Author Alastair Gordon and architect Chris Coy discuss the work of Barnes Coy Architects on the publication of Gordon’s “Assembled In Light.” Follow the firm’s adventurous residential projects, from the fashionable Hamptons, to the high desert of Palm Springs, to the tidal swamps of Georgia and the jungles of Central America. Coming in September, the book chronicles fifteen of the firm’s most compelling houses (Published by Rizzoli USA and Gordon de Vries Studio) To hear full 30-minute podcast, click here.
There is still the sea, it shall not be dried up.
Photographs from that summer look like stills from a silent movie. My father appears to be suspended in space, a happy marionette, in watery reflections and soft, billowing clouds, either dangling from a spar or balanced precariously on a bowsprit. There are no backgrounds, no recognizable features of landscape, just water and the hazy skies of western Scotland, the islands of Jura, Coll, Islay, Mull, and the blurred outlines of distant hills. He turned twenty-three on May 31, 1939, poor as a church mouse, but free to do whatever he liked, go wherever he liked. He rented rooms on Gare Loch and was as happy as he’d ever been, sailing the Clyde and swimming, reading Aeschylus in the original Greek with English annotations by Gilbert Murray, sitting up in his garret with an oil lamp flickering while unseen forces were already at work, plotting and reshaping his future.Through a small side window he could see the ships of the Royal Navy moored at the Tail O’ the Bank, making the words of Aeschylus seem all the more prescient: “Deep in that shingle strand, moored the sloops of war, and men thronged the beach of Ilium…” as if it were lifted from the front page of the Glasgow Herald but filtered through an ancient, amber lens.
There’d been reports of a crisis in Danzig and Spanish refugees crossing into France, and Daladier mobilizing reserve troops. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March about when he’d been studying for finals at St. Andrews. He came down in early June, bringing only a few clothes and books (second-hand volumes on moral philosophy for Malcom Knox’s seminar on Hegel) to the temporary digs in Clynder. That same week, the Japanese imposed a naval blockade on the port of Tianjin and began their assault on southern China. While Ernest was aware of these events, they seemed far removed from his daily life and what he remembered was a pleasant bubble of peace, a dream-like respite between St. Andrews and Munich, between Spring Term and mobilization. “Skies were blue; winds were fair and warm,” he wrote twenty years later. “The Firth was saturated with beauty… I had no money, but I lived like a millionaire on what small skill I had as a yachtsman.”
Clynder was little more than a post office with a church and a few houses clustered along Rosneath Road but the hills gave it a kind of grandeur, gathering up to the north of the village as they did, veiled in mist. There was no proper kitchen but he could cook sausages and beans on a little propane stove and he toasted bread in the fireplace. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, he would go to Bremer’s Tea Room near the ferry pier and buy a scotch egg and wash it down with a cup of strong tea. When he wasn’t sailing, he was swimming Rhu Narrows to Blairvadach and back to the shingle beach at Shandon, or walking from his tiny flat on Brookend Brae, past the Presbyterian manse,across fields of slate and heather, past a greenhouse, a mossy weir, up Garelochhead Wood and a high, rain-streaked trail to Knockderry House on Loch Long. From there he looked across to Greenock, but already felt a world removed from his childhood on that distant shore. (He only went to visit his parents twice that summer.) In June, he went to a movie in Helensburgh: Goodbye Mr. Chips starring Greer Garson and Robert Donat. He also read Aldous Huxley’s new novel, After Many a Summer, about a Hollywood millionaire who fears his own impending death.
If the photos from that summer had titles they would be something like “Becalmed Before the Storm”, or “Adrift”, but none of them have titles and there’s no further information so I can only guess their chronology from clues like the shape of his face or the length of his hair. In one, he’s standing at the helm of Janetta, a yawl from Lorimer’s, on a stormy day and he’s smoking a pipe, which I’d never seen him do before. This is probably early summer because his face is closer in shape to that final semester at St. Andrews when he was still boxing and playing rugby. In another, he’s smoking a cigar and posing in the stern of a boat. His chest is thrust out, his hips are cranked, and his hand is resting on the backstay, as if to steady himself. Was he making a joke? Was he drunk? (According to Aunt Grace, he arrived back at Toward Point one night that summer with a black eye and a bloody lip.) An attractive brunette sits in the cockpit with her arm draped over the tiller. She has a coyly bemused expression on her face, suppressing a laugh or possibly trying to ignore my father for behaving like such an ass. It must be late July or early August. The water is glassy smooth, almost obsidian and barely ruffled from the wake of the boat, ghosting along under sail, a mid-summer light washing everything in a luminous glow, my father’s sun-tanned face, his hands, the teak of the deck, block and tackle, transom and traveler, a life-ring with the name of the boat painted on its side. (I can make out an “o” and an “n,” but the brunette’s head blocks out the rest. Could it be Dionne, the mythical ketch of my parent’s first meeting?)
In another photo he’s been hoisted aloft and is clinging to the mast of a gaff-rigged yawl, looking young and agile while he doffs his cap, mugging for the photographer below. His right foot rests on one of the mast rings while his left hand clings to the halyard. His body is soft and supple, slightly overweight, but well proportioned and you can see how women must have been attracted, but there’s also something uncouth and wooly about him. In another shot he’s wearing baggy black shorts and a velour shirt with a pattern of crowns and diamonds, Glasgow gangster style, and when I first came upon this photograph I thought it had to be someone else, certainly not my solemn Reverend Father. There was Rose in Colonsay and another–Maira?–when he crewed to the south of Ireland on Vagrant. The old Clyde Forty hit a nor’easter on the homeward leg and limped into Dublin for repairs. Later in July, he crewed on the 6-meter Circe, the Bermudan yawl Zigeneur and Dragon-class Primula. In early August, he earned ten pounds skippering a ketch up the west coast to Tobermory and out to the island of Muck, “seeking harbor by night in lochs protected by hills ancient with wisdom and offering a rare serenity to those ready to accept it,” he wrote, also mentioning a “beautiful redhead” who he’d met on the pier at Tobermory, but couldn’t remember her name–Ainsely? He wasn’t sure.
On August 20, Germany announced that they’d reached a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Two days after that, Prime Minister Chamberlain renewed Britain’s pledge of support for Poland, while appealing to Hitler for truce. But the worst was yet to come and on August 23, while Ernest was sailing Dionne to Cowes, seven hundred miles away,Germany and the Soviet Union signed their non-aggression pact, paving the way for the invasion of Poland, and as the summer drew to an end, he sensed that his days of lofty indolence were over, and marked a passage with red pencil in his copy of Aeschylus: “What is this insistent fear which in my prophetic heart set and steady beats with evil omen, chanting unbidden a brooding, oracular music? Why can I not cast it out like a dream of dark import?” But he could not cast out that brooding, oracular music from his heart, and he had no doubts that war was imminent and he would be killed.
My mother, Helen Macintosh Robertson, was on board Dionne for the first leg of the Cowes Race, from Hunter’s Quay to Arran. She was the daughter of Alec Robertson and granddaughter of Alexander, the barrel-chested patriarch of the Robertson family and founder of the self-named yacht business based on the Holy Loch. (Alexander reached prominence in 1902 when he made overnight repairs to Kaiser Whilhelm’s yacht, Meteor III, and was thereafter rewarded with a commission to build the Kaiser’s next boat.) According to my mother, she and Ernest barely exchanged a word the whole time, my father standing on the foredeck, raising another jib while glancing aft to the willowy figure in black oilskin. There were dozens of handsome young men that summer, and she pretended not to notice the tanned, shirtless man in the bow. He remembered the way she chain-smoked and chatted madly in the cockpit, flirting with Sandy Garvie whose father owned Dionne. Maybe he’d been trying too hard to impress her, showing off, she scoffed. Who did he think he was in those shabby shorts and rope belt? “Common” was the word she used forty years after the fact, but he was also darkly handsome and tall and her calculated method of gaining his attention was to ignore him all the way to Arran.
Dionne placed third in her class and won a bronze plaque. The Garvies put on a festive luncheon for the crew (cold lamb, shepherd’s pie, pickled onions) at the Royal Marine Hotel, a granite pile in Hunter’s Quay with Neo-Tudor gables overlooking the Clyde. Toasts were made all around and my father stayed until the end when everyone stood up to sing God Save the King just before it was announced, almost as an afterthought, that Germany had invaded Poland. After that, everything seemed to unravel and the lofty, loving summer of 1939 came to a rather sudden and squalid end.
Earlier in the week I drove east across the narrow waist of Scotland, doubling back through industrial hinterlands, with black smoke rising over Royston and Wallacewell, through the flatlands of Castlecary to Queensferry, across the Firth of Forth Bridge and up the east coast to Fife. After his “mishap” in the RAF–the crumpled plane, the broken collar bone–my father returned to the comforts and relative safety of student life, this time at St. Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university where he studied from September 1937 to May 1939 at St. Salvador’s College on North Street with its high tower and courtyard shaded by the venerable thorn tree that Mary Queen of Scots is said to have planted. He took Introductory Hebrew with Sandy Honeyman, the youngest professor at St. Andrews. He sat in a drafty lecture hall and listened to T. Malcolm Knox, a prominent
Hegelian, who taught Moral Philosophy. “In nature everything which happens exemplifies a universal law,” wrote Ernest in his miniscule penmanship with a Burnham fountain pen–speckled orange Bakelite and gold nib–that his parents gave him for his 21st birthday. He drew diagrams of Kant’s Categorical Imperative with a list of sensations–taste, smell, touch–and traced three lines that converged near the middle of the page:
I: (Mechanism)—Thought or Consciousness
II: (Freedom)—Thought – Self-Consciousness
At one point he even considered making a career of moral philosophy. He wasn’t sure how that would work, but anything seemed possible during these idyllic pre-war days. He loved the Old Town, the students, the professors, the ancient golf course and the pristine strand of pale sand that stretched to the north. Again I don’t know much. He didn’t speak very often of these days, and if he did it was usually only a brief anecdote about rugby or drinking beer or saber fencing. He once mentioned his friend Bill McLean who had also signed up for Officer Training Corps (OTC) and how they trekked through the soggy glens of western Fife on weekends dressed in their OTC uniforms of gray kilt, green shirt, long woolen socks, and leather boots. There’s a photograph of them, bivouacked in a field somewhere, lying in the heather, their fresh faces pointed towards the sun.
I stroll down Largo Road to Nelson Street where Ernest leased student digs during that final semester before the war, and I follow the same path that he took every morning, past the lawn bowling club and up the well-trodden footpath that crosses Kinnes Burn and tunnels through Louden’s Close, a narrow wynd that passes between stone walls and beneath a low archway onto South Street, now bustling with students in medieval robes, laughing and going about their business. I try to imagine my father here in his crimson robes and thick curly hair, walking up Market Street to the eastern end of town, wandering through the 12th-Century ruins of the cathedral where the relics of Apostle Andrew–fisherman and brother of St. Peter–are said to be buried. Some of the walls are sill standing but most have collapsed and there’s a mossy bed of grass in place of the floor. It’s a garden puzzle of granite and empty spaces where the sky pushes in and the cruciform plan is still evident in the stones that remain.
All of this was behind me, driving a rented car, passing the Ferguslie lawn-bowls club in Paisley, near the street where I was born, past gray housing and chimneys, and I’m thinking how I like to simplify everything, while my father liked to complicate and obfuscate, or so it seemed, and how my own son feels the same about me and sees excess in almost everything I do. I took M898 across Erskine Bridge and up Great Western Road (A82) toward Crianlarich, through a series of confusing roundabouts, around the far end of Gare Loch, via the old black-topped Haul Road to A814, south onto Rosneath, then all the way down the opposite side of the loch to Clynder. The village seems much the same today as it was during the summer of 1939. There are only a few streets, restaurants, Tam House, Straid-A-Cnoc, Kentroma House, and a more recent block of council flats off Braeside. The steamer ferry’s long gone, but I can see a row of rotting stumps where the old pier once stood. The rusted metal cutout of a kettle hangs in front of the Green Kettle Inn, but it’s closed for business, so I walk the shingle shore, trying to imagine my father swimming the breadth of the loch, the opposite shore being quite distant, the water cold, but I always knew that swimming was like breathing for him. At ten, he’d been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, fabled “Queen of the Waves,” when she swam the English Channel to beat the previous man’s record by an astonishing two hours. My father learned the effortless Trudgen Method from Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal. After months of training in the pool, he began to swim the wilder waters of the Clyde and won his first long-distance race in 1930. Two years later, at 16, he won the Royal Life Saving medal for a two-mile swim between Kilcreggan and Gourock, and by then he’d perfected his own version of the Australian Crawl. (I used to swim far out with him in Gardiner’s Bay, trying to keep apace, and even in his eighties he would push away from the beach and swim hard for a hundred yards before taking a rest.)
Bremer’s Tea Room is no longer there but the building where my father rented rooms is still in tact, a half-timbered boarding house called “Seasgair”, on Brookend Brae with white chickens out back, wire cages, straw and mud, a few plum trees, and a blackened stone wall with patches of moss and miniature ferns sprouting from its mortared seams. I park the car and try to follow the path that he used to take on his Sunday walks, past the manse, up through the woods and over the top of the hill to Loch Long. I go as far as a barbed-wire fence, and stop to look back across the village and the loch, trying to imagine him standing on this same hill, catching his breath, looking out on the same leaden light falling over the inlets of the Clyde that summer more than sixty years ago. His memories were fractured, disconnected, and I have to work with what I have, a few photographs, a few stories, something about the Loch Long Hotel and Sunday walks over Luss Ridge, the highest ridge. He would go for kedgeree with hard-boiled eggs and curried rice after church, on weekends, when there wasn’t a regatta.There used to be a small-gauge railway that stopped in Tarbert and sometimes, when tired from walking, he would ride it through Ardmay and Finnart, across the hills to Garelochhead, then get off in Rhu and take the ferry across Gare Loch to Rosneath and walk down Shore Road and back to his flat in Clynder.
The Loch Long Hotel is still there, catering to bus tours, a cluster of white buildings running down to the sandy flats of Loin Water. I leave my car by the restaurant, and stand on a stone parapet. I can smell low tide wafting up from the muddy flats and kelp beds. A man is walking a Collie along the water’s edge. I head up the path through an orchard and along the edge of a pine forest with a stream that I could hear but couldn’t see–water gurgling, muffled by pine needles–until I was up to the weir where the hidden stream spilled into a small lake. Further up there was a keeper’s cottage with the Duke of Argyll’s crest emblazoned on the front gable. Straw had been laid out in bails beside a fence. I walk through an iron gate, careful to secure the latch after I’m through, and cross a small stone bridge. There are more trees at this altitude and I continue up an even steeper path that switches back and forth to the very highest part of the ridge where there’s a small pavilion with a bench and a glorious view to the west. It feels much wilder and remote than I expected, and the mountains appear to lift themselves up from their own reflections in the placid waters of the loch. Am I looking for my father’s past or is it something else, my own imprint in all of this? I’m not sure. At times it feels as if I’m chasing the flimsiest shadows through these lochs and glens: mysteries of seaweed, hake and haddock, plaited ferns along the shore, water lapping over gray shale, while across the way the clouds press down against the lower foothills. I suppose it’s the afternoon light and the wetness in the air, but the mood of the moment changes and there’s a downpour followed by a breeze that spreads fan-shaped ripples across the loch. A saturation of light hangs over the glen, and for a moment it feel as if the entire world were pulling back to the horizon–a general ebbing–as happens before a tsunami, the clouds hanging low and ribbed in dull streaks of purple like the cartilaginous underside of a skate’s wing. I think of the way my father would say, “Ochh...” in a weary, drawn out voice when something broke in his hands. Was this the bitter cry of his father or was it his own sense of disappointment?
