Tag Archives: Alabama architecture

Paul Rudolph’s Alabama Legacy

Ridgelawn Drive, in the small north Alabama town of Athens, is a pleasant and shady residential street of well-kept lawns and attractive houses. The fact that two of those houses were designed by a premier architect of the mid-20th Century is a surprise that adds to the charm of the place.

On a recent free afternoon, I decided to drive the 30-something miles to Ridgelawn to finally see the Wallace House, designed by American architect Paul Rudolph (www.paulrudolph.org) in the early 1960s. I am always on the prowl for distinctive architecture and have known of that Athens house for decades, but had never taken the time to track it down.

Paul Rudolph (1918-1997), who studied at Harvard under Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus, was born in Kentucky. His father was a Methodist preacher. Paul, as a “preacher’s kid,” was accustomed to frequent moves. He and his family lived in Athens in his high school years and he spoke years later of the Southern architectural influence on his aesthetic:

… my first memories of architecture were the Greek Revival buildings of the area and the sharecroppers’ cottages, both of which intrigued me no end. Both seemed to have a complete validity – in other words, vernacular and so-called high architecture.

There are several Rudolph buildings in Alabama, including houses and buildings in Auburn, and the Chapel at Tuskegee, which Rudolph designed in collaboration with Tuskegee University students.

Chapel at Tuskegee

I am curious about a spectacular unbuilt 1965 design for the “Callahan Residence” in Birmingham. I am aware of another modernist house, designed by Moshe Safdie, on Red Mountain that was owned by a Callahan family and suspect the Rudolph design might have been a contender for that site.

Rudolph earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture at what is now Auburn University, entered the master’s program at Harvard Graduate School of Design, served a stint as a soldier in World War II, and finally completed his master’s from Harvard in 1947.

After six years as Chair of Architecture at Yale, Rudolph returned to private practice in 1964, around the time the Wallace house was completed. One of Rudolph’s most noted and enduring designs from those years is the Yale Art and Architecture Building.

Rudolph is most identified with the “brutalist” movement in modern architecture. His buildings were often super-functional without extraneous adornment. They often incorporate structures of basic concrete with some glass. The style can be foreboding and oppressive to the eye. As a lay architecture enthusiast, I appreciate what the brutalist movement was doing, but I don’t always find it appealing.

Back at Ridgelawn Drive in Athens, I came to a big curve in the road and there it was. On first view, the house was such a stark white, and there was so much blank white space in what I supposed was the front of the house, that I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed almost like a construction site, but the windows just under the flat roof looked like the house was lived in. I don’t trespass on private property so I made do with views from the street.

A grand oval driveway goes up to the building on that side and a curved set of steps indicates an entrance that is not quite visible.

As one continues around the road’s curve, the mature trees are such that the house itself is often obscured. Reaching a mailbox on the side of the road, another angle comes into view. This is, technically, the “rear” of the house, but the power of the design starts to make sense as the house and its spacious courtyard and porch open themselves to a shady wooded lawn.

The house features an open courtyard and 32 massive brick columns, painted a vivid white, supporting a barely visible roof at the façade. When I visited, the façade was in shade, but a distinctive glow emanated from the open courtyard. The house, from the street, seemed to shine from within.

Rudolph said

If you know the location of this house it is clear that it really comes from the Greek Revival architecture of the South, but it certainly doesn’t have any Greek Revival symbols, although its image is similar because it tries to solve some of the same problems.

The stark white and glass basics of the house’s exterior are occasionally broken up by flower pots and concrete lions, colorful chairs in the courtyard, and color fields visible near the entrances. On the day of my visit, two lawn deer were situated at a distance in the back yard; one was standing steady and the other had fallen.

The Wallace family occupied the house until Frances Garth Wallace, who had been a childhood friend of Rudolph, passed away in 2015.

I thought I had sufficiently done my homework on the Wallace House. As I drove back down Ridgelawn and out of the neighborhood, I noted that the other houses on the street were so conventionally removed from the style of the Wallace House.

I noted that there was one other house down the street that looked like it had clearly been impacted by the Rudolph design. When I got home and began to do a little more research about the Wallace House, I discovered that the house that had caught my interest was the Martin House, another Paul Rudolph design on Ridgelawn. In fact, the Martin House actually predated the Wallace House by several years.

