas City metropolitan area with an 18-hole golf course that became gated just that year. Youngstrom’s mother was keen on architect Fay Jones designing their home. Jones, who apprenticed for Wright and was a student of the Prairie School, was the first dean of the University of Arkansas School of Architecture and is now the school’s namesake. Jones later became famous for Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, only 20 years after it was built. Typically buildings take 50 years to be placed on the registry, but the tall glass-walled structure was considered so architecturally significant that it defied the rules. Jones held his first teaching position from 1950 to 1952 at the University of Oklahoma, working alongside Goff. Youngstrom’s father, a radiologist, wanted to work with Goff. “There’s excitement to his work,” said Youngstrom, who is now a working architect.

Boy Architect

Goff’s story is exciting, too. He began working as an architect in 1916 — he was 12. By the time he turned 21, he designed 25 structures of which 12 were built. He was born in 1904 in Alton, Kansas, a town of less than 400 residents. Two years later, his family began a series of moves to other small towns in Oklahoma. They stayed with his great-grandmother who encouraged his drawing and whose collection of shells, crystals and feathers fascinated him. Much of his time was spent indoors be cause the weather was too hot, too cold or too windy. When the family did venture out, the bright colors and geometric patterns worn by Native Americans stood out among the bleak landscape. The family finally landed in Tulsa, small-town-turned-city because of oil. Its population increased from less than 1,500 in 1900 to almost 150,000 in 1930. Goff drew imaginary buildings, which his father encouraged. On a Saturday near the end of the school year in 1916, his father took him downtown and into the first architectural office he could find. He began apprenticing for E.A. Rush & Co. Architects. Rush admired the work of Louis Sullivan, and Wright, which in turn influenced Goff. “When I first saw Mr. Wright’s work in 1916 or 1917, I was extremely impressed,” Goff said. “In fact, I couldn’t eat, sleep or think of anything but Wright for about three years.” (The two would go on to be friends.)

In his early 20s, Goff designed the Boston Avenue Methodist- Episcopal Church in Tulsa, regarded as one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the country. This skyrocketed his career, earning him publicity and commissions. Goff didn’t attend architecture school on the advice of Wright because he might “risk losing what made him Bruce Goff in the first place.” Goff’s unconventional approach to design made him a rare architect in the traditional times of the 1930s and 1940s. Although he remained classically unschooled, he was so respected artistically that he became chair of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma from the 1940s through the mid-1950s. Goff liked individuality. He enjoyed painting, appreciated Japanese art and composing and listening to music. Goff disliked conformity. “Commonism,” he said, was at least as great a threat to America as communism. He nicknamed developers’ subdivisions “Sunken Heights” and ranch houses “ranchburgers.” In 1950, he designed his most famous work, the Bavinger house, a stone-studded spiraling house built in Norman, Oklahoma. (Completed in 1955 and though on the National Register of Historic Places, it was demolished in 2011 after a microburst struck.) After leaving the university, Goff moved his office to the Price Tower, a Wright building in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and designed other noted Oklahoma residences and buildings into the 1960s.

Goff In Kansas City

In 1964, Goff moved from Oklahoma to Kansas City to create a commercial, prefabricated housing development. The project never came to light, but he did design four houses built in the area, including the Youngstrom house. All still stand. Goff lived in a bungalow south of 51st and Main streets, close to Kansas City’s world-famous Country Club Plaza, known for its Spanish-inspired architecture. Goff fixated on ornamental details that created illusions when they interacted with light. Architect Ted Seligson shared office space with Goff in the New York Life Building, a 12-story brick and brownstone tower in downtown Kansas City. Seligson remembers seeing something Goff created on the sidelights of his office windows. Using glue and toothpicks, Goff had placed sequins into patterns. When the sun shone, the sequins blazed like fire flames. “I respected him because he was so unique artistically,” said Seligson, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design in a 2005 Kansas City Star article. “But he was also logical mathematically. His houses were both innovative and pragmatic.”