He often seemed unapproachable, disconnected from his own body, even when standing in a crowd of people, yet he was hyper-aware of immediate surroundings, aware of who was approaching, who was coming through the door, as if on the alert for a surprise attack. He would scold me for slurring my words and in the way of instruction would enunciate his own words slowly and distinctly like an old-fashioned radio announcer. In the summer he walked around the house naked, without the least bit of modesty. After swimming, he stood in the sun and sucked in his stomach while flexing his abdominal muscles in an undulating motion. He had black spots all over his neck and shoulders–moles, odd pigmentations and blotchy discolorations–from over-exposure to the tropical sun. He was good at grabbing moths in mid-flight and crushing them between his fingers. He preferred not to use toilet paper. He suffered dizzy spells, palpitations of the heart, black outs, fainting spells, and other after effects of malnutrition. He almost never fell into a deep, restful sleep, but would nod off in the living room with a hand draped on his face–his index finger crooked over one eyelid in a guarded way. Sometimes he woke with a start and lashed out, disoriented and confused. He was surprisingly clumsy, well beyond the average, big-man clumsiness. Whenever my father fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase, slipped on the ice, tripped over a carpet or cut his hand on the lid of a tin can or broke his thumb or accidentally put his hand through a window, it was always extreme, with blood, stitches, curses and ugly bruises that took weeks to heal. Sometimes my father would eat his food like a rapacious dog, stuffing meat or bread into his mouth, swallowing without chewing, jamming it down as if he was still afraid of starving. His favorite sandwich was ripened banana on whole wheat. When he ate an apple, he always ate the whole apple, including the core and seeds. After moving to America in the 1950s, he became even more Scottish in his actions and reactions. His West Highland accent grew stronger. He had his tweed jackets custom-tailored in Duddington Park and he polished his hand-stitched brogues with a special brush. He marched smartly along Prospect Street, nodding and saying “good afternoon” to every student who passed as if he were their commanding officer and they were his subalterns.
The rain passes quickly but leaves a heaviness that lingers for the rest of the afternoon, made all the more poignant by the wind whispering through pine needles. I drive over the hills from Arrochar, along the old Military Road to Tarbet and south through Stuckgowan and Culay, along the tourist-crowded banks of Loch Lomond, through Rhu Wood and Strone Wood and into the village of Luss with its pretty parish church. By now, my head is aching so I stop for a cup of sweet tea at the little Glendarroch Tea Room, overlooking the spot where Luss Stream spills into the loch and leaves a swathe of pebbles in the spreading shallows. I sip my tea and watch the evening light sweep across the water, highlighting one of the little islands–Inchfad, or is it Inchmurrin?–to the opposite bank and the rising slopes of Rowardennan Forest, mythical place of fairies and changelings, the light turning the surface of the water into a spectral entity, skimming the upper reaches of Ballinjour Hill, dipping and cupping the heathery shadows, making the clouds appear wanton and unruly above the higher peaks.
It’s late summer and I’ve been searching for missing threads to my father’s pre-war life, but all of those threads seem to unravel here and I find myself wondering why I bother. I’ve learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know, other than a feeling for the landscape and the fickle Highland light that shaped his moods during that pre-war summer. He kept everything compartmentalized and discrete. He hardly ever spoke about his mother or father. He hardly ever spoke about the years just before the war and that’s what makes it so hard to link up the disparate parts of his life and create a single, comprehensive portrait of the man. Sometimes I feel as if I’m on the right path, following his footsteps, reaching a clearing of some sort, and then the path peters out and I feel hopelessly lost.
How many stone-bound fingers of sea cut into this broken coast? How many lochs? It’s hard to say but there are at least as many as the ancient inlets of the Aegean: Loch Long, Loch Goil, Lock Eck, Loch Striven, Loch Ridden, Loch Craignish, Loch Etive, Loch Spelve, Loch Sunart, Loch Shiel, Loch Arkaig, Loch Quoich… all the way up the coast from here to Durness, the sound of their names clashing together like claymores… Loch Slapin, Loch Cluanie, Loch Duich, Loch Shieldaig, Loch Assynt… Germany invades Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declare war on Germany. On Monday, September 4, Ernest packs up his little flat in Clynder and goes to his parents’ house in Toward. He remembers the feeling of being placeless, as if he’d fallen into the “ebb and flow of fate” that Aeschylus described in the Aeneid. The next morning he takes the bus to Dunoon and walks into the enlistment offices of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on Moir Street.
• • •
This is the fourth in a series of “discoveries” about
my father: Rev. Ernest Gordon (1916-2002).
“The motorcycle was my drawing tool”. – Thomas Woltz
How often does a single design firm get the opportunity to turn a 3,000-acre property into a sprawling work of integrated art, architecture, agriculture, ecological and cultural reclamation, wildlife preservation and landscape design? That’s what Thomas L. Woltz and his design team at Nelson Byrd Woltz has accomplished at Orongo Station in Poverty Bay, New Zealand. The project includes the restoration of an old homestead that was already on the site, new out buildings and utility buildings, domestic gardens, re-configured wetlands, sheep paddocks, a reforested coastline, a ceremonial bridge and citrus groves, as well as the expansion of a Maori burial ground. It’s almost too much for the imagination to take in. Rather, it grows on you slowly, as does the level of care and integration that went into the property’s evolution.
The decade-long project grew in incremental stages, as the client’s program expanded from a relatively small house-and-garden restoration and remodeling to a vast and self-sustaining kingdom by the sea. “The vision grew after a great deal of research we did on the ecology and historic cultures of New Zealand,” said Woltz who is handsomely dressed in vest and tie and speaks with a passion and intensity that seem uncharacteristic for his profession. He makes the work sound more like a mission than another design commission. “‘What is this place?’ we asked. There is no such thing as a blank slate.” Indeed, Orongo was conceived at such a vast scale–it is six times larger than the city-state of Monaco–and with such complexity and natural diversity that it verges on spawning its own Creation mythology.
Environmental conservation and sustainability often remain abstract concepts in the human imagination and it becomes the job of a holistic thinker like Woltz to bring all of the parts together into a readable narrative. While his team’s research includes everything from water tables, flood cycles, native plants, wildlife habitat and migratory bird flight to cultural history–and more besides–he still sees himself as a “designer” who takes all the complexities of a site and works them together into a highly integrated expression. “We want to encourage a responsiveness to the environment through artful designs and ecological narratives that connect people to place,” says Woltz. In other words, design with a capital “D” can play an immensely important role in bringing ecological awareness to everyday life, and Woltz emphasizes that his firm’s landscapes are meant to be “composed”, not simply intended to look like natural extensions of the existing topography. Indeed, his comprehensive maps and site plans resemble abstract paintings with swirling forms and colors, and in this project he cites the lyrical work of Ricardo Burle Marx, the great Brazilian landscape designer who was also an accomplished painter. “Modernist design sensibilities and rigorous geometry form a frame for place-making and restoration ecology at small and large landscape scales,” says Woltz.
Invasive animals such as rats, stotes, weasels, and Australian possum, had gotten out of control and were eating the eggs of the migratory birds, and driving them away from the property. An 87-acre tract on the northern peninsula, called the Tuatara Preserve, was re-forested with 45,000 trees and turned into a predator-proof enclosure, protected with high fencing from cliff-face to cliff-face, stretching across the entire peninsula.
Steve Sawyer, a locally-based conservation biologist, made recordings of the endangered birds and created a solar-powered CD player and speaker system that plays their songs twice a day and lures the birds onto the preserve. “The birds circle around, attracted by the familiar calls,” explained Woltz. “Now there’s a massive population of sooty petrels, fluttering shearwaters and gannets who fly in to lay their eggs without fear of being attacked.” Existing wetlands ran through a valley near the head of the Tuatara Peninsula. They had been drained by a previous owner and during the wet season, the property turned into a muddy mire that made it an unhealthy place for grazing. “Why not dam it up and excavate a complex wetlands composition,” suggested Woltz who consulted with local conservation biologist Sandy Bull and created a weaving pattern of pathways, polders, islands, ponds and waterways to control the problem of seasonal flooding. S-curving earthen dams separate fresh-water treatment ponds from salt-water inlets to create greater diversity of habitats for both plant and animal species, as well as creating a bucolic landscape for animal grazing and human pleasure.
The shape and size of the islands and waterways, the slope of the banks, the width of the channels, were all determined by wildlife needs and other considerations. “One bird species, for instance, needed a minimum of 1.6 hectares, so we made one of the islands exactly that size,” said Woltz. In other cases, a shallow slope was needed for foraging, while a steeper slope provided a certain species with a lookout for predators. “These are all measurable factors,” explained Woltz. “Then we could start composing a 75-acre painting.”
He began to compose this 75-acre “painting” by riding a motorcycle through the tall grasses, making long and winding curvatures, and leaving the desired track in the grass. “The motorcycle was my drawing tool”. An excavator followed behind and started to shape the paths, dams and islands that took more than a year to build up into their final forms. A system of weirs can be lowered or raised to control the level of water. Narrow polders create separation of salt from fresh water while providing pathways and places for bird watching and the launching of kayaks.
“We were intentionally not designing a natural wetlands,” said Woltz who sees the intervention as a work of art in the service of wildlife, a way to expand the range and diversity of wildlife habitat. The wetlands area is now brimming with oyster catchers, piping plovers, blue penguins, and the nectar-eating Tui, a bird that is native to New Zealand.
As one moves south on the property from the outer point and wetlands area through grasslands and rolling hills, one becomes aware of an open but willful organizing principle: a sweeping, spiral-curve geometry has been applied throughout the 3,000-acre property, from the road that runs from the beach to the domestic gardens and the layout of citrus groves. Some of the depleted, overgrazed land has been retired and stabilized with native shrubs and trees such as Ngaio, Taupata, Karo while the working sheep station is efficiently divided into paddocks. The wilder, less-defined expanses of land appear in the periphery of the property, while the landscape becomes more structured and consciously “designed” as one nears the central area where the historic homestead stands.
A sequence of different gardens encircle the 19th-century private homestead and are, according to Woltz, a “portrait of the entire property, a microcosm of the greater landscape.” The “Earthworks Garden” has a spiraling bed of low, rounded Hebe, a native New Zealand shrub, and gently sloping mounds that pay homage to the ceremonial earthworks of the Maori people. “We had contact with Maori elders about the layout of this garden,” said Woltz. For the “Endeavour Garden”, Breck Gastinger, a Woltz associate, visited the Royal Horticultural Society in London to learn what kinds of plants English botanist Joseph Banks sent back from New Zealand aboard Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769. “We got that plant list and made a perennial garden from it,” said Woltz.
The “Timber Garden” is planted with key species from the New Zealand lumber industry including Rimu, Totara, Kahiicatia and Sequoia that settlers first brought from North America, and the “Homestead Garden” is made up of both native and English plants that early settlers wrote about in their letters back to Great Britain. Right next to the house itself, Woltz added a 100-foot-long pool surrounded by native New Zealand tree ferns that droop down over the water and provide shade.
The 183-foot-long Maraetaha Bridge was designed by NBW and built to connect the original Orongo Station property to a neighboring farm that was subsequently purchased by the client. The free-span, steel-truss bridge crosses the curving Maraetaha River and creates a kind of ceremonial entry to the heart of a highly composed landscape of citrus groves that have been laid out in a series of geometric configurations. “We listened to the needs of the citrus farmers–the turning radius of their trucks, for instance–and gave the grove an artful form,” says Woltz.
The citrus trees themselves are protected from ocean winds and salt spray by a “shelter belt” of sheared alder trees that have been clipped into 34-foot-high hedges. A long, central allée is lined with native Kowhai trees that bloom with bright yellow flowers in Spring. As if that weren’t enough, Woltz also collaborated with Maori elders on an expansion of the 300-year-old Ngai Tamanuhiri (a Maori people) burial ground that lies to the south of the grove. “It was a tremendous honor for our design team to help shape their most hallowed ground,” says Woltz. The bridge, roadway and allée are all oriented in alignment with the burial mound.
Woltz expresses humility and hesitates to claim full authorship of such an all-encompassing enterprise that includes formal gardens, wetland reclamation, ecological and cultural reclamation programs, as well as an integrated farming system that has become a model for sustainable land management in this part of New Zealand. NBW, led by Woltz, has recently been hired to design a 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park in Auckland. The park includes a large working sheep and cattle farm and stands adjacent to the sacred Maori site One Tree Hill, the largest of Aukland’s nine volcanic cones. “This has all been a colossal collaboration with so many different people–biologists, horticulturists, historians, farmers, wildlife experts, and indigenous peoples,” says Woltz. But he also acknowledges that it takes a single person’s eye, a single overarching vision, to pull all of the disparate parts together and turn them into such a seamless work of environmental art. “The designed landscape can become a powerful tool for telling stories of the land as it helps to promote stewardship long into the future,” he says.
A version of this story appeared in Design Anthology (Hong Kong) , May 2014
In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness. – Samuel Beckett
I reach the black hill of Sgòr na Chiche and follow the trail that dips up and down, wending my way through slate, heather and deer grass. I climb the craggy outcropping known as Signal Rock and look back over the glen and the river and can see smaller streams that converge at the Meeting of Waters and flow into the Loch of Achriachtan and beyond to the Field of Dogs at a place called Achnacone. (There’s still snow on the higher reaches of Bidean nam Bian.) It’s thought to be a preternaturally gloomy place, the so-called “Glen of Weeping”, where more than thirty MacDonalds were massacred in 1692, including Alastair Maclain, my namesake and 12th Chief of Glencoe, but it’s not just the memory of blood and betrayal that makes it such a memorable landscape. It’s the brooding scale of the “munros,” the dark mountain masses that crowd against one another like mourners around a grave. There’s a sense of sublimated violence in the outlines of Bidean nam Bian, a massif created when volcanic eruptions took place during the Silurian Period, followed by a million years of glacial erosion.
“Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe,” goes the local ballad, while invading Norsemen called it the “Place of Wild Dogs”, and when Dorothy Wordsworth visited in 1803 she and her brother William couldn’t wait to get out. “Never did I see such a miserable, wretched place!” G. K. Chesterton visited after World War I and saw an allegorical landscape of death and resurrection with “star-crowned cliffs hinged upon the sky” and “clouds as floating rags across them curled.” Douglas Stewart came in 1924 and composed his well-loved “Sigh, wind in the pine; River, weep as you flow; Terrible things were done Long, long ago,” and when T.S. Eliot came in 1934 he was struck by a bleak sense of foreboding that he attempted to capture in verse: “Here the crow starves,” he wrote. “Substance crumbles, in the thin air, moon cold… shadow of pride is long, in the long pass. No concurrence of bone.”
My father made his own pilgrimage to the sacred bone yard in October 1945, a few weeks after repatriation and eleven years after Eliot’s visit. He took the “Silver Line”, a cream-colored bus with snout-nosed grille, to Oban and continued thereafter by small-gauge railway and foot. It was raining most of the way north and he wore a black oilskin and carried the leather valise his mother had given him as a homecoming gift. He brought extra socks, a small blue Service Bible and his new “hobby” camera, the Leica IIIC that his friend, Eric Moss, brought back from Dusseldorf. Moss sold him the black-market camera for eight pounds. It came in a black leather case with three Zeiss Jena lenses and a copy of Douglas Milner’s Mountain Photography: Its Art and Technique. He spent one night at King’s House and another at Clachaig Inn where he met an Army lieutenant named Graydon who’d been blinded in one eye at Chindwin River. Together, they hiked up the old Wade Road, across Rannoch Moor and onto an undulating green pasture that led to the River Etive and the foothills of Bedean Nam Bian. They scrambled halfway up the boulder-strewn escarpment called the Devil’s Staircase and on the way down, stopped to take a rest. This was when my father took the first of his landscape studies: Stob Coire Sgreamhach.
Graydon was an experienced climber and soon split off to try a more challenging trail, while my father, who had sore knees, continued through the lower-elevation moonscape, and tested a range of different exposures while making notations in a little blue notebook: “From the Coire Bar. looking over tip of Beinn Bhan. Taken with 13.5 cm. wide angle,” numbering every shot, recording the name of the mountain or loch, the time, date, type of lens, shutter speed and f/stop. It was quite unlike him to be so precise, so scientific. I can only imagine that he needed some kind of reference or benchmark and that the mountains, the so-called “munros,” served as a kind of framing device for his own process of recovery. I’ve heard how victims of trauma return to the scene of a crime to re-live and process their experiences. Was that what my father was doing? I don’t really know because he rarely told me anything about this period of emotional adjustment. In fact, he preferred not to talk about it at all, and would only answer my questions if I prodded him and even then it would only be some minimal detail, a date or place name, something about the camera or what he was carrying with him on the trip, but nothing of much substance. I only discovered the photographs when I was going through a box of his things and found them mixed in with old family travel shots, birthday parties, beach picnics, Christmas dinners.
They were oddly sized, almost square, deckle-edged, black and white, and stood out from all the other snapshots. Each one was moodier than the last with no buildings or people depicted, hardly any trees, just mountains, sky and rock, clouds and shadows, but they were strangely beautiful in their starkness. I picked them out and placed them on the dining room table, going from left to right, from lighter to darker, from smaller to larger scale, so that the photo of a loch gave way to low-lying hills, to a gorge, then to an actual mountaintop. This seemed like the most logical and lyrical sequence. Over the next few weeks, it gradually dawned on me just what the photographs were, when they were taken and what they represented. I was fascinated and felt as if I’d found an entry point to an otherwise unknown period of my father’s life, the otherwise blank period between his release from the camps–on August 12, (three days after the bombing of Nagasaki)–and his marriage to my mother, almost four months later, an agonizing period that, for the most part, he’d blocked from memory. I became quite obsessed with the photos and began wondering how, for instance, my father had managed to frame certain scenes and make the mountains look like overlapping folds of cloth, or how he came to choose the angle of light, the depth of field, or the length of a certain exposure.
In one shot there are rhythmically stacked layers that rise along Aonach Eagach with morning light brushing the edge of one peak, radiating behind an almost vertical precipice of pitch-black granite, a composition for which my father notes dryly: “taken with Tele P. lens,” in his unmistakable penmanship. Another shows a patch of snow on Beinn Fhada with darker striations, knobs, shadows, a fractured tumulus near the top of Sgur-mam-Fiann. In yet another, there are bands of moss at a lower elevation, and light streaming from behind one of the “paps” turning a solitary pine into a blurred emanation. But as much as I wanted to find answers, the photographs were surprisingly devoid of sentiment or conventional meaning and I found myself seeking clues to a “narration” that wasn’t necessarily even there.
Parts of the glen appear to be without exit, closed off from the rest of the world. The north side is formed by the almost vertical Aonach Eagach ridge, while the conical Pap of Glen Coe (Sgurr na Ciche) encloses the western end of the U-shaped vale and eventually opens out to Loch Leven. A facile reading might be to see an allegorical chasm of dark, impenetrable walls, lowering clouds, inescapable truths–at least one of my father’s fellow survivors had taken his own life since returning from the camps–but I don’t think he ever considered suicide. More likely, he was bewildered by such a precipitous reentry to the civilized world. I kept going back to one photograph in particular that had a mysteriously dark foreground and the peaks of the Three Sisters looming along the right-hand side of the frame. A narrow roadway threads through the bottom of the valley, reflecting the sky and providing the only contrast in an otherwise leaden composition.
Was this a thread of hope, a narrow escape to salvation? It’s the same road that Eliot wrote about when he visited Glen Coe in 1935: “The road winds in / Listlessness of ancient war, / Langour of broken steel, / Clamour of confused wrong, apt / In silence. Memory is strong / Beyond the bone…” My father hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of a future, any sort of future, much less the prospect of marriage or a family life. He’d seen my mother once on the promenade at Inellen and once at a tearoom in Ardentinny, although that may have been after the Glen Coe outing, I’m not sure, but he was starting to think about the possibility of a romantic relationship, a thought that would have seemed ludicrous only a few weeks earlier. However much of an amateur he may have been, however many ideas he may have borrowed from Milner’s Guide to Mountain Photography, he achieved a surprising sense of scale within the 2-1/4-inch-square format by consolidating the major landscape elements and rendering them as monolithic forms. The light throughout is crepuscular, elegiac; the skies high and wide, alabaster panels veined with gray and there is something about the gradations of shadow that made me start to read the photos as self-portraiture, as if the lens of his Leica were pointed inward as well as out towards the scenery.
When I look up to my own sky, it’s patterned with sieves of pink and purple that alternate with furrowed pockets of gray. The valley seems an infinite funnel between present and past, a worm hole through time, and I feel as if I’m still moving along the narrow tarmac of A82, even when I park the car and start to walk across the moor, over humps of gorse and moss, it’s not what I expected. There are hardly any points of transition except for where the main trail intersects with other trails, an occasional cattle crossing, or a small cluster of birches near the Etive River Bridge and a triangular white sign that reads “King’s House Hotel, circa 1754,” pointing up a narrow track that leads to nothing. I’d driven in the morning from Tarbet to the head of Loch Lomond and onto Rannoch Moor the back way, from the east, while my father had come from the west, through Oban and Ballachulish. I carry his photographs in a waterproof folder, the idea being to track his movements and stand in the same spots where he stood when he came here in 1945, but it’s almost impossible to line up the angles. The light and shadows are oddly skewed and everything’s saturated with a deep, living color: the heather, the rocky knolls and peat bogs fringed with moor-grass. It’s so different from the black-and-white world of post-war Scotland. Nothing seems to be in the right place, and while I’m sure there’s a way to triangulate his movements from exposure to exposure, it’s beyond my capabilities. In fact, the very thought makes me light in the head and I have a kind of spatial-temporal dyslexia, a horizontal vertigo, in which foreground and background become inverted, and for a moment I feel as if I were walking through a pinhole aperture into one of my father’s own photographs. There’s too much information, too much material to work back from. His were tightly framed views that left almost everything to the imagination. His glen was more compressed and packed with shadow than mine, his depth of perception more shallow, like bas-relief. I’m standing in the same place as he was and can see what was left out of those closely bracketed landscapes, how the glen is all around and continuous, even wilder than imagined. My boots are soaked and I’m distracted by a group of hikers who say hello in a such a cheery way that it brings me hurtling back to the soggy present. I take a slow breath and remind myself that I’ve come here to retrace my father’s footsteps, not for a leisurely stroll or an afternoon of sightseeing.
I have always marked and measured my life against his, to a sometimes pathological extent–my age, my gains and losses, my accomplishments, my career, my two marriages, my own children–wondering what he was doing at different stages of his life, at twenty, thirty, forty, and comparing it to whatever I was doing at the same age. Where others saw a selfless servant of Christ, I saw a needy, sometimes helpless man, who always had to be the center of attention. I loved him. I adored him. I happily acknowledged every part of his legend, the stories and heroics, the near-death experiences that so many admired. He was a war hero but he also read ancient Greek. He read Anglo Saxon. He read Plato. He read Kierkegaard. He read everything and possessed a golden Rolodex of names and dates and philosophical notions that rotated constantly inside his head. You could see it, spinning in there, behind his watery green eyes. I never understood what he was talking about until I was older and even then I found it impossible to keep up, impossible to compete. If I threw out a name, or a book, or an idea, he had twenty other names and books and ideas ready to throw back at me, to impress, contradict and confound. It was exhilarating but it was also exhausting, and I learned to assume a quiet, deferential attitude whenever I found myself in his presence.
William Aytoun visited Glen Coe in 1835 and described the moorland as “black amidst the common whiteness.” Horatio McCulloch came from Glasgow to paint the unruly wildness of the glen with radiant bands of gold falling across the Aonach Eagach ridge. Thomas Moran traveled across the Atlantic to make studies of the morbid shadows and extreme weather. In his Pass at Glencoe, a storm sweeps over Bidean nam Bian as the Etive floods beneath the Bridge of Coe. Edwin Landseer painted sentimentalized renderings of a stag rearing his head against a multi-hued background of glowing mountains and wind-ravaged trees. All of the artists and poets, all of the ones who’d come before, were seeking some sort of convergence with the Sublime, but why did my Dad come? I can only guess that he was trying to recapture the landscape he’d lost during six years of war and find a way to map himself back into the world of the living. As E.M. Forester wrote: “Landscape is personality,” and for those few days in October, 1945 my father claimed the rugged landscape of Glen Coe as his own.
His camera and the photographic process with its f-stops, apertures and technical rigor, gave him a methodology and a set of coordinates that were both spatial and emotional. It gave him a reason for wandering these hills, for being aware of the position of the sun as it moved across the sky and the angle of light and how it extended or distended shadow, emboldened or diminished a silhouette. He could reassure himself along the way that he wasn’t losing his mind, even though he was still haunted by the faces of the dead. He had palpitations and night sweats and diarrhea and the lingering effects of dyptheria and malaria and beri beri and tropical ulcers. He would pray every morning but it wasn’t quite the same as when he prayed in the camps. He could hardly sleep and when he did he saw clouds of insects and railways cutting through jungle. He saw his friends, Dusty and Stewart, standing over the mass grave at Tarsau and the faces of the dead laid out for burial, faces from Clydeside and Liverpool, faces from Hull and Aberdeen, all the ones he failed to save. The River Coe flows west along the glen before turning into a waterfall near the head of Loch Leven. This was where my father stopped to compose his final photo and it shows Eilean Munde, the burial island of the MacDonald Clan, probably the most conventional of all his studies, but one that captures some of the unfathomable emptiness that he felt that week. The moon reflects off the surface of the loch and turns it into a darkly enameled shield, an image that seems all the more spectral for the way that the surrounding trees lean away from the camera. It’s a photograph about time and memory and the mysterious banality of death, or so it seems to me.
Only a month earlier, he’d been on board the M.S. Boissevain, an old Dutch liner that left Rangoon on September 18 and crept slowly across the Indian Ocean. He was sitting on the upper deck, writing a letter home to his parents and smoking one of the “Navy Cuts” that the captain had handed out to all the officers. Sept. 20, 1945: Dearest Mother, It’s really true! We’re at sea, bound for Blighty. Corstrikemepink! Now I believe that I am Free… When he dozed off he saw an emaciated body rolling out from its covering and the cruel eyes of Lieutenant Sasa looking on. He awoke to thick coats of paint on the Boissevain’s smokestack and the Bay of Bengal shining silver and bronze under a tropical sun.
There’s a photograph that shows David Leckie standing in the middle, while my father’s on the left wearing baggy shorts and battle jacket. Tim Smythe, a Captain in the Norfolks, stands beside him, very tan, almost black, with a boney David Niven face (both Smythe and my father survived the death wards at Chungkai) and you can see a capstan in the background and the temporary officers’ quarters made from shiplap with a corrugated metal roof sloping down to the gunwales. In the letter, my father was explaining that the ship was expected to arrive by the first week of October, but didn’t know where. He was hoping for Glasgow because it would take them past the island where his parents lived. “There is a possibility that I might come sailing up the Clyde,” he wrote. “Tell Dad to look out for me – I’ll try to borrow a flashlamp so that I can morse my name as I pass. We are to pass through a Transit Camp first, but should be home within 48 hours. I’ll ‘phone you whenever I get ashore…” It was an almost delirious sensation to be writing these words, imagining what it would be like to come home after so many years. Would his family and friends even recognize him? He was no longer a boy, but a hardened man of twenty-nine. He’d lost the bushy mop of brown curls. His face was dark and gaunt from starvation. “I’m putting on weight as fast, as fast can be. I weigh myself daily and find the score mounting. As well as good food we are being stuffed with vitamin pills. At times I feel rather like a turkey being prepared for the Xmas Dinner.”
The Boissevain stopped for two days in Ceylon, then crossed the Arabian Sea, passed through the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar and finally turned north towards Great Britain. The ship never did go up the Clyde as my father had hoped, but sailed up the Mersey and berthed at Wapping Dock in Liverpool. An express train from Lime Street Station took my father and dozens of other repatriated soldiers to Glasgow. On the way north he sat on the patterned velvet seat and envisioned the white buildings gathered like a village on the point. He nodded off, somewhere near Carlisle, and saw the skerry slip that cut through rock at a diagonal, the prow of Vim cutting through the current off Ardrossan, his father walking on the shore, distant and unreachable. It was only when the train reached Glasgow Central and his brother Peter was there to meet him, waving from behind the barrier, that he snapped out of his reverie and realized that they wouldn’t be going to Toward Point, but to an island that he hardly knew. The train to Largs was late and he could only see some murky roofs passing in silhouette against the night sky and the dim but familiar platforms at Lanbank and Wemyss Bay. The train picked up speed as it moved inland through Knock Hill Cut and curved back to the coast with a sudden, shuddering stop at the old station on Crawford Street, but the actual moment of reunion was so eerie that it eclipsed the train ride and everything else he’d had in his mind that night.
Three separate pyres were burning along the shore, casting a milky, orange glow through the veil of fog. The rolling of the launch and the smell of diesel fuel made him queasy as he watched a single figure standing on the beach waving her arms and beating on a metal pot. It was his mother, Sarah, beating the pot and keeping the bonfires stacked with driftwood to guide them into shore. She almost fell over herself running up the concrete landing, reaching out to embrace him when they made their landing. He knew nothing. He understood nothing. He had arrived, but his sense of home, his internal mapping was completely askew. It wasn’t the cozily familiar cottage with whitewashed walls and slate roofs that he’d left in 1939, but a rugged, slightly terrifying landscape in the outer-most reaches of the estuary. My grandfather had been posted to Cumbrae in 1940, and Ernest had only ever stepped foot on the island once, eight years earlier, while sailing Myfawny on the final leg of a Royal Clyde regatta. They’d limped into the castle side of the island with a broken spar, anchored in the lee of South Gellet, which was nothing more than a cluster of sharply slanting rocks, and it seemed as if they’d reached the end of the world, even then, on a relatively calm summer day in 1937. Sarah made every effort to make his return as comfortable as possible. The bedroom was tucked beneath a gable in the keeper’s house. There was a rugby ball, a few books and a framed photo of a boat tacking up the Clyde. His mother had brightened the room with a vase of blue bells on the bedside table. Oh where does your highland laddie dwell, He dwells in merry Scotland where the bluebells sweetly smell… But he felt trapped, and in the morning looked out the corner window, past the flame-shaped chimney pot, across the estuary to the hills of Bute, streaks of silver-pink light streaming down the channel, and he was already making plans for an escape. During the next few days, he went shivering up and down the High Street in Largs, back and forth in the launch to Millport, up to Gourock and over on a Clyde steamer to Dunoon. He couldn’t sit still. It was as if he’d awoken from a nightmare in the middle of the night but couldn’t find the light-switch. He had leg cramps and headaches. He wrote furtive entries in his journal and went for long walks to escape the suffocation of his parents’ house on Cumbrae. Cousin Sally was playing Peevers–a Scottish form of hopscotch–in the laundry court, clicking her heals and slapping hands against her thighs, picking up stones in one square and placing them in another. She was terrified of the dark stranger who’d arrived late in the night like an apparition. “He stayed at Cumbrae for some time to get himself back together,” she wrote in a letter to me from the south of England in 2010. “Mum had the room next to him and could hear him shouting in the night and pacing the floor but they were told not to go to him as this might be a little dangerous because of all that he had been through.” Those first few nights were Hell. The bed was too soft, the goose-down pillow impossible, so he lay on the drafty floorboards, his toes twitching like the wings of a dying moth, spasmodic leg muscles, hands clenched into fists, flailing arms, torso turning and twisting beneath the woolen blanket, and then–it was as if he’d kicked himself in his own forehead–awoke with a gasp as he heard the strange half-echo of his own voice beneath a bell jar, that’s how it sounded, and the words were meaningless, random names and threats shouted at no one, into the void, and this would snatch him from the shallow ditch of sleep.
