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.
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.
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.