Not far away from Ridgelawn Drive, the quaint and charming courthouse square in downtown Athens belies the existence of significant mid-century architecture hidden away in another part of town.

The Rosenbaum House; Florence, Alabama

 I am not sure when I became a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) but I suspect it had something to do with seeing a picture of Fallingwater, his 1935 house for the Kaufmann family built over a waterfall in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. As I learned about his myriad other buildings – the houses in Oak Park, the two Taliesins, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, etc. – I was hooked on the style and philosophy of Wright architecture, and on the life of the prickly and headstrong architect. I love the buildings and the art of the man but I’m not sure I would have liked him much personally.

By the time I actually visited Fallingwater, in 1993, I was pretty well-versed in Wright’s architecture and biography. Seeing Fallingwater for the first time was a spiritual pilgrimage and when I left the house and ventured onto the grounds to look back at the 20th century masterpiece – which has been called the most famous private house ever built – it was hard to drag me away. The combination of the sounds of the creek and the waterfall and the magnificence of the architecture is mesmerizing.

The Rosenbaum House, located in Florence, is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in Alabama. Like all Wright buildings, Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum’s house had its flaws and challenges – leaky roof; dysfunctional heating system; doors, ceiling, and openings built to the scale of the diminutive Mr. Wright; defective chimneys – but it is still a work of a genius architectural vision and the Rosenbaum family lived in it for almost sixty years until Mildred Rosenbaum finally gave it up in 1999.

The Rosenbaums commissioned the house as newlyweds in 1939. It is the second house executed in Wright’s “Usonian” style – a utopian ideal of building practical, organic, and low-cost houses for American families. Some architecture writers consider the Rosenbaum house to be the purest example of Wright’s “Usonian” architecture.

The Rosenbaums agreed to a budget of $7,500 for their house and with construction delays and cost overruns the final building came out closer to $14,000. Problems with leaks and the heating system presented themselves early on and the Rosenbaums had to butt heads with the “old man” on many occasions.

The Rosenbaum house is sited on a pleasant and traditional residential street. It presents a fortress-like demeanor facing Riverview Drive with a brick and cypress wall interrupted by minimal glass at the front door and high windows along the low horizontal façade. There is a cantilevered roof for a carport. Carports were a Wright invention.

Once one steps into the interior of the house, there is abundant light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows and doors looking onto the back yard gently sloping to the Tennessee River. When the house was built, there was a river view. Now, with  tall trees going down to the river, the river itself is only sensed.

The original L-shaped house was 1,540 square feet. Wright’s built-ins – desks, shelves, tables – provide a distinctive Wright feel to the space. The narrow hall in the bedroom wing adds extra drama when one steps into the light and views from each bedroom.

Despite the design flaws, the Rosenbaums treasured their masterpiece and turned to Wright to build an addition when the family outgrew the original space. That 1,084 square foot addition, also L-shaped, incorporates a more spacious kitchen, a guest room, a “dormitory” with bunk beds for the four Rosenbaum boys, and a second cantilevered carport for Mrs. Rosenbaum. The L-shape of the addition embraces a walled Japanese garden.

The Rosenbaums budgeted $15,000 for the 1948 addition; the final cost was closer to $40,000. Such cost overruns are ubiquitous in Wright’s architectural history and homeowners were willing to pay them to live in a Wright house, flaws and all.

In 1999 when the city of Florence acquired the house from Mildred Rosenbaum, a city inspector recommended demolition. The house was overrun with damage from leaks and termites and restoring it seemed to be more than the city could handle. Led by Florence’s mayor and a dedicated group of civic leaders, the city took on the task of restoration and turning the Rosenbaum House into a house museum.

The restored house is now an integral part of Florence’s evolving cultural landscape, drawing thousands of visitors annually. Rosenbaum family effects are still in the house and as much of the Wright-designed furniture as could be retained or reproduced.

I first toured the house when it was newly opened as a museum and find that I return periodically to savor the feel of the place. There is a sense of tranquility and completeness that permeates the building and its grounds. It was a treasure for the Rosenbaums for decades and now it is a treasure for the Shoals.

The life of the house is beautifully chronicled in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House: The Birth and Rebirth of an American Treasure by Barbara Kimberlin Broach, Donald E. Lambert, and Milton Bagby (Pomegranate, 2006).