Jimmy Donaldson spotted my father on the dock at Kirn, waiting for the ferry, less than a week after his return. Margaret Dutton saw him walking up Argyll Street and thought he looked surprisingly fit, considering his ordeal. He ate the buffet lunch at the Buchanan Hotel and went to the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street to see Fantasia, Disney’s epic animation, and found himself weeping for the colors and Stravinsky’s score. He kicked around the yards at Lorimer’s and Robertson’s looking over the yachts that lay idle through the war. Dionne was ravaged with her teak pitted, varnish peeling, and in desperate need of repair. (He dreamt of sailing her to Tobermory.) Skilly the Poacher, otherwise known as Wull Allan, saw him walking briskly round the head of the loch, near Dalinlongart, where Skilly lived throughout the war inside the upturned hull of an old fishing boat. Jean Robertson, my grandmother, first heard the news of Ernest’s return from Kathleen Lorimer who told her that the Anderson sisters had already invited him to tea at Rubislaw. The Andersons! Gran passed the news onto my mother, Helen, who was pretending not to hear, fixing her hair in the hall mirror at Ardmillen, trying to ignore her mother who seemed particularly agitated and out of sorts. Helen stood back from the mirror and turned to look at her own figure, sideways, smoothing down the folds of her jacket. She would get her hair cut. She would throw the ATS uniform into the bin and find the dark blue woolen suit, the one that hung in the upstairs closet, the one that made her look so tall and slender. Ernest did go to the Andersons, on at least two occasions. Rubislaw was a stately Victorian house made from pinkish stone with high windows and steep gables. There was an iron gate, a greenhouse and a stream running in the back, and inside there were four sisters standing by the window, looking out: Jean, Sally, Eileen, Maureen, all of them attractive and available except for Sally who was engaged to an officer in the Royal Navy. When I met Eileen many years later, she told me the impression that my father made walking up the pebble pathway that day, how thin and dark and good looking he was. What she remembered most was the swooshing sound that his kilt made as he walked up to the front door–that’s what had stuck forever in her memory–the way that the pleated tartan fabric swung back and forth across his knees.
A week after his photographic odyssey to Glen Coe, my father found temporary digs in “Brading”, a boarding house on Nelson Street, just off Largo Road, not far from the St. Andrews campus, where he hoped to complete the classes that had been interrupted by war in 1939. The following week he sent my mother a marriage proposal, “I’ve been thinking and thinking, going almost mad…” and it came with a package of silk stockings, a photo of himself, and a poem called “Escape” that he’d started to write while still aboard the Boissevain on his way back from Rangoon. Helen received the proposal on the morning of November 30, a Friday, and accepted it in writing by return post: “Darling, I don’t know whether I’m on my head or heels. Your 2 letters this morning put me right into a flat spin. I’ve been thinking of you every minute since you left and wondering if you were serious and knowing that I was serious and the answer is yes, I’ll marry you, darling. As you say, it’s so obvious. It was always meant to be this way…” My parents got married on December 17 at Ardmillen, my grandmother’s stone house in Sandbank, and it was a simple affair with a small group of family and friends in attendance, and Reverend Lithgow of the Kirn Parrish Church conducting the service. The next morning, they were off on a honeymoon, down the west coast of Scotland by train, to Girvan where they stayed four nights at the Royal Hotel. It wasn’t much of a hotel, certainly nothing royal, but it was all my father could afford and it had a little pub and a decent view over the estuary.
The Royal is still there, just off A77, a busy road that runs from Dumfries to Ayr. It’s a simple, two-story stone building with whitewashed walls and pale blue trim. I approach from the north but miss the turning and have to pull off at a gas station and swing back. I tell the rosy-faced proprietor about my parents. He smiles and insists that I take a peak at their former honeymoon suite. He hands me the key to Room #4 on the second floor, and it’s pretty much the same as it was when they stayed there in 1945, only now decorated with peach-colored wallpaper with two single beds–“Twin Peach” is how it’s described on the hotel’s web site–but it has the same view they had then, across the estuary to Ailsa Craig, the oddly symmetrical dome of rock that looms up from the sea, bleak and solitary, inhabited only by puffins, seals, and a lonely lighthouse keeper. My parents could see it out the window of their room and whenever they went on one of their chilly outings along the beach, or poking around the ruins of Crossraguel Abbey, or following the footpath up Dow Hill, it appeared as if the Craig were following them like a luminous presence. And what was this strange volcanic rock rising from the waves, struck by moonlight? In the morning it looked blurry and distant, but as the sun rose higher and caught the contours of its vertical granite shafts, the island appeared to jump up from the sea and come alive with so many facets and craggy outcroppings. To early Scots it was a hiding place for mystical, sentient beings and the name in Gaelic, Aillse Greag, literally means “Fairy Rock,” but it was also known as Carraig Alasdair, or “Alasdair’s Rock”, and when John Keats traveled through Scotland in the summer of 1818, he sat, transfixed, at the King’s Arms Inn and wrote a poem about the geological anomaly across the water: “Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid… Thy life is but two dead eternities, The last in air, the former in the deep!”
Two dead eternities… I stand in the doorway, staring into the room, and try to imagine them snuggled together, but something stops me cold from going any further. I feel like a time-traveling voyeur, a peeping tom, gazing in at my own parents’ love nest. I hurry back downstairs, oddly embarrassed, and order a Belhaven lager in the pub. Evening descends and I walk outside, past a stone barrier, and watch the light shifting wildly across the slopes of Ailsa Craig, rocky vision, wondering about my parents’ oddly intertwined destinies. Ernest was stronger and more confident than he’d been during his trip to Glen Coe a month earlier. He was madly in love and had even started to write poetry again, encouraged by my mother. He carried the collected Keats and a brown notebook tied with string with his initials scribbled on the cover. He was reading the final part of Endymion while reworking one of his own poems: The wings of great birds are beating / Against the window pane… that he’d started aboard the Boissevain sailing back from Rangoon, and had picked it up again in his parent’s living room, overlooking Kilchattan Bay: My soul flies out to greet them / One with the wind and the rain… I found it sixty years later among his papers, printed in fading blue typeface, copied for posterity on a mimeograph machine. Inside the same manila envelope, I also found the original receipt from my parents’ stay at the Royal.
22/12/1945, Capt. & Mrs. E. Gordon: 4 days and morning tea at 15 shillings per person… 2 high teas for 6 shillings… 13 shillings/ 8p for “Beers, Wines, etc.” / Total: 6 pounds, 19 shillings and 8 pennies, a modest honeymoon to be sure, but they were lucky to have survived the war and found each other like that in the shortened daylight and freezing rain of Scottish winter. He was no longer scarecrow thin like he’d been on the ship coming back, and was up to 10 stone–close to 140 pounds–the hollowness in his face filling out, almost back to his handsome former self. Girvan’s Atlantic Breezes Cures Winter Sneezes read a poster in the railway station, and they kissed in the lee of the lighthouse and walked along the edge of the links, across the fairway and made their way through the rolling dunes to the beach. He’d been married for two days and couldn’t suppress a smile on his face. Despite the frightful weather, despite his crumbling teeth, he couldn’t stop smiling. It was a peculiar sensation.
A few weeks later they moved into a small, cold water flat at No.100 Willowbrae Avenue in Edinburgh, and spent the rest of the winter there, attending classes by day, seeking simple pleasures by night, lying in bed beneath the eaves, reading verses out loud, picking their favorites and reciting them again with rain lashing against the windows of the second-floor flat, dining on shepherd’s pie, baked beans and Bird’s Custard. Rationing was still in effect and everything from eggs, milk and tea to toffee and chocolate were scarce. It was a miserably cold winter and my father remembers inserting endless pennies into a heater–some kind of paraffin-powered device–that was always breaking down and almost setting the place on fire.
Memory is strong beyond the bone and Helen was the one who endured his midnight shakes, his twitching toes and flailing arms, his sudden outbursts of anger, and irrational mood swings, and the ravenous hunger that was never fully sated. She was the one who brought him back, finally, to the land of the living and the righteous. In January she gave him a copy of Other Men’s Flowers, a popular anthology of poetry compiled by Field-Marshal Viscount Wavell, published by the Alden Press, Oxford, in 1945. I know this because I have the book in my possession and can see that the frontispiece is signed in my mother’s distinctive handwriting: “Edinburgh, Jan. 1946. With all my love, darling. – Helen.” It’s not much to go on, but inside, there are dozens of markings, under linings, dog-eared corners, checks and dots in almost all of the margins. It seems as if every poem had not only been read, but had been analyzed and reread, swallowed in its entirety. My father was still starving, in a sense, no longer hungry for food but craving something beyond the superficial routines of daily life, and the books that came into his life at this point were far more than cherished possessions: they were bulwarks against darkness and death. “Who sings unconscious of their song, / Whose lips are in their lives” was heavily underlined on page 174 with blue ink in “The Song of Honour,” a lengthy ode by Ralph Hodgson which I understand in some ways–whose lips are in their lives–as I imagine my father still trying to put the horrors into perspective, looking for meaning. I know that the little pencil chicks on page 316 have to be his because this was how he always marked his books. The passage that he singled out–“A prison wall was round us both / Two outcast men we were…”–was from a poem by Oscar Wilde and had been annotated in several other places with pencil and then again, with pen: “The world had thrust us from its heart, / And God from out His care…” and then, underlined twice: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves, / By each let this be heard…”
I take a taxi to Willowbrae and walk up the long curving street on a clear morning to find a two-story stone house, still split into separate apartments, set back with a small but neat front garden, a painted gate and old rain-spouts made from lead. It’s a quiet neighborhood, buffered from the city’s clamor by the hills of Holyrood Park. I stand there for a moment, feeling no connection or further insight, just a kind of claustrophobia and desire to be somewhere else, so I hail the next taxi coming down Abercorn Road and return to my hotel on Princes Street. My father was still torn between secular and spiritual forces, wrestling with horrific memories, trying to forgive and forget the worst, while adjusting to the weather and day-to-day austerity of post-war Scotland. He went twice a month to Dr. Duggan, a tropical specialist at the Royal Infirmary off Dalkeith Road, where they took blood and stool samples and made him pee into a glass vial. He was given anti-inflammatory pills for diphtheria, copper sulfate for his jungle ulcers, charcoal and creosote tablets for lingering effects of dysentery, and a foul-smelling vermicidal called Thiabendazole that he took for hookworm. Duggan also prescribed an early version of Chloroquine for malaria but the drug made my father throw up so he stopped after the first few weeks. In general, however, he was feeling stronger and loved to walk through central Edinburgh looking at the bridges and railway lines beneath the North British Hotel, the broad steps leading down to Waverley Station, and the saw-toothed roofs of the big train sheds. He watched shoppers mingling on Princes Street, gazing at the displays in Jenners, or climbing the Scott Monument and always, wherever he went, he felt the brooding presence of the Castle high upon its rocky perch. He was taking classes in the Faculty of Divinity, studying under the tutorship of Rev. Charles S. Duthie M.A., B.D., attending classes in Old and New Testament Studies, Systematic Theology, Dogmatics, Ethics, Apologetics, Homiletics and won the prize that semester for Elocution.
He would make it back to Glen Coe five years later, a changed man, his future bright. He finished theological seminary in Connecticut, accepted a position at Paisley Abbey and purchased a second-hand Vauxhall Velox. Again, he brought a camera, but the results were nothing like the photos he’d taken in 1945. The corries of Bidean nam Bian look buoyant compared to the ominous silhouettes of the earlier black-and-white shots, as if he were seeing the world in more granulated and aspirational tones. The Leica IIIC had been stolen on the way back from his honeymoon and the lens of the new camera, whatever its make, was inferior to the finely ground Zeiss Jena lenses that he’d used before. He was also trying out a new kind of film, Kodachrome Transparency, and the slides have brilliant but highly unstable colors that create a kind of Fauvist distortion. In some, the azure sky turns deep cerulean, almost black at the edges of the frame due to silver halide breaking down the integrity of the film’s sixty-year-old emulsion. Viridian green of the pines jumps out sharply in some of the slides, but rock, moor-grass and heather bleed together with watery edges, purple being the least stable of photographic dies, thereby flattening any sense of depth.
All line drawings are from C. Douglas Milner’s
Mountain Photography, London: The Focal Press, 1945.
All of the square-format, black-and-white photographs
(and the last image in color) are by Ernest Gordon, 1945.
This is the third in a series of “discoveries” about
my father’s life. See also:
“I like a piece bulging and sort of limp. It has to have some tension or else it will look like a big snake that’s swallowed a bunch of pigs.” – Wendell Castle
His early work was skeletal and spindly, a kind of 3-D calligraphy in space, made from strokes of bevelled wood in place of ink. Two stools received attention for being more like sculpture than furniture and set the tenor for a career that would always waver between utilitarian and aesthetic. The stools were made from recycled gun stocks mitered and dowelled like bones with forked appendages and crutch-like arms. Priscilla Chapman of the New York Herald Tribune described
one of these early experiments as a “mad, branchy piece of wood sculpture designed on the principle of a child’s high chair,” but questioned whether it could be used for actual sitting. There was a coffee table with legs that Castle carved into smokey ligaments reaching around a vermillion slab that hovered on top like a surfboard. A chest of drawers from 1962 rested on six wavering, twig-like legs, two of which extended up to become pull handles for the drawers. By the mid-1960s the work began to bulk up with oak and walnut lamination that sprouted outward like hollow gourds. A cherry-wood blanket chest from 1963 was plump and expectant but also mysterious and withholding, the very opposite of those lanky, anorexic stools he’d been making three years earlier. It might have been a ripened cherry or a “fantastic species of giant seedpod,” as one critic described it, perched on a bulbous base and could be opened by pushing a three-fingered handle sprouting, oddly, from the top.
Stack lamination is a slow, thoughtful process–cut, plane, glue, clamp–one layer at a time, imitating the growth or re-growth of the original tree from which the planks were milled in the first place. “I like the idea of sort of gluing wood back together into a tree trunk–reconstituting the thing you’ve torn apart–the way it expands at the bottom, the way roots spread out and support the furniture,” says Castle. “How does a tree do it? This is something that always appealed to me. So did the opposite idea where theoretically the thing wouldn’t stand at all because it didn’t have what it needed at the bottom. The idea of opposites is something I like a lot,” he says. “I made a piece that had twelve legs and shortly thereafter I made a piece with only one leg.” A lateral, drifting motion began to appear in the late sixties in leaf-shaped
tables and settees, doublewide benches with wishbone legs, tables that split and stretched or bloomed like broad-lipped petals. “In a sense, I was trying to disguise the fact that it was furniture but not to the point where it couldn’t be used,” says Castle whose dealer, Lee Nordness, compared the new work to wandering, attentuated organic forms. Table bases resembled tree trunks, expressing the flare or “buttressing” of an oak, as if rooted in the floor. Tops were elliptical or clover-shaped with indentations and other irregularities. Further breakthroughs came through improvisation, as with a petal-shaped coffee table (1966) in rosewood with a wrinkle and elliptical perforation in the middle, one of his more graceful forms, that opened to reveal itself with both horticultural and erotic subtleties: a base that flared like a peduncle unraveling into an expanding ovule, around which spread the lobe or petal, recumbent and accommodating, something like a lily pad on water, caught for a moment in the process of becoming something else. Library Sculpture sprouted a table and two cantilevered, tub-like chairs, while the central trunk had to be anchored to the floor with bolts. “Tree-Like Form Sprouts Chairs,” read a headline in the Detroit Free Press, as if Castle’s hybrid creation was a freak of nature, a Frankenstein of furniture. Was it art, or furniture, or an ecstatic happening in wood?
“Furniture would grow out of the ceiling and out of the walls,” said Castle after making Wall Table No. 16 in 1969 and would do just that with two operative “bases,” one anchored to the floor, the other to the wall, challenging all suppositions about what a table was supposed to be. His total-room concept came close to fruition in a suite designed for dealer Nordness where eight separate components flowed like parts of a single organism: crescent sofa suspended from the ceiling and curving in harmony with an elliptical coffee table, a bench, stools, standing lamp, drooping bookcase and combination table-chair. The period from 1968 to 1970 was a particularly fertile plunge into the unknown. Stand-alone pieces transformed themselves into multi-partite constellations and free-form human landscapes. A bed became a tree, became a giant beanstalk, became a shell-like desk with cantilevered couch, suggesting new ways to inhabit three-dimensional space. For one client, Castle carved a sleeping platform with elephant-stump legs and a tear-drop desk that looked like a harbor encircled by a ridge of hills. A lamp rose from the far shore of this dreaming machine like a lighthouse beckoning the sleeper back from the edge of unconsciousness. Enclosed Reclining Environment for One was a blob-shaped chamber carved from laminated oak that could be entered through a little Hobbit doorway. The snugly shaped interior was padded with foam rubber and upholstered with a natural-colored Flokati rug allowing just enough room to enfold a single person in soul-searching solitude. “When you get inside, it’s almost like being in your mother’s womb,” said one visitor. Another compared it to a “free-form coffin.”
Two hours later, Castle collects me for lunch and we drive up Maple, past the Connor Elementary School, quaint two-story houses, neatly fenced yards, overhanging elms—Anytown, USA–to Oakwood, through hand-crafted gates into a rolling estate with orchards and gardens that slope down to a river valley. It’s a surprisingly grand 19th-century manor with a greenhouse at the back and inside, a compilation of rough textures, tufted handmade things, un-curated rooms with early wood pieces by Castle, ceramics by his wife Nancy Jurs, musical instruments and artworks by friends, all cluttered into a living collage. Just after dinner, Castle hauls out a battered old guitar and a handmade ukulele and starts strumming. At times he appears shy and reserved in a Midwestern way, but now falls eagerly into Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” then stops to pour us both a whiskey. I pick up the guitar and sing “Helpless,” and am about to slide into something by Dylan when Castle storms into “Hobo’s Lullaby,” followed by Guthrie’s classic “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” singing with such passionate intensity that I lean back and just listen, feeling as if I’d drifted into some union gathering of the 1930s. A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder; It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under; Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun, Straight for home all the people did run…
There’s something in the work that’s restless and moving, like the sea, like the Great Plains, and I think of the dust-bowl ballads he sang that night and how he was born in the flatlands of Kansas where horizon frames sky and he grew up drifting from town to town, Emporia, Staffordville, Blue Rapids, Coffeeville, his father teaching vocational agriculture, before settling in Holton. “I was the leader of the neighborhood gangs for building tree-houses out of scrap wood,” recalls Castle, and while his work is decidedly modern, there’s something grass-fed and unvarnished, a vulnerability and laid-back slowness that’s very much in the American grain. Thoreau wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and Castle’s best pieces have a measure of that wildness in their methodically carved, hand-rubbed forms. One recent piece, called “Moby Dick,” has a backrest perforated with holes bored at different angles and I can’t help wondering if they represent harpoon wounds or blowholes of the title’s subject: the unattainable American Myth, the White Whale itself, Melville’s conundrum of hubris and predestination. “I’ve always been drawn to the Transcendentalists,” he says. “I like ambiguity and things that are mystical.”
We’re sitting in a local restaurant and he begins to sketch something on a paper napkin that looks like a kidney with lips and bandy legs. “Sometimes I just draw a shape, an egg or a blob, and see what I can make out of it. I enjoy going to work every day,” he says, pausing to peer up through his blue goggle glasses. “I’m not even interested in vacations. I’m on vacation all the time.”
A few days later, heading back to the airport through stubbled fields and subdivisions on Scottsville Road (Rt. 383), I remember the sketch I’d seen in one of Castle’s notebooks: two wings, reaching up as if unfurling, drawn in 1973 as a newel post to be carved for the Gannett News offices on East Main Street. Castle’s wings are less forbidding with twisted fluting that culminates in a billowing, almost cartoon-like flourish, but there’s a similarity to Ralph Walker’s Wings of Progress and it makes me think how Rochester must have etched it’s way into Castle’s psyche over the years, just as Castle’s changed this city and become a landmark in his own right, certainly as much as Walker’s sullen skyscraper. Even the bourbon-swilling banker sitting next to me on the return flight knew about him.
These are outtakes from Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms, a survey of W.C.’s work from 1959 to 1979. The book has been published by Gregory R. Miller & Co. in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It is now available for purchase in stores and at Amazon.com. The exhibition will run through February 24, 2013 and was curated by Evan Snyderman and Alyson Baker.
Andrew Geller, quixotic American architect and designer, passed away on Christmas Day, 2011. He was a good friend and inspiration to many. Beach Houses: Andrew Geller, the book I published about him in 2003 went out of print and became quite difficult to find. It is now being re-issued in paperback by Princeton Architectural Press (March 2014). The following is a memorial piece I wrote upon Geller’s death and some selected passages from the book.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw his houses on the beaches of Long Island, especially the Pearlroth House rising over the dunes of Westhampton Beach: twin boxes tilted on point with a candy-striped chimney in between–he called it the “square brassiere” or “double box kite.” Then there was the Hunt House in Fire Island, a single box on point, raised on locust posts.
It was 1986, the peak of Post-Modernist delerium, and I was preparing a book and exhibition on the forgotten modernist architects of Long Island. I despised the neo-shingle style with its faux Palladian windows and Victorian gazebos that was flooding the market at that point. Robert Motherwell’s house and studio in East Hampton, the only extant work in America by Pierre Chareau, had just been heinously demolished to make way for an “Adirondack-style” MacMansion. The idea was therefore to prove that Long Island, just as much as southern California, had been a crucial breeding ground for modern design by highlighting as many examples as I could find and show how these houses needed to be protected by preservationists and local legislators. I was hoping for maybe a dozen to twenty good examples but the more I dug the more I uncovered forgotten works by William Muschenheim, Marcel Breuer, Peter Blake, Philip Johnson, Alexander Knox, George Nelson, Gordon Bunshaft, Robert Rosenberg, Paul Lester Weiner, Julian and Barbara Neski, and others. It was one thing to discover houses by word of mouth or snooping down winter lanes hoping to catch a glimpse of a cantilevered porch, flat roof or floor-to-ceiling window peaking out behind a privet hedge, but it was even harder to find original archival material–drawings, photographs, scale models–that I would be able to use in an exhibition.
Someone had mentioned Geller’s name but I thought they meant Abe Geller, another architect who’d also designed houses on Long Island, so I was late in realizing the misunderstanding and finally drove out to Northport in October 1986 to meet Andrew for the first time. His wife Shirley greeted me at the door and said, “He’s been waiting for you,” with a twinkle in her eye and I found him sitting there in the living room of his Victorian house surrounded by hundreds of sketches, plans, perspective renderings and beautifully crafted models. He’d saved everything he’d ever done and it felt as if I’d finally hit the mother lode.
When the Long Island Modern show opened in 1987, Robert Stern criticized me for including Geller’s work. It wasn’t part of the accepted canon. He was an outsider, wasn’t properly trained, was more of an industrial designer, illustrator, etc. Peter Blake accused him of stealing his idea for the Pinwheel House, which was nonsense, but a certain amount of resentment must have been stirred up by the fact that Geller’s work had been published in mainstream, high-circulation magazines like Life, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire, the publication where Geller published his “Esquire Weekend House,” an ingenious little box on stilts that could be dismantled and towed behind a bachelor’s sports car. In fact, this had been the source of Blake’s feigned outrage. He even wrote a blistering letter to the editors who thought it amusing and pinned it to their bulletin board.
As far as I know, Geller’s houses were never published in “professional” magazines like Architectural Record and certainly not Architectural Forum while Blake was Editor-in-Chief. Geller posed something of a threat to the status quo. He was incredibly prolific, experimental, friendly, never took himself too seriously, could be irreverent, and even had dared to live a normal family life in suburban Long Island. He was successful in his own right, well outside the inner sanctum of the design world. He wasn’t practiced in the priestly double-speak of the architectural establishment. He didn’t care. He had the nerve to be playful, make jokes, have fun, be funny, breezy, light, even joyful. He’d made up his own rules and didn’t care much what the mainstream thought of him. During the week he slaved away for Raymond Loewy who knew a good thing when he saw one and kept Geller cranking out shopping centers and department stores. But there were weekends and Geller, who never seemed to rest, found his own kind of clients and worked during his free time designing simple but experimental little houses that were low budget and low maintenance. Indeed, these works defined a transitional period of American domestic architecture that lay somewhere between the flat-roofed, glass pavilions of neo-Bauhaus (Bunshaft, early Johnson, Blake, et al) and a younger generation of sixties neo-Cubist, neo-Corb modernism as recycled by Gwathmey, Meier and the New York Five.
Sure, he was sometimes uneven, but so was Picasso. Geller could be an irritant, a speck of sand in the establishment’s eye. They were hoping he would just fly away, dissappear somehow, but he didn’t. His freshness and originality kept popping up again and again, being “rediscovered,” until he was able to claim his own level of noteriety and acclaim. In the end, America prefers the mythology of the outsider: Melville, Thoreau, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac (who also lived in Northport,) Jackson Pollock, James Dean, etc. and I predict that as Geller’s work becomes better known it will find its place within the canon of American originals–architects such as Bruce Goff, John Lautner, Paolo Soleri, Mark Mills, Mickey Muennig, E. Fay Jones–all of them outsiders and in this regard it’s fortunate that grandson Jake Gorst has perpetuated Geller’s legacy through his tireless archiving, documentary film-making and preservation efforts.
Andy will be greatly missed by all of his family, friends and admirers. He was a sweet and loving man of many talents. May he rest in peace.
July 23, 2002, Amagansett, NY: It’s a hot Friday in July and we’ve been driving in circles through the sandy sprawl of Amagansett, somewhere between the primary ocean dunes and the Montauk Highway, where weekend houses are plunked on tiny lots cheek by jowl. Andrew Geller, quixotic designer/architect, is our guide as we go in search of the innovative beach houses he designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Geller, 80, is at the wheel of his vintage canary-yellow Mercedes, dressed elegant-shabby in a seersucker jacket and English sandals. His white beard and thick mustache are brushed neatly into place.
We are looking for one of his early creations; few survive in pristine condition. Most have either been torn down to make way for bigger houses, or remodeled beyond recognition. A few were washed away by hurricanes. It begins to seem like a lost cause. He designed five or six beach houses in this area but we can’t find any of them. There was the Eileen Hunt House, the Green House and the Strick House, but they seem to have vanished. We drive past many new houses, too big for their tiny lots, swollen with additions and odd assortments of neo-classical detailing.
Geller pauses and stares at one house with an eccentrically angled roof. Was it the De Monterice house that he designed in the early 1960s, the one with the “cow catcher elevation” and flaring walls? “No,” he says, “That must have been torn down too,” as we turn down another narrow lane. In a sense we are looking for a lost period of civilization, a period of innocent expectation, a time of family beach picnics, cole slaw, outdoor showers and bunk beds, before real estate prices skyrocketed, before the traffic was unbearable, and before the architecture became so predictably pretentious. It was also a time before strict zoning, set-backs, or the emergence of environmental consciousness—when houses could still be designed to burrow into the side of a dune or hover over wetlands.
Over the past twenty years, however, the fields and dunes of this area have filled up with so many trophy McMansions, intended to evoke status, arrival and gentility. They are designed in the same ham-fisted collusion of past and present: the historic pastiche of Palladian windows, dormers and gambrel roofs combined with high tech security cameras, and computerized irrigation systems, all of it high cost and high maintenance, in one of the oddest ironies of the age. Money acquired in nano-seconds of good fortune gets neatly aged through so many expressions of 19th century capitalism.
“Bigger,” says Geller, “is not always better. Most of these new houses are ridiculously oversized for their lots, too close together,” he says with conviction. “A thousand square foot house is what belongs on a 100-by-100 foot lot, but now they’re squeezing in three- and four-thousand-square-foot houses that have no relationship between the house and the property. What they’re creating is an instant slum.” He waved his hand at some of the oversized intruders and explained his theory of the minimal footprint: “You should only use 20 percent of the building lot,” he said, “but within that area be as unpredictable as possible.”
We have double backed, driven in a circle, gone down a series of roads with cute, beachy names like Dune Way and Treasure Island Drive. Geller is a bit confused. It’s been a while since his last visit here and there are so many new houses. Getting back to the recent past is never as easy as you think. “It’s here somewhere,” Geller reassures me, but we’ve driven down a cul-de-sac that was only finished a few years ago. As we double back again, Geller cranes his neck to see behind a promising clump of Russian Olive, but no, it’s another one of those mini Palladian manors.
Despite the development, these streets and dunes are filled with pleasant memories for Geller. He tells me about a house that he designed for a professor at Columbia University: Schlacter or was it Schacter? He’s positive the house is along here somewhere, not far from the Green House, with two monolithic pavilions connected by a second story bridge. The bridge supported a dining room that hovered high above the property to catch ocean views. It was in this setting that Geller met Benny Goodman. “Goodman was sitting quietly all though the lunch party,” recalled Geller. “After dessert he began to whistle a catchy tune. Everyone at the table stopped and stared at the famous band leader, who finished his tune and said ‘Now I’ve given you a Benny Goodman concert in return for being in your marvelous house.’”
Geller never quite fit in with the architectural mainstream. He followed his instincts—a “wild man with a T-square,” as one publication characterized him. His weekend houses had more to do with personal lifestyle than architectural theory. But even if some criticized them for being gimmicky, his best houses captured the exuberance of the period. They were little dream houses that inspired self expression and personal freedom. His clients loved them. Geller never belonged to any design clique, nor does he resort to the pedantic language that so many architects use. When he describes his work he tends to speak elliptically or in sweeping generalities. He has made a career rebelling against conventional house forms, attacking both the traditional pitched roof pile as well as the flat-roofed modernist box: “unsquaring the cube,” as one journalist wrote, subverting it in every imaginable way by tilting it on edge, skewing it, or crushing it altogether. Geller’s mission, as he saw it, was to liberate the American vacation house.
