Updating a House of Tomorrow - in the NYT

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Updating a House of Tomorrow - in the NYT

Postby Connie » Thu Jun 28, 2007 9:37 am


Published: June 28, 2007


IN 2005, when Theodore and Susan Pound first saw the house they would end up buying in the Buckhead neighborhood here, it had been for sale for a year, even as properties around it sold within weeks. The Atlanta market was hot, at least for traditional houses, but not hot enough to overcome buyers’ aversion to this 1957 structure’s poor state of repair and its circular plan, glass walls and wedge-shaped rooms.

“People who came by were absolutely fascinated,â€￾ said Cotten Alston, the Pounds’ real estate agent, “but they could never imagine themselves living in it. Or they just saw it as a teardown site for a starter mansion.â€￾

The Pounds, though, were smitten by its style, forest view and skylighted atrium. They signed a contract within three months, paying $1.15 million for the four-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot house and nearly four acres of land, knowing they’d be spending plenty more in the months to come.

Then, a few days later, they received a three-page handwritten letter from a stranger: Cecil Alexander, the house’s original architect and occupant. He was writing to express his delight that they were not going to tear the house down and to offer his help with the restoration, including the loan of original blueprints. The Pounds invited him over, and throughout the restoration — which was completed in May of 2006 and cost nearly as much as the house — Mr. Alexander regaled them with tales of the house’s engineering quirks, famous visitors and midcentury celebrity.

“We had no idea how important this house is, and how groundbreaking the design was, when we got here,â€￾ said Mrs. Pound, referring not just to its creator’s stories but to the accolades the house earned in the ’50s — praise in Life magazine as an embodiment of “Tomorrow’s Life Today,â€￾ six pages in Progressive Architecture, the cover of Florida Architect. The house’s national media profile “made people aware that this cool stuff was happening in Atlanta, that the architecture here wasn’t all ‘Gone With the Wind,’ â€￾ said Thomas F. Little, head of the Georgia chapter of the modernist preservation advocacy group Docomomo.

“We’re not the kind of people who have expectations of being famous,â€￾ Mrs. Pound said. “But it’s as if this house has expectations of its own of being famous.â€￾

Although they were concerned, in renovating, that the house be as comfortable and functional as possible for their 21st-century family of four, the Pounds made every effort to maintain its essential strangeness. The roof remains a mountainscape of plywood pleats and domed skylights. Inside the cylindrical exterior walls of glass and freckled brick, the rooms are still wedges, widening as they extend out from the atrium, with its polygonal planting beds, to the panoramic views of the forest. Throughout the interior, Mr. Alexander mixed industrial materials — exposed steel cables and pipe columns, for example, support rough plaster ceilings — with curved walnut paneling that evokes luxury liner staterooms; all these elements have been refurbished or reproduced. Mrs. Pound, 46, a banker, said she was particularly drawn to “the idea of a round house, with that very serene atrium,â€￾ from the start. “I like the idea of that serenity radiating out,â€￾ she said.

And the house has always reminded her husband, a 50-year-old lawyer, of his childhood home, a modernist glass house designed by his father, Murphey Pound, who was an architect in Columbus, Ga.

“In the daytime, it’s like a treehouse in the mountains,â€￾ Mr. Pound said. “It has this remarkable sense of energy,â€￾ while “at night, the windows become mirrors, they reflect our comings and goings and the evening routines with the children. It’s very calm and introspective.â€￾

Mr. Alexander, 89, studied architecture at Harvard in the 1940s under Bauhaus luminaries like Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. As a partner in the Atlanta firm Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild and Paschal (nicknamed Fabrap), he designed glass and concrete corporate buildings in Georgia, including headquarters for Coca-Cola and the regional power and phone companies. “Fabrap was one of the most prolific and influential architecture firms in the southeast,â€￾ said Mr. Little.

Mr. Alexander also worked on half a dozen houses, but did not usually enjoy the process. “My clients, who were otherwise absolutely sane, would get nuts when having a house built for them,â€￾ he said. He seems to have let loose as a designer and approached an avant-garde style only once, with his own residence.

“You seem so normal to us, you don’t seem like a contrarian,â€￾ Mr. Pound told him recently. “But this house is such a basically nonconformist idea. It’s still something of a mystery to me: why is it round?â€￾

Mr. Alexander, a jovial raconteur with a razor-sharp memory, has an explanation for everything. “My first plans were L’s or squares or rectangles,â€￾ he told the Pounds. “But then I realized those shapes waste so much space — a circle is compact, it gives you the maximum interior room for the minimum amount of exposed wall.â€￾

He continued, “In the end the workmen were so proud of what we pulled off — all the fitting in of curved cabinetry and railings and everything — that they didn’t even want us to carpet over the wood floor. They told us, ‘We put our heart and soul into that floor.’ â€￾

Mr. Alexander and his first wife, Hermione, raised three children in the house, entertaining not only the occasional magazine journalist but many civil-rights activists. (The couple helped organize committees petitioning for voters’ rights and desegregated restaurants, among other causes.)
“Vernon Jordan, Andrew Young, Bill Moyers, they’ve all been here, and Hobart Taylor, he was an adviser to Lyndon Johnson, and Benjamin Mays, he was Martin Luther King’s mentor,â€￾ said Mr. Alexander. “There ought to be plaques on the house for all that went on here,â€￾ he added. (Mr. Alexander, who is Jewish, said his interest in battling prejudice stemmed partly from the fact that his family’s longtime synagogue in Atlanta was bombed in 1958.)

