Part I: DrHGuy and Julie Build Their Dream House
Heck of a House Portrait1
With A Little Help From Builder-Buddy2 and Hugh (in absentia)
Because of a trusted friend’s enthusiastic endorsement of him, I was already favorably predisposed toward the builder Julie3 and I were meeting over lunch to discuss our plans for the new home and decide whether to hire him for that job.
That vetting was effectively completed within moments after the introductions and obligatory small talk, at which time we discovered that the two articles I had brought from the hundreds we had ripped from house magazines4 as exemplars of the kind of place we preferred and the pages he had marked in the book he carried to the restaurant to give us an idea of the kind of place he preferred all featured designs that were not only compatible but similar. Of course, this was unsurprising since all of the houses we had selected were by the same architect – Hugh Jacobsen.
Hiring Jacobsen himself, by the way, was never a consideration; he builds homes for the beautiful people – the beautiful, incredibly rich people.5 We could either have Jacobsen design a house or we could build a house; we could not, however, do both.
Hugh Newell Jacobsen6
A severely dyslexic child and self-described “terrible student,” who grew up in a “Coca-Cola Colonial” in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jacobsen was admitted, with the help of a family friend, to Yale’s school of architecture, where he studied under Louis Kahn and discovered in architecture a world in which “everything finally made sense.” After graduation in 1955, he apprenticed with Philip Johnson, setting up his own office in Georgetown three years later.
While Jacobsen is acknowledged to be “one of the few American Architects capable of sensitive restorations” and has won awards and enviable institutional commissions, including the restoration of two Smithsonian museums, The United States Embassy in Moscow the American embassy in Paris, additions to the U.S. Capitol, as well as work at the University Of Cairo, Egypt and American University, Athens, Greece,7 his appeal to us was his accomplishments in his preferred area of focus – residential design.
This focus and Jacobsens’s popularity among nonprofessionals may have exacted a price in lost prestige. By my reading, his home design work is often acknowledged by critics and academics by left-handed compliments. This excerpt from his biography at Great Buildings Online is characteristic:
His designs are carefully attuned to their practical requirements.
Jacobsen is more a client’s than an architect’s architect.8
People look good in my buildings
While I am enthralled by the pithiness of the Jacobsen quote,9 I’ve commandeered as a heading for this section, the context offered by the preceding sentence is enlightening: “My detailing is deliberately sparse and linear in order to enhance the spaces within and without. People look good in my buildings.”
The same design strategy can be elaborated in a more academic manner:
On the other hand, the model I’ve chosen to illustrate Jacobsen’s style is less impressive but does have the advantage of widespread familiarity. My suggestion is to think of Jacobsen’s central motif as the shapes used in Monopoly houses and hotels. Consider these familiar icons.
Then, compare them to this sketch of a Jacobsen house.
Now, take another look at the portrait of our home atop this post.
The Jacobsen Look
For the record, neither Builder-Buddy, Julie, nor I, the primary designers of Heck of a House,11 consciously copied any specific Jacobsen-originated design. The profile of the house as well as the lack of ornamentation, however, is clearly inspired by Jacobsen’s architecture.
At the time we designed the house, it was fashionable to build within the vernacular of a region, a trend with practical as well as aesthetic appeal. There are reasons, for example, that lots of Cape Cod homes were built in New England and adobe homes were constructed in the Southwest.
Few residential styles (and none of them striking) are identified, however, with the Midwest.
Perhaps because Julie and I both grew up on farms, the simple lines of a barn, a shape echoed in Jacobsen’s designs (as well as those Monopoly hotels) seemed distinctive and fitting.
It also fit the description I had jokingly adopted for our dream house conversations; “our house,” I would portentously intone, “must befit our lives of quiet ostentation.”
Future Heck of a House posts will focus on interior design, the surrounding landscape, my thoughts on what has and hasn’t worked as planned, and the house with and without Julie.
Because there will be only a bit more about Jacobsen in these posts, I suggest those interested in his work check out his web site at Hugh Jacobsen and the three books, all available at Amazon and other bookstores, filled to overflowing with photographs of his work: “Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Architect” (Book I), “Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Recent Work” (Book II), and “Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Works from 1993-2006.”
I especially recommend the web site devoted to the 1998 Life Dream House designed by Jacobsen which contains much detail about the house itself and its architect.
And finally, I’ll leave you with this look at four more Jacobsen-designed residences:
- The graphic atop this post is a scan of a picture that was given me by the invariably thoughtful Lady Lawanda (who consulted with The Prodigal, earning him an assist on the play). I’ve designated it a “portrait” because it seems to have been composed by applying digital effects to an aerial photo to soften some of the hard edges and give it something of the appearance of an oil painting. The result is a photographically accurate representation of the house with a touch of romanticized glow, not unlike shooting love scenes with Vaseline smeared on the camera lens. [Click on graphic to view larger image - recommended] [↩]
- “Builder-Buddy,” I have belatedly discovered, is a fairly frequently used appellation; consequently, I should make clear that unless otherwise noted, the use of “Builder-Buddy” in this blog exclusively refers to my home builder and buddy, who is not, to my knowledge, associated with other “Builder-Buddy” named entities, including but not limited to corporate divisions, accounting software, construction tools, and icons [↩]
- Julie Showalter was my much-beloved, fiercely smart, extraordinarily sexy wife and prize-winning writer, who died in 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. There are many other posts about her and her writing in this blog. For information, see Julie Showalter FAQ [↩]
- This was before one could find a plethora of house plans, as well as shoes, dishwashers, cereal, and dates, on the internet. [↩]
- One of his sons, according to the article about his 1998 Life Dream House, took to calling him a “Jackie-tect” after he designed Mrs. Onassis’s house at Martha’s Vineyard. [↩]
- Except as noted, the factual data in this section is from the article about his 1998 Life Dream House [↩]
- Hugh Jacobsen Web Site [↩]
- Emphasis mine [↩]
- The quotation is from the Design Philosophy portion of the Hugh Jacobsen web site [↩]
- Muriel Emmanuel. Contemporary Architects. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. pp 391-392. [↩]
- Julie, Builder-Buddy, and I had many conversations (in every combination and permutation possible), exchanged many drawings, revised “final” sketches, and then revised the revisions. Builder-Buddy put the ideas together, adding in such extras as plumbing and electricity. Only after that process was competed did we hire an architect “to make it legal.” [↩]