A certain mistrust and contempt for authority was bred in Geller during his earliest years. “The day I was born,” he said “my father was in jail doing time for his political activism. In those days, everyone who wasn’t Anglican was considered a bed-wetting Commie red.” The day of Geller’s birth was 17 April 1924. His parents had emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1905 and settled in Brooklyn. His father, Joseph Boris Geller, was from Odessa; his mother, Olga, from Kiev. Joseph was a socialist and an accomplished artist, who, during the depression years, painted large commercial signs on the sides of buildings. (Among other commissions, Joseph Geller designed the logo for the Boar’s Head company, still in use today.) “I was in awe of him,” said Geller. “I used to think he was God. He was huge, over six foot two with broad shoulders, red hair, and these big square hands that were twice the size of mine.” One early image left a particularly deep impression on the young boy. It was the sight of his father standing high on scaffolding, painting a sign on the wall of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. To this day it remains a vivid memory. “I wanted to be like him,” said Geller, “larger than life.” Joseph Geller owned a frame shop on Rockaway Avenue in Brooklyn and Andrew learned to draw and paint while sitting at his feet. Every Sunday his father would take him on sketching trips out to the flatlands of Brooklyn. “He told me that you had to draw all the time—to study people, their movements, buildings, streets—and he repeatedly told me to ‘look and see,’ which meant to pay close attention to everything. This was the only way to understand it,” he said. “My father loved nature and felt that the only way to interpret it was honestly.”
Geller began to display talent in his early teens. He later attended art classes at the Brooklyn Museum and studied at the High School of Art and Music. He entered Cooper Union and studied architecture with Esmond Shaw and Samuel Paul. (Shaw was architect of the Central Park Zoo. Paul designed apartment buildings around New York City.) He also studied life drawing with Robert Gwathmey, the father of architect Charles Gwathmey.
Geller’s studies were soon interrupted by World War II, and while he volunteered at the first possible opportunity, his experiences in the Army further eroded his faith in the established order. During his basic training he was among a group of soldiers accidentally exposed to a toxic chemical agent while on maneuvers in Louisiana. The recruits were ordered to don gas masks and move through a contaminated house. Geller wore a faulty mask, and as a result, suffered life-long medical consequences. To this day he can’t expose his body to direct sunlight, a cruel irony for a man who designs beach houses.
In 1943, while still recuperating at an Army hospital in Texas, Geller read an article in Life magazine that profiled the work of Raymond Loewy, the famous industrial designer. The article explained how Loewy had streamlined American product design, and showed illustrations of some of his projects. Loewy excelled at a new kind of commercial packaging and his best known designs were exercises in the synthesis of form, starting with his first big commission, the redesign of the Gestetner duplicating machine in 1929. This was followed by a series of streamlined successes that included a pencil sharpener in the shape of a rocket ship, the S1 locomotive for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a newly styled Greyhound bus, a bullet-shaped car for Studebaker, the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, as well as the logo and packaging for Shell Oil and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Geller was fascinated by the way Loewy combined so many different disciplines: “He designed everything from toothpicks to shopping centers,” said Geller who decided that this was the kind of work he wanted to do. One day in 1946, he went over to Loewy’s offices at Five Hundred Fifth Avenue, across from the Public Library, and applied for a job. He was hired and then mysteriously fired that same day. (Later he would learn that a disgruntled supervisor had done it as a cruel joke.) But he was called back a few weeks later, and was given a full-time position. He stayed with the company until 1974. At first he was put on product design and worked on smaller products like the housing for a 35mm camera called the Anscoflex (1954). Geller also developed the prototype for a new kind of photo enlarging system. There was something in this photographic interest that would carry through his architectural work, and, for that matter, the work of his contemporaries. Photography and modernist architecture were parallel themes in the postwar world of American leisure. As one architecture journal reported in 1955: “Most vacation houses are designed to work, roughly, like a camera: a box, glazed on one side, with the glass wall pointed at the view.” With its squarish lens and sliding aluminum shield, the Anscoflex bore an uncanny resemblance to many of the beach houses that Geller would design later in his career. One can’t help but see traces of such a camera in his original plan for the de Monterice House, for example, in which a lens-like window directs the boxy house toward the ocean view.
Later in his tenure at Loewy, Geller graduated to architectural projects and specialized in designing department stores. These buildings, which were often located in suburban shopping centers, tended to take the form of overblown modernist boxes with eye-catching logos emblazoned across sleek facades. Geller’s job was to make the buildings stand out amid the sprawl of parking lots. At the Lord & Taylor store in Garden City, Long Island (1956) a broad set of travertine steps lead beneath a canvas awning and pointed like a directional sign towards the main entry. The name of the store was written boldly across the white brick facade in a hand-scripted style. For Hengerer’s department store in Amherst, Long Island (1957) Geller used a similar combination of materials and graphics: a scripted logo above a wall of glass and ceramic tiles.
The goal of the modern industrial designer was to contain a variety of different parts within a single envelope, to create a product that was instantly recognizable and desirable to the consumer. The idea of the container was the guiding principle in all of Loewy’s work. The goal was to create the sleekest impression and the most memorable visual impact. This was accomplished through streamlining, a smooth and shiny overdressing derived from airplane design, that made use of sweeping, aerodynamic lines, tapered edges and teardrop forms. He reworked and repackaged old fashioned looking brands by paring down and consolidating divergent elements, giving shape to a new world of product development, marketing, logo-making and advertising. This was the mind-set within which Andrew Geller worked for twenty-eight years as a chief designer and vice president in the Loewy Corporation. Within that period, he would apply those principles on everything large and small, from camera bodies to shopping centers.
During the 1950s, Geller began to strike out on his own and take commissions outside of the Loewy office. It was a break from the corporate pressures of his day job and a way to make extra income. “Designing homes like this offers a release for me from my everyday work,” he said at the time. In 1955 he began to produce a series of eccentrically free-form and eye-grabbing vacation houses that were fun, structurally daring, and challenged the status quo. These “summer-use playhouses,” as he liked to call them, provided the opportunity to express himself and try out his own ideas. While Geller had designed a few earlier residendial projects, his 1957 beach house for Elizabeth Reese was the first real breakthrough and marked the beginning of this new career. The design concept was determined by a combination of forces: limited funds, weather conditions, and the owner’s unpredictable lifestyle. Beginning with the impossibly small budget of $5,000, Geller used every trick and technique available to bring the house in for roughly $7,000, only $2,000 over the original budget. He was particularly concerned about the risks of building a house right on a stretch of beach that was known to flood. Geller perched the house on the highest part of the dune above a foundation of locust posts that had been driven 10 feet into the sand. His theory was that the sloping walls of the A-frame would be “storm proof”– less resistant to hurricane winds. That was the idea anyway; it also happened to be the cheapest way to build a roof. Complaints from the local building department were countered with the explanation that the unusual shape of the house was derived from local potato barns.
The strongest influence on the design was the personality of Reese herself, a strong willed, independent career woman who knew exactly what she wanted—intimate contact with the sea and sand and instant release from her busy schedule in the city. Reese was the director of public relations at the Loewy office and knew Geller from work. She went about inventing her own style of life at the beach. The sleek and simple lines of the house captured something of her independent spirit and dynamic lifestyle.
The house was a wood-frame construction with cedar shingles on the roof and board-and-batten-siding on the walls. A 5-foot-wide “widow’s walk” was cantilevered precariously along the ocean side. Cross-bracing for this deck was painted white to distinguish it within the overall composition, like the cross stroke in the letter A. The upper deck provided a place for naked sunbathing and quiet meditation. It also helped to break the intensity of the afternoon sun, acting as a visor over the southern wall of glass. Inside, the timber framing was left exposed. There was no central heating or insulation. In winter, the house was boarded over with plywood.
The living room measured only 13 by 22 feet but it felt much bigger, as it opened out onto the deck and dunes. A free-standing fireplace had windows on either side for watching the sunset. Upstairs was Reese’s own bedroom, reachable only by a ladder that could be retracted with a system of pulleys and counterweights. This private little perch provided escape from weekend guests while maximizing space. Larry Vita, Reese’s contractor, came up with some of his own ideas during the building process. At the time, Vita was marketing his own concept in leisure living, the “Surfside 6 Floating Home,” which came with a hole in the living room floor so that tenants could fish while watching television. Novelty in domestic architecture was the prevailing spirit of the day.
When it was all finished, Reese made sure to call on her editor friends to see that the house and its architect got the recognition they deserved. John Callahan, a reporter for the New York Times visited and wrote a story, “Summertime Living Becomes even Easier at New Long Island Beach Cottage,” about the house in the Times’s real estate section. This, and future articles, would bring a level of recognition that Geller had never known while working anonymously at the Loewy office. A week after Callahan’s article appeared, a stream of cars drove down Daniels Lane hoping to get a closer look at the unique beach house. Leonard Frisbie, a Wall Street broker read the story and immediately commissioned Geller to design a similar house in Amagansett. Soon Geller found himself with a new career.
In less than three years, between 1958 and 1961, Geller completed more than fifteen new houses, all in his spare time. It was a break-through period and his head never stopped spinning as he rushed from one project to the next, still managing to keep regular hours at his day job in Manhattan. “In those days I only required five hours of sleep,” said Geller. “Three A.M. was the best time to be at the drafting table and the music was always good on WQXR. I remember starting out east in Montauk at 5 AM, working on one house, then driving all the way into the city to work at Lowey’s studio, then, after five, I would drive down to the Jersey shore where I was designing another beach house. I didn’t know if I was coming or going.”
On first impression, Geller’s little beach houses of the 1950s and 60s may seem like caricatures, but they represented a kind of everyman modernism that was accessible to people with lower incomes. “Most of [Geller’s] clients live in the cube of a Manhattan apartment, work in the cube of a Manhattan office and feel liberated in the new definitions of space around them,” wrote Fred Smith in Sports Illustrated. “All of them want a maximum square footage for a minimum investment.” Geller understood his clients. In many ways their needs were the same as his own. They were not rich but had ambition. They were often as not veterans of World War II, had children, and considered themselves politically progressive with a modern sensibility, an interest in art, and a willingness to explore new lifestyles.
This was a time when thousands of Americans were enjoying the prosperity of the postwar economy and finding that, even with modest incomes, they could afford a vacation house of their own. Geller’s little escape pods offered release from city pressures. They also helped to take the mind off the H-Bomb and the looming prospect of nuclear annihilation.
Geller became passionately involved in the design/build process and often remained in contact with his clients long after construction was completed. Many came back for bigger houses as their families expanded and they needed more space. A good number became life-long friends. One was so pleased that she wrote a concrete poem of thanks that took the form of her boxlike house, with a stack of repeated words: “I love my house, I love my house…”
Each of Geller’s houses was like a portrait, a custom-made tribute to its owners’ personalities. This could sometimes take an absurdly literal form: Irwin Hunt, the manufacturer of cardboard boxes, got a box turned on edge. Victor Lynn, an executive at Kodak, got a box with lenslike windows. In some cases, the metaphors could be more lurid, as with the Pearlroth house in West Hampton Beach (1959). In lieu of a precise methodology, Geller relied on instinct, something closer to surfing—a sport gaining popularity at the time—rather than formal analysis. A good surfer caught a wave and improvised his movements according to the set and curl of each break. Geller drew his inspiration from the site and the personality of each client—making up the next move as he went along. Intuition played a key role in the process. He listened carefully and tried to remain open to new possibilities—always willing to change directions in mid-stream, never stuck within a single mindset.
He would usually work out the rough form of a new house in a series of fast sketches. This was similar to the process he followed in the Loewy office, where a signature gesture was employed to embody the spirit of each new product. Cumulatively, these sketches chart an explosion of ideas, a new vocabulary generated by the special conditions of beachfront living. It was during this period of frenetic output that he designed some of his most inventive houses. In early studies for Elizabeth Reese’s beach house in Sagaponack, NY (1955), Geller had drawn a conventional modernist pavilion with a flat roof and glass walls. Reese wasn’t thrilled by it and told him as much. (Perhaps it looked a bit too much like one of the shopping centers he was designing for Raymond Loewy.) So, right there in front of her, he conjured up an A-frame structure, drawn roughly on a scrap of paper, that would be cheaper to build than a glass pavilion. Reese approved and they went ahead with the project.
Once Geller had achieved a desired logo-like shape (A-frame, box-kite, whatever) he would tinker with it, tilting or rotating, bending or possibly even splitting it, as he did with the Levinson House (Surf City, New Jersey, 1958). This action created two separate shed-roofed structures that were attached at the hip. With the Lynn House (Westhampton Beach, 1961), Geller subverted the generic modernist box by squashing it and breaking it open at the four corners.
Geller did his best work within a narrow set of budgetary and material restrictions. His houses were built simply and economically using the least expensive materials available—materials that could be found at any local lumber yard. Most cost less than $10,000, or under $12 per square foot. He figured out ways to keep the structures small, inexpensive and low maintenance. They had single-layer skins, no insulation, and exposed structures. There were no frills, but Geller made up for this with ingenuity. “These houses are for play,” he said at the time, “so you can do fun things with them.” When Geller broke away from the spartan formula the results weren’t always so convincing. A case in point, was the Levinson House, built for the relatively extravagant sum of $20,000. It was designed with all the ingredients necessary for year-round use, hence its comparatively high price. But hindrances such as insulation, furnaces and ductwork only seemed to cramp Geller’s style. Compared to his other beach follies, the Levinson house appeared somewhat heavy-handed and suburban. With a full masonry foundation, it was anchored to the ground rather than hovering above it.
There was, in fact, considerable method to his madness. Focus on water views determined how the houses were sited and where windows were placed. Prevailing wind directions and the angle of the sun were important considerations in siting and determining placement of decks and windows. Freestanding fireplaces with centrally placed smokestacks were used for chilly nights but also for compositional harmony as vertical counterpoints to horizontal rooflines. Each house, no matter how small or inexpensive, was given its own signature components: catwalks, cantilevered platforms, lookout towers, oddly shaped doors and windows, spiral staircases, Rube Goldberg contraptions for lowering ladders or raising counters. Houses were connected to their natural setting through floor-to-ceiling glass walls as well as walkways and sun decks that straddled the dunes. A master of organizational detail, Geller knew how to take advantage of every square inch of space. Furnishings were kept as minimal as possible. Often he designed simple built-in pieces—couches, beds, shelving systems—made from plumbing pipes and plywood. Within the limited format of the small, inexpensive beach house, Geller was able to find himself as an architect. He employed space saving devices such as multi-level bunk beds, fold-up staircases, built-in couches and showers that could do double service from both inside and outside. He also mastered the art of finding extra storage and sleeping areas in leftover nooks and crannies. He thought of different ways to accommodate short-term, seasonal use with hatches and barn-like doors to protect houses during storms and winter months. These were attached by hinges, sliding tracks or other devices for easy opening and closing. Houses had the most minimal plumbing so that water pipes could be easily drained come fall.
As soon as they were finished, each house was christened with a pet name like the “Box Kite,” “Milk Carton,” or “Grasshopper.” It should be remembered that Geller was working during a period when modern American architecture was playing an increasingly metaphoric role, selling itself as something other than just building. This was true with Eero Saarinen’s birdlike TWA terminal at Idelwild Airport of 1961, (a building that Geller admired) and Wallace Harrison’s fish-shaped church (the “Holy Mackeral”) in Stamford, Connecticut . Both were popular examples of contemporary American architecture. Anthropomorphic and zoomorphhic allusion helped to soften the perceived coldness of modernism, making it more accessible to an otherwise hesitant public. Attaching a pet name, whether for an air terminal or a beach house, took away some of the jitters.
Meanwhile, as Geller found himself receiving more commissions, his free-form houses were getting more attention in the press. They made photogenic subjects and were the caption writer’s delight: “Far-Out Buildings in the Sun,” “Zigzag by the Sea,” “In Shape for Summer,” etc. During this period, Geller houses appeared frequently in popular publications like Life, Holiday, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. Two years after he had published the Reese house in the Times, John Callahan published another article in the New York Times that described Geller’s latest batch of inventive beach houses, including the Pearlroth, Hunt, and Langman houses. Geller was on a roll.
Doctor and Beverly Langman were among those who had seen Calahan’s first article in the Times. They bought a lot just to the east of Reese’s and asked Geller to design something similar. Langman was a prominent physician who had served as Joseph Kennedy’s family doctor. (He delivered several Kennedys including baby John Fitzerald, the future president.) The Langman’s had no children themselves but wanted something whimsical for their summer getaway. As he always did, Geller made a little scale model out of cardboard and balsa wood. It had an eccentric tower in the spirit of a lighthouse and a wrap-around deck. The Langmans were delighted and agreed to go ahead with construction of the house, which ended up costing $11,500.
Geller’s first response was to provide privacy between the Reese and Langman houses as they were only 400 feet apart. “I wanted Betty Reese to look at something nice,” said Geller who left the west side of the Langman’s tower blank. Four shuttered hatches were used to break up the monotony of that side and further emphasize the quirky nautical theme. The 20-foot high octagonal tower had inwards sloping walls and contained five rooms. A crow’s nest on the roof that could be reached by an external ladder. The ground floor contained a living room with a rustic stone fireplace. Large glass panels were strategically placed to provide the best ocean views. An adjoining, single-story wing had a kitchen and bathroom. This section had four oddly pointed windows, sort of modern gothic, on the ocean side with canted walls to the north and south. The Langmans fell in love with their house. It was a quirky, light-hearted place to enjoy their weekends. As one magazine put it: “The whole world assumes an exciting perspective when viewed from an octagonal tower mounted on a deck in a sea of sand.” But the gods of weather would conspire against such summer bliss. In March 1962, a violent storm blew out of the northeast and washed away both the Langman and the Reese houses.
In 1958 Geller made his biggest splash of all. This time however, it was not in the Hamptons but on Fire Island, the long narrow sandbar that skirts Long Island’s southern shore. If he had been flirting in the stratosphere of architectural convention with the Reese and Langman houses, Geller went into orbit with the house he designed for Irwin and Joyce Hunt, by far his boldest creation to date. A strict set of setback regulations had limited the area that Geller was allowed to work with, but with a bit of cunning, he turned this restriction into an advantage. He learned that he was only required to submit a first floor plan, without elevations, to get a building permit. He presented what looked like a conventional plan, a long narrow rectangle, and the building department gave its approval. But in three dimensions, the house was a wild concoction that appeared to be an elongated box turned on edge. (In time it would be dubbed the Box-Kite or Milk Carton house) The building authorities had no idea that it would end up being such a controversial structure. The unusual shape of the house was also a response to the region’s history of hurricanes. Geller had a theory that you could protect the house by turning it into an aerodynamic object with its leading edge pointed toward the ocean so that gail force winds would blow under and over its sloping walls.
Geller managed to fit enough sleeping area into the Hunt’s house for eight people, including two built-in sofa beds in the living room. A single bathroom served the entire household, crammed in beside the tiny kitchen, though the shower could also be reached from the outside deck. People coming up from the beach were able to rinse off sand and salt without tramping through the house. The ground floor had an open living/dining area. A master bedroom on the second floor was reached by a collapsible staircase that could be folded into the ceiling when not in use, another space-saving device. The upper level opened onto two different balconies, one overlooking the ocean, the other the bay. Metal rods held lidlike awnings in place. These could be lowered at the end of the season or in the event of a storm.
Two tiny bunkrooms were ingeniously squeezed into either end of the house. While the main reason for these diamond-shaped spaces was effect—to maintain the “Box kite” illusion—the practical purpose for the ends being tipped was to provide as much headroom as possible for the cramped quarters. Each contained a complex arrangement with two bunk beds, one on the lower level running east to west, the other on an upper level that ran north to south. Shelves and closet spaces were ingeniously concealed in the remaining recesses. Triangular portholes provided ventilation.
The completion of the Hunt House marked a significant moment of emergence—a moment when Geller discovered a signature style. He had succeeded in transforming a domestic space into an abstract sculptural object, almost as if it were one of the commercial containers he had packaged for the Loewy studio. While it may have appeared completely detached from earthly necessity, the house never failed to carry out its role as a family retreat. Whoever lived in this container would find happiness. The Hunt House made a significant impression in the press. It was featured in Life magazine on 3 August 1958 as part of a special, eight-page spread on the boom in American vacation homes, alongside a “cigar box” house in Water Mill, NY and a hexagonal house in the Catskills. “In the expanding U.S. economy owning a second home may become almost as common as the second car,” read the article. “One distinguishing feature of these houses is their uninhibited design. When it is a holiday house, even conservative families accept unusual forms—and they are pleased if their house has a playful air like….the odd looking milk carton house on the page following.” And there was a photograph of Irwin and Joyce Hunt playing with their baby in front of the topsy-turvy house. The same issue of Life contained Cold War updates on Cuba and the famous “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow between Nikon and Khrushchev.
The success of the Hunt house brought Geller even more commissions. It also raised the level of performance anxiety as he felt pressure to be more inventive with every new commission. How could he possibly top his last effort? The designs became more and more extreme as he pushed the limits of what one could do with limited means and an excess of imagination, or as one writer put it: “how far a little plywood and a lot of guts will take you.” This was certainly the case with his next project, the Pearlroth House, built in Westhampton Beach in 1959.
Eastern Long Island had seen its share of shipwrecks, beached whales, smugglers and even a U-boat landing by Nazi Spies during World War II, but the area had never seen anything quite like the Pearlroth House. It is hard to measure the impression this structure made as it was being built during the winter of 1958. In part an elaboration and continuation of the Hunt geometries, it was even more audacious in conception and execution. This time, Geller began with two elongated box shapes and rotated them in tandem so they were perched on point, not unlike the diamond-shaped silhouette of Hunt, but in a more prominent way. He then filled the void between these two sections with a glassed-in living area.
Arthur Pearlroth was an executive for New York’s Port Authority, but had a reputation as a lady’s man. “He was a romantic macho guy who wore a bikini bathing suit where everything showed,” says Geller. Again, the architect supplied an ironic architectural pun, in this case a “square brassiere,” as he called it, for a man known to collect erotica. Once the initial shapes were established, the challenge was to fit the necessary functions into such a sculptural entity while providing a modicum of privacy for the clients. Long low benches were built along the side walls of the living area that could also be used as guest beds. Steps lead from the benches up into the diamond-shaped pods that contained the bedrooms—similar in arrangement to the double bunk system he used at the Hunt House. Geller was able to squeeze three bunkrooms and a bathroom on the upper level of each pod and provide an additional 75-square-feet of storage space within the angular recesses of the house. A space age staircase lead precariously from the dunes up to one of the pods and entered directly into the house’s only bathroom for showers after swimming.
Pearlroth’s diamond pods were frequently referred to in the press as giant spectacles or binoculars. In his own explanation, Geller spoke of these twin forms “telescoping out,” virtually leering at the object of desire, which, in this case, was the water view. The transparency of the house was a form of exhibitionism; activities inside could be seen from both the beach and the road, inviting the gaze of strangers and peeping toms. The libidinous reading could be pushed even further to include the phallic, candy-striped chimney stack rising from the center of the house with testicular pods bulging on either side. The Pearlroth House proved to be one of Geller’s most successful and published houses. A number of future clients requested exact copies, but Geller made a point not to repeat himself.
Rudolph “Rudy” Frank was a German émigré who managed an ice cream company in Astoria, Queens, and was the inventor of something called “Diced Cream.” His wife, Trudy, was a free-lance fashion illustrator and artist. They lived in New York and went out to Fire Island on the weekends. They had also had seen John Callahan’s article in the Times about the Reese House and asked Geller do design a house. They were not convinced by Geller’s first proposal, and asked him to rework it. The Frank’s had gone on vacation to Mexico and visited the Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Chichen Itza. They fell in love with the ancient stones and showed Geller their snapshots of the temples and the great stepped pyramid. “Andy looked and listened to all this—he’s a good listener,” recalled Rudy Frank. Inspired by the ruins, perhaps, Geller came up with something thoroughly modern but with ancient undertones in its battered, inward-sloping walls. “A month later he came back with this design,” said Frank. “We didn’t have to make a single change.” The seemingly incongruous link between Mayan temples and Twentieth Century beach houses may have seemed arbitrary, but both are dedicated to the worship of the sun in one form or another.
The Frank House was built on top of one of the highest sand hills along the beach, floating amid the stunted pines and with panoramic views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Great South Bay. There were wide decks on three sides of the house; Geller included a catwalk that crossed the open living area and penetrated the all-glass facade. It then cantilevered 12 feet out from the front of the house like a pulpit. Trudy Frank would often lie there and take sun baths. The Franks rented their house out one summer and later learned that it had been used for the making of a gay porn film called Boys in the Sand, which apparently became a classic of the genre.
Geller also designed most of the furnishings for the Frank House, including couches and beds that were made out of stock plumbing pipes and lumber. “Andy quoted me a price of $14,850 and when the house was finished it came in at exactly the amount he had quoted–To the dollar,” said Frank. The only problem was a spiral staircase that lead from the living room up to the master bedroom. There weren’t any prefabricated spiral staircases on the market yet and it proved to be something of a struggle to build the thing from scratch. The Frank House was featured in a full-page spread in the 7 July 1961 issue of Life magazine.
In his next project, Geller made a significant daparture from the eccentric geometries of the Hunt and Pearlroth houses. He designed the Leonard Jossel house for an ocean front site in Davis Park, Fire Island. The house, which could be described as a large open studio loft, was built in 1960 on top of a primary dune. The client was a graphic designer and artist who wanted a place to paint ot the beach. He admired the simplicity of Shaker design and wanted his house to be as spare as possible. “The idea was to get every room facing the ocean,” said Geller, “So I came up with this elongated rectangular structure that rode the crest of the dune.” (Because of its low pitched roof and simple, boxy form, Geller referred to it as the “Monopoly House.”) The ocean facade was mostly glass. Infill walls were painted black. The end walls were white. The house could only be reached by a narrow, elevated boardwalk but it made a striking impression, drifting among the dunes of Davis Park. Interiors were spartan, with exposed studs and plywood walls. It couldn’t have been simpler. An open living/dining space filled one half the length of the house and rose its full height to the ceiling. A wood-burning stove sat in one corner and Jossel’s abstract canvases hung on the rudimentary walls. The other half of the house was reserved for Jossel’s studio upstairs, and two ground floor bedrooms. A small deck cantilevered off the second floor studio and a ladder staircase lead down to a more expansive deck. Barn-like doors could be closed to protect the house against storms and winter weather.
Sometime in 1963, about the time of President Kennedy’s assassination, Geller began to develop a new approach to design. While still exuberant, the architecture feels more anxious, more defensive. Basic forms become fractured, their surfaces multifaceted or incised with flaps, fins, and slits. If early successes like Hunt and Pearlroth were basic geometries that Geller toyed with like children’s blocks, then this next phase was characterized by how he treated, or acted upon those forms. No longer Euclidean acrobatics, the houses were now objects that the architect modified by a proscribed set of verbs: cut, fold, split, incise. Outer walls appeared to be folded back like flaps of skin, an action which was compared, by some, to the art of Japanese paper folding. “Call it an origami house, with its slashed openings and jutting fins,” wrote one magazine. Windows and doors were punched out, often in sharp, triangular incisions—what his friend and client Betty Reese, called “beer can openings.”
This angular kind of window treatment became part of Geller’s signature style during the 1960s. In 1969, the journalist Franklin Whitehouse wrote a feature story describing them in the New York Times: “As a means of checking the weather or saving on light bills, windows are fine, but they’re even better if they twist, protrude and look like sculpture fixed to the sides of houses,” he wrote.
Geller’s interest in slicing and dicing—what might be called his X-Acto period—began with a few tentative moves but evolved into a distinctive new style. Beginning with the George, Levitas, and second Reese houses, all built in 1963, it reaches full expression in the Elkin (1966) and Strick (1968) houses. There had been early hints of this new direction in earlier projects, such as the Lynn House fenestration. The openings in this case weren’t truly “cut,” however, but rather created when the walls of a cube were forced outward, as if compressed from above by a heavy hand. This implied action created diamond shaped lenses at all four corners.
The true surgical incision first appears in an unbuilt project for Paul and Merle de Monterice (1960). The 1,118 square foot house had a basic shoe-box shape that measured 22 by 30 feet. The linear progression began on a wooden ramp that led up from the sand and passed through a facade that looked like a giant keyhole with a flaring front door and a large Cyclops window staring out from the second floor. Triangular flaps of shingled wall protruded on either side of the main entrance in a gesture that Geller called a “cow catcher facade.”
After entering the house’s mysterious portal, one walked past two tiny bedrooms, the kitchen and a bathroom and into a two-story living area that rose up to a gently peaked roof. The focal point of this space was the fireplace, positioned centrally like a sacrificial altar. On either side were broad glass panels extending the full height of the house and looking out, beyond the fireplace, toward the ocean. (As at Betty Reese’s house in Sagaponack, the idea was to simultaneously catch ocean views while enjoying a fire.) In fact the glass panels on this end of the house were the only openings that offered full frontal scenery. The side windows were long triangular slits that angled off the body of the house. Since it was going to be built in an area of Amagansett that was beginning to suffer from overdevelopment, Geller devised these fin windows to provide light and selected scenery while retaining privacy; views were deflected and directed away from neighboring lots that might have future houses on them.
Renderings of the de Monterice house were published, but the house, as drawn, was never built. Local authorities felt the design was too radical and advised the clients and architect to conform more closely to local building traditions. Geller went back and drew up a second, more “traditionalized” set of plans that were eventually approved. The final version of the de Monterice house was built in 1964 although nothing like it was first envisioned. Geller would use many of its concepts however, in future projects.
For the designer Phil George, Geller delivered a truncated version of the Reese A-frame. In this case, however, the side walls were gently curved around a bare bones frame. As with the de Monterice house, Geller used floor-to-ceiling triangular cuts on either side to give views toward the northeast overlooking a potato field. These openings were infilled with amber and mauve panels to filter bright morning sun. The horizontal line of an oversized gutter ran across the front of the house to keep rain from spilling down the expansive front window. This detail and the house’s shape gave it something of a Japanese profile. A miniature replica of the main house was built in the back of the property and served as a weekend guest house.
The most extreme example of Geller’s can opener style was a new house for Elizabeth Reese, this one commissioned after the first was destroyed by the northeaster of 1962. This time, Reese chose a safer piece of property, on high ground, well back from the ocean. While it would begin with another variation on the A-frame theme, it would end up being very different. Where the first house had been open to the ocean views, this one was surrounded by oak trees. In response Geller gave it more a more protective feeling—riffing on the shack-in-the-woods aesthetic of Henry David Thoreau. A free-standing stone fireplace sat like a household god at its center point. A catwalk spanned the open rafters above and connected the client’s bedroom to a sleeping platform and sun deck.
The shape of the structure was rudimentary and inexpensive to build: a flat roof, sloping side walls, a single layer of cedar shakes and exposed framing on the inside. In this case, all of the improvisation went into surface treatment, in particular the architect’s oddball fenestration. “I was trying to get her to love trees,” said Geller, who accentuated different perspectives of the surrounding woods by using eccentrically placed openings on either side of the house. Sharply angled flaps jutted out from the walls, supported by struts and infilled with glass to create prismatic shapes. “I decided to do triangular flaps so you could get views in two directions,” said Geller. From inside the barnlike interior one experienced a sequence of fractured views. Floor-to-ceiling cuts—a variation on the de Monterice windows—rose on either side of the house and illuminated the two-story living area. These vertical slits were also designed to frame the full length of the tallest trees on the outside of the house. Narrow at the bottom, they grew wider as they reached the roof to account for the bushy tree tops. For contrast, Geller inserted a fanlight window at one end of the house that shed light into Reese’s bedroom.
Mike Levitas was a reporter for Time magazine before becoming city editor of the New York Times. He had seen pictures of the Pearlroth house and asked Geller to design something similar for a windy site in GayHead, on the southern end of Martha’s Vineyard. Geller proceeded with preliminary sketches but plans were thwarted when the builder got cold feet. He warned Levitas that such a design would raise eyebrows: “I’m afraid the plan is too radical for me to try, especially so close to the main road,” wrote the contractor in a letter to Levitas. “There is too much feeling about these new houses on the Island, and I would just be asking for trouble, and I think you would too.” The builder didn’t even give a quote. Fearing that he might have trouble securing a mortgage from a local bank, Levitas took heed and asked Geller to retreat back to a more conventional sketch that he had shown Levitas a few months earlier. “It would have been a thrill a minute to live in the Pearlroth House, but I’m sure we’ll get our quiet kicks from living in a house without pointed ceilings,” wrote Levitas to Geller. The end result, which was built in 1963, may have been something of a compromise but it was one that pleased both client and architect.
The shingled surface and sloping lines of the roof planes echoed local building traditions—from a distance one might have even mistaken it for a barn—but up close, it was pure Geller. Oversized versions of his triangular beer can openings projected off the front and sloping sides of the house like seagull wings. The house’s shingle skirt was lifted discretely at either side to reveal horizontal bands of windows and a concrete block foundation. The flap-like windows framed water views and scooped up the breezes. The idea was to catch the prevailing winds. Indeed, the overall theme of the Levitas House was prescribed by the wild and windy conditions of a building site that lay in the middle of an open meadow and overlooked a salt pond and the sea beyond. The house was described as being either a seagull about to take flight, or, as one publication described it, “a kite that has come to rest on the dunes.” This particular reading was underscored by a photograph that showed the Levitas children flying a kite in front of their new house.
Geller was able to finally incorporate several ideas he had failed to achieve in the de Monterice house, in a five-bedroom house for Louis & Racile Strick (Amagansett, 1968). It’s not hard to see why it came to be known as the Cat House with two pointy skylights that rose on either side like ears and two square cat’s eyes gazing from the front facade. Whiskers were represented by flaring triangular panels that projected out on either side of the front door—the “cow-catcher facade” that Geller had originally drawn for de Monterice.
Prototypes for Mass Housing: While Geller continued to delight clients with his one-off experimental houses, he was also working on solutions for the mass housing market. Like other architects and developers of the period, he was eagerly in search of this, the Holy Grail of post-war building: the perfect prototype for an affordable, mass-produced house. Even in his most eccentric, one-off creations, Geller kept his eye on this goal. There was a second home boom going on in America at the time. Construction of vacation houses in the United States had increased dramatically since the 1940s when a second home was still considered the exclusive provenance of a wealthy elite. By the 1960s, however, marketing surveys put the second home inventory at three million plus. Many of the same individuals who had received mortgages on the GI housing bill, could now afford to build a second home far away from the noisy city. “Families have more real income,” explained one building journal, “consequently more discretionary income; financing is easier. There’s more leisure time and better highways to desirable locations.” Builders and developers recognized a lucrative new market among middle class families who might have saved a bit, but not enough to afford a custom-designed vacation home.
In 1958 Esquire magazine commissioned a beach house for swinging bachelors. Geller came up with the “Esquire Weekend House,” a small, portable unit that could be towed to any beach, and erected on stilts for only $3,000. “It does not have room for more than one guest,” read the accompanying text. “Its refrigerator will not hold more than a weekend supply of tonic and soda. However, the Esquire Weekend House has no lawns to mow, no sash to paint, and can be opened for the season in four minutes flat. A ship’s ladder can be drawn up through the house’s trap door in case of prowling wolves or unwanted guests.”
The Esquire unit was designed in a 6-foot square modular built on four concrete foundation points. The different sections were held together with wire bracing. It could be closed and opened like a box with sliding panels. Each panel was painted in a different primary color. The front panel could be folded down to become a small porch and “shade shelf.” It contained a tiny kitchen unit and a fold-away toilet. A bed roll could be pulled out for sleeping and canvas shades were designed to be pulled up instead of down. There was also a small storage compartment with enough room for “two changes of clothes, a portable typewriter, a hi-fi, and two sets of water skis or surf-casting gear.” The Esquire Weekend House was a reducto ad absurdum version of the post-war weekend aesthetic. But as cartoonish as it was, the proposal contained ideas that Geller would develop in future projects.
The Esquire Weekend House can be seen as an early, albeit tongue-in-cheek, attempt to investigate the possibilities of prefabricated construction. As a kit-of-parts, it was originally designed to be the prototype for an expandable housing system. In a series of unpublished drawings, Geller depicted how the basic Esquire unit could be expanded in the event that the Esquire bachelor suddenly settled down and found himself with a growing family: “If the marital status of the owner changes and more room is required in the house, similar cubicles can be attached to the nucleus of the basic unit, either at ground or crow’s-nest level.” The fully expanded version would have a broad glass facade, its interior divided by a sequence of square panels finished in a variety of different textures and colors. The panels were suspended from a grid of slender steel support columns that resembled the Case Study structures of Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood that were being built during the same period in California. If family life began to cramp the Esquire man’s sense of style, there was yet another solution: “when the cluster of contiguous units becomes too populous, [he] can build himself still another unit, separated from the cluster, to recapture his bachelor hood solitude and quiet.” The publication of the Esquire Weekend House caused a minor flap in Esquire’s editorial offices. The architect and critic Peter Blake accused Geller of plagiarism, claiming that the Esquire House was a copy of his own Pin Wheel House, built in Water Mill, New York in 1954. “I am gratefully flattered to see from your May issue that Mr. Andrew Geller likes our house,” wrote Blake to the magazine. “Photographs of the house were in your offices for several weeks; if you later changed your minds in this matter, then it would have seemed only fair to go to the original source of the design-idea, rather than commission someone else to exploit it for you.” In his own defense, Geller scribbled off a humorous note to editor-in-chief Ralph Ginzburg: “I am shocked by Peter Blake’s reaction to our tiny beach capsule. Quite probably I have been affected by every example of architecture I have ever seen, from the Crystal Palace to the late lamented Third Avenue El. There is only so much one can do with $3,000…I can assure you that no plagiarism was intended nor can I honestly relate what I have designed to Mr. Blake’s very handsome and refined Water Mill House.”
Around the same period as the Esquire project, Geller did plans for another prefab beach house also built with a steel frame. He called it the “Minimum House” and it appears to have been intended as a buildable prototype, not just another humorous illustration. The Minimum House was similar to Esquire in plan, with sliding doors on a track frame, but it had a barrel-vaulted roof instead of a flat one.
The suffix “a-rama” was popular in the postwar years, adopted by advertising agencies to give common words an updated, space-age spin—evoking the image of round-the-clock, nonstop fun, as in “Bowl-a-Rama” or “Dance-a-rama.” This was the guiding spirit behind Leisurama, one of the first mass-produced vacation houses in America. As its name implied, it was intended for vacation living—for all out relaxation. It was a house that you didn’t have to sweat over, either in mortgage payments or upkeep—a house that was as comfy and user-friendly as a pair of bowling shoes.
The Leisurama house was the brainchild of Herbert Sadkin, president of All-State Properties, a development company based on Long Island, New York. Together with Macy’s department store and Raymond Loewy, Sadkin dreamed of making millions by building the next Levittown, a Levittown for leisure, a Levittown with sand. Macy’s would handle the furnishing and marketing and the prototype would be designed by Geller, who, by now, had been promioted to chief architect for Loewy’s housing and home components division. “Sadkin was a real operator,” recalled Geller. “He wanted to emulate the Levitt houses.” While there were a few different styles, the most popular was the simple “Convertible” model, a neat little design in the carefree spirit of America’s mid-century drive-in culture. There was nothing fancy, but the house was perfectly suited for weekends at the beach. It consisted of a simple one-story box built on concrete slab with a low-pitched roof and wide overhangs—something like a Japanese tea house. There were two bedrooms, (a three-bedroom version was also available), a kitchen and living room. Every living room came with a “picture window,” a de rigeur mark of status in mid-century suburbia. Geller designed several variations for the front facades, but the interior lay-our remained essentially the same. The most distinctive design feature was probably the open-air carport that extended from one side of the house. Its outer wall contained a storage unit with shelves and louvered folding doors. A finished house cost approximately $10,000. This included all furnishings and the “spacious” 7,500 square foot lot that it was built on. Payment arrangements couldn’t have been easier. A down payment of only $490 was required for the basic model, followed by monthly payments of $73. For an extra $7.45 per month, you could add an extra bedroom. Anyone with a steady job could contemplate such an investment. An “Expanded Convertible” version was available at a slightly higher price ($940 down and monthly payments of $87.90.)
While the architecture of Leisurama wasn’t particularly ground-breaking, the marketing was aggressive and imaginative, appealing to America’s love of instant gratification. Macy’s decided that the houses could be sold over the counter like laundry detergent or TV sets. In the fall of 1963, a full-page ad appeared in New York newspapers with the rendering of a Leisurama in a beach front setting—seagulls reeling overhead, a sailboat on the bay. The caption read: “If you’ve ever yearned for your own place-away-from-home, but thought it might cost too much or be a chore to find, furnish and buy…you must come to Macy’s. Come soon…and bring the family with you. They’ll be as excited as you are.” Anyone who visited the ninth floor of Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square that month was in for a big surprise. There, plopped among the patio furniture and barbecue equipment, was a full-scale Leisurama house—a vision of domestic ingenuity.
After conducting surveys, the merchandising brains at Macy’s understood that their target clientele might not dare to purchase a vacation home if they also had to buy a whole new set of furnishings. So, it was decided to include everything, and the houses came “ready for your leisure pleasure,” complete with beds, tables, chairs, sofas, rugs, a forty five-piece Melmac dinner service for eight, napkins, bath mats, curtains, towels, pillows, sheets, and blankets-all provided by Macy’s (“…and we don’t have to tell you what this means…”). There were even brightly colored toothbrushes supplied for each member of the family. (If you had five in your family, the house came with five toothbrushes.) All you had to do was pick a building site, order the house and move in a few months later. “No need to shop for furnishings. All you have to do is turn the key in the lock and start living,” read one advertisement.
A prototype version of Leisurama had first been displayed in the Soviet Union during the summer of 1959 when it became a player in Cold War diplomacy. The American National Exhibition was the first cultural exchange between the USA and the USSR since before the Bolshevik Revolution—the idea was to present the best of American culture and display all the rewards of free-market capitalism. All-State Properties were invited to design and construct what was billed as “the typical American house,” one that a middle income citizen could afford. “It was an eye-opener for the Russians who had never seen anything like it,” said architect Geller.
For hundreds of happy consumers back home, Leisurama would become the American dream incarnate. More Leisurama models would be built on Long Island—in the parking lot of Macy’s franchise store at Roosevelt Field and on a traffic circle in the village of Montauk. Hundreds of people waited patiently in line to get a glimpse of the all-inclusive wonders. In keeping with the Cold War mood of the day, tape recorders had been planted in each room of the model homes to secretly eavesdrop on what prospective buyers were saying—what they liked or didn’t like. According to Geller, the most positive remarks were generated by one of the master bedrooms that had been decorated in brothel red and had a mirror mounted on the ceiling above the bed. “The women were thrilled,” said Geller. “‘How marvelous we’ll look lying in that bed,’ they said.” So much for the marketing theories. “They weren’t interested in the kitchen at all,” said Geller.
In the following Summer of 1964, a Leisurama model was built on the grounds of the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, attracting more prospective buyers. Several hundred units were built and sold instantly in a Leisurama community built outside of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “It was called Lauder Hill,” recalled Geller. “But I don’t remember seeing any hill. It was nothing but marshland as far as the eye could see.” But that didn’t seem to matter. “They weren’t very pretty to look at but people rushed out and bought them anyway,” recalled Geller, the architect. “The sales gimmick was the big appeal, I guess.”
“People loved them,” recalled Ed Pospisil a Montauk based contractor who worked for Leisurama. “You walked in, had your bacon and eggs and you were in business.” Two hundred units were built on 1/3-acre plots in the Culloden Point area of Montauk, on the north shore, overlooking Gardiner’s Bay. They cost between $11,000 and $17,000. “Now they’re reselling for more than $300,000,” said Pospisil. One of All-State’s representatives, Frank Tuma, helped to develop and sell Leisurama. “I didn’t have to do much,” he said. All two hundred units in Montauk sold within the first six weeks. “They went like hot cakes,” he said.
For many clients, Leisurama would be the first house they ever owned and were purchased for vacation use, as “getaway houses.” But since the houses came with full insulation and central heating they could be easily adapted for year-round use. (“You may choose to live in it year-round or retire to it.”) Dick Lewis, a photographer for the Daily News, lived in a Leisurama in Montauk for 24 years. He and his family first used it as a summer house, then expanded it and moved out full time when Lewis retired from the newspaper.
When you drive around the Culloden Point development today, there doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary about the mesh of suburban style streets that switch back and forth. It has been almost forty years and the trees and shrubs have grown up and filled in the landscape. Many of the original Leisurama houses have been altered beyond recognition. Doors and window trim have been painted in bright colors; “widow-walk” decks have been added onto roofs to get water views. Some of the little front yards have been personalized with gravel gardens, rope fencing and poodle-style topiary.
It is hard to tell at first, but if you keep looking, and drive a little deeper into the neighborhood, the eye begins to detect a rhythm to the low-pitched rooflines, the picture windows and then, a final giveaway, you notice the succession of carports with little storage units—an unmistakable mark of the Leisurama legacy. Many of the carports have been filled in to create extra room but they are still recognizable.
A handful of the houses are still in pristine condition. It is rumored that one old lady continues to live in the same Leisurama that she bought back in 1963. Supposedly—so goes the story—she has kept all the original furnishings in mint condition: the Leisurama towels, the Macy’s sheets, the forks and Melmac plates. Yes, even one of the original toothbrushes (still in its plastic wrapping.) But this may just be another Leisurama myth. No one seems to remember the old lady’s name, or exactly which house is hers.
Modular concepts that Geller first toyed with in the Esquire and Leisurama projects were developed further in housing schemes for companies like Huber, Kingsberry and Presidential Homes during the 1960s. The Huber Home was something of a continuation of the Leisurama concept, but intended for a year-round, suburban condition. Geller worked on it in collaboration with Donald Huber of the Concept Development Company in Dayton, Ohio and Better Homes & Gardens magazine. With its low-lying profile and broad, gently pitched roof, the Huber Home was modern but not as daring as most of Geller’s designs. The single-story house was divided into symmetrical sections similar to the “bi-polar” houses that Marcel Breuer had introduced to the American suburbs after World War II. It had 1,796 square feet of interior space, a relatively grand spread compared to Geller’s tiny beach houses. The kitchen, living room, dining room, and TV den were on one side of a central breezeway, while the bedrooms were on the other side. A car port and enclosed yard could be transformed into additional rooms as family needs dictated.
Around the same time, Geller was also collaborating with Bill Snaith on the development of something called the “Quiet House.” This model project was designed for a group of companies in Dallas, Texas and intended to demonstrate the significance and marketability of silence in home construction. There was also the all-aluminum “Easy Care Home” which Geller helped to develop for the Aluminum Association of America, but perhaps the