In 1983, Mrs. Alexander died in a car accident nearby and Mr. Alexander sold the house four years later. He kept in touch with the subsequent owner, and learned two years ago that most prospective buyers planned to raze the place. While the house lingered on the market, he said, “I really thought this place was going to join the list of my buildings that I’ve outlived, the ones that have been blown up,â€￾ which include an office tower in Atlanta and stadiums in Atlanta and Cincinnati.

The Pounds, meanwhile, were living with their two preschoolers, Ted and Eva, in what Mr. Pound calls “a tiny two-bedroom circa-1920 bungalow, as conventional as you can imagine.â€￾ The day after the couple saw the house, Mr. Pound said, “My father came up to see it and loved it right away — he knew Cecil and many of the partners at Cecil’s firm.â€￾

Mr. Alexander has largely approved of the restoration. He said he regrets that the Pounds transformed the master bedroom’s windowless study into a walk-in closet, but he was pleased with the way they reverentially salvaged the original globe- and teardrop-shaped light fixtures and even a metal door pull from the kitchen with colorful enamel inlays.

“I wanted everything we did to look original,â€￾ said David C. Fowler, the Atlanta-based architect for the restoration. “I met with Cecil two or three times to show him the plans, he and I turn out to have very similar mindsets. I love working on modern and contemporary buildings, but in Atlanta you don’t get that much opportunity.â€￾

Mr. Fowler designed the new walnut kitchen cabinets to follow the curves of their mahogany predecessors. “The walls have bowed and warped over the years,â€￾ said Bill Thomsen, the cabinetmaker. “So the backs of the new cabinets couldn’t be consistent arcs. We had to make different templates for each one.â€￾

The construction crews re-stained the atrium’s ceiling pleats and walnut walls and snaked new irrigation pipes into its plant beds, where ficus, ferns and grasses now thrive. The workers wove new wiring through the roof joists and then replicated the original rough plaster ceiling, which extends onto the porch eaves — “there’s meant to be a seamless connection between the outdoors and indoors,â€￾ Mrs. Pound said.

With advice from Busman Studios, an Atlanta architecture and interior design firm, and using photographs of the original interiors for inspiration, she and her husband bought replicas of 1950s furniture: chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, a coffee table by Isamu Noguchi, an Artichoke light fixture by Poul Henningsen and a Barcelona leather bench by Mies van der Rohe. For a few tight spots they commissioned custom pieces; in the basement, a V-shaped white lacquer table is wedged between a sofa and a curved brick wall.

The couple also brought in some antiques: 1950s blond wood chairs for the dining room came from Murphey Pound’s office, and Cecil Alexander’s son, Doug, sold the Pounds an amoeba-shaped Noguchi-esque wooden lamp that originally lighted the guest room. In a niche near the front door, Mr. Pound set up what he calls the Cecil Alexander shrine: framed magazine articles and renderings above cubbyholes stuffed with old and more recent blueprint rolls.

Local preservationists, including Docomomo members, have been stopping by to admire the work. Last fall, some 200 people showed up for a Docomomo-sponsored house tour, and Mr. Pound found himself eavesdropping on their conversations.

“People who’d looked at this house when it was for sale were reconsidering their decisions,â€￾ he said. “And a lot of people even joked with us that they’d be happy to move in with us now.â€￾

Some of the photos published (Jessica McGowan for The New York Times):

In the Round Theodore and Susan Pound restored a 1957 house that many saw as an oddity. Rooms in Theodore and Susan Pound’s home spiral out from an atrium

Full Circle The circular design is echoed in the basement ceiling

The curved island and walnut cabinets in the kitchen


The living room still has its original round fireplace

The link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/28/garde ... gewanted=1

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Re: House of Tomorrow

Postby DecaturMod » Thu Jun 28, 2007 9:53 am

My wife and I toured this house not long ago as a part of a local modern home tour and it is truly fabulous!


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Postby valery » Thu Jun 28, 2007 11:37 am

I toured this house as well on that home tour and it was breath taking. So glad that it wasn't torn down!!

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Postby johnnyapollo » Thu Jun 28, 2007 4:56 pm

I was there as well during the DOCOMOMO tour - the house was truely breathtaking.

-- John
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
Philip K. Dick

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Postby VMacek » Sat Jun 30, 2007 5:42 am

Beautiful house and great article! I've lived in Atlanta 26 years and never knew this place existed - good to know there're folks here like the Alexanders and the Pounds.

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