Goff was soft-spoken, creative and easygoing. He wore traditional suit jackets but jazzed them up with Day-Glo shirts and socks and jewel-studded bolo ties. Goff took his clients’ wishes and needs into consideration. As a result, most of the homes he designed in Kansas City featured abundant family space. Goff’s houses often faced opposition while they were being designed and built. Developers and neighbors balked at their eccentric-shaped exteriors. To this day, motorists stop at the fish-scale shingled Nicol house (1965-67) that Goff designed near the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They ask: “Is this part of the campus?” The tepee-shape stands out like a spaceship among the Tudors and Italianate houses in the neighborhood. Inside, the view is just as jaw-dropping. The family room is a circle in the center of the octagonal floor plan. Banquettes surround a circular fountain underneath an octagonal glass skylight. At night, a fire pit glows above the fountain. A room juts off from each of the home’s eight sides, each painted in a bright color such as cobalt blue, orange or hot pink. Octagonal wooden cutouts from the windows were used to top accent tables. The house was built for James and Betty Nicol and their three children. The couple commissioned Goff to design the house after they heard him deliver a lecture in 1963 at the Kansas City Art Institute. Personal details of the family remain including five nickels embedded into a countertop that commemorate the year the couple married, the year the house was built and the years their children were born. The most eye-catching is the green flooring — five shades form concentric paths around the house like a racetrack. The house has been called a real-life Emerald City palace.

The 4,000-square-foot house was built in 1965 for Lawrence Hyde, a doctor with a wife and four children. The son’s bathroom was blue; the three daughters shared a pink one. Each private space is small in the cross-shaped floor plan. Also in Prairie Village is the Searing house (1967). The late Paul Searing, who worked as a salesman, loved working with Goff. “He was jolly like Santa Claus,” said Searing, who lived in the house Goff designed for him the rest of his life. “Even during the tough times, I never saw him lose his cool. He’d just chuckle.” On the Kansas side of the state line in the Prairie Village suburb, Goff designed the Hyde house (1965). Green colors the houses inside and out. More than 100 green glass ashtrays are fused into doorways, stair railings and sculptural lanterns. The exterior and interior are partly clad in pale-green ceramic bricks. Green bulbs provide accent lighting in the family room. Green geometric designs, punctuated with copper strips, border walls. Green laminate countertops are the focal point in the kitchen. Searing and Goff took field trips as they were planning the house, visiting the screened porch Searing loved in his childhood home. “You could see everything happening around you,” Searing said. “You felt like you were outside.” It took years for the 1,200-square-foot house to be built. Developers and neighbors did not accept plans for sites in south Kansas City and Leawood. Large, triangular metal railings line the front entrance. Metal spikes, like radio antennae, jut from the top and corners. The interior is a large triangle with a view of the outdoors from every angle, like a screened porch. Using accordion doors, the room can be closed off into separate spaces.

The house is unembellished compared to other Goff residences. The Searings wanted a minimal look that highlighted the post-and-beam, barnlike construction. However, Goff did get a bit of glitter: the hearth includes a few sparkly red tiles. The Searings enjoyed the growth of their architect’s legacy, and considered themselves lucky to live in a rarity. Goff designed about 500 houses and commercial buildings. Of those, 147 were built and fewer than 80 still stand. The Searings received frequent calls, emails and visitors who wanted to experience a glimmer of Goff for themselves. The last of all Goff houses built in Kansas City was the Youngstrom house in 1968, part of the common, uncommon Goff legacy.

Scott Lane, co-founder and president of KC Modern, an advocacy organization for modern architecture and design, is familiar with all of the Goff houses in Kansas City and many across the country. “Although all of the Goff houses in Kansas City might differ in floor plan, but they share a feeling inside their walls,” said Lane, who has lived in the Goff-designed Hyde house. “There’s grooviness, but more than that, there is tranquility and calm.” Sails and Canoes Lake Quivira is a 20-minute interstate commute from downtown Kansas City. On the north side of the 224-acre lake is a four-level house on a hillside with unusual mandorla-shaped hoods on the corners. The exuberant design is quintessential Goff, and oddly enough, the perfect lake house. “Sails and Canoes,” says Youngstrom, is what Goff called his parents’ house. The home turns its back to the street with few windows in favor of the views of the lake from each room including the master bedroom. The treed lot, with walking paths to the private boat dock, is situated in a quiet cove with views of the golf course. “My parents enjoyed their time there,” Youngstrom said. They sailed and canoed. His mother, who had been executive director of the Friends of Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, kept a room devoted to orchids, a passion of hers. His father, chair of radiology at the University of Kansas Medical Center, loved walking with his Irish Setters to the golf course.

Youngstrom believes Goff’s work with Hyde, a fellow physician, influenced his father’s decision to work with Goff. The Youngstrom house was designed to fit a large Chinese rug, which belonged to Glenna. A strength of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where she worked, was and continues to be the Chinese collection. She and Goff shared an affinity for Asian arts and culture. “Although I was an architecture student at the time, I actually stayed out of the design process and let my parents work with Mr. Goff without many of my opinions,” Youngstrom said and smiled. And that process took a few years, starting in 1966. It went through three sets of designs before it was purchased. The couple lived in the home for just more than five years. His father’s declining health made different living arrangements necessary. As a gift to his parents, Youngstrom had created a sculpture for the house. Subsequent owners sold it in an estate sale and it had been absent from the house for years. In an odd coincidence, the current owners of the house found the sculpture at a Kansas City furnishings store, and returned it to the home. Youngstrom is proud that his parents worked with Goff a halfcentury ago this year. In his living room in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb that’s about a 15-minute drive from his parents’ house, is an original drawing of Sails and Canoes — his glimmer of Goff.

Third Time’s A Charm

Architect Bruce Goff’s first proposal for Karl and Glenna Youngstrom, completed in March 1967, had not been to Glenna Youngstrom’s liking. It combined cylindrical and rectangular elements, “decorated as if by a milliner,” said architect David G. DeLong in the book he wrote, considered to be the Goff bible, “Bruce Goff: Toward Absolute Architecture” (The MIT Press, 1988). The second proposal, developed in greater detail over the next two months, was more compelling. In plan, three half-mandorlas project from a central core containing a spiral stair. The house was to be three stories high. The Youngstroms were pleased with the design, called “The Orchid House,” but cost estimates exceeded their budget by three times, and the commission was temporarily halted. The third and final proposal for the Youngstrom house, with its grandly scaled window scoops at the corners, was built in 1968. The Youngstrom house is a four-level raised ranch. On the exterior corners are massive scoops: Sails and Canoes.

Connell’s White House

The Modern House – Conell’s White House


By Albert Hill


When it was constructed – now over 80 years ago – the house that Amyas Connell (1901-80) designed for Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson in the sedate surroundings of the Surrey countryside caused tremendous shockwaves. Still today, seeing if for the first time as you come round the curving drive, it is a startling experience. “More like an invention by Picasso than a house,” was the view of Raymond McGrath, who included it in his 1934 book ‘Twentieth Century Houses.’ A building “not limited by old ideas” he added admiringly.
Picasso was indeed a major source of inspiration for the young Connell, a New Zealander who moved to London in the mid–1920s and who had spent much of his time leading up to the design of Dickinson’s house soaking up the ideas of European avant-garde. He admired and studied the work of artists (Connell began his career as an artist before switching to architecture), designers and, of course, architects — with one architect in particular proving pivotal in shaping his outlook. Le Corbusier was, for Connell and his friends, “a revelation.” As Basil Ward, Connell’s colleague at the firm Connell, Ward & Lucas has said, “Le Corbusier’s work stirred us greatly, so clear was it in its intention and so uncompromising in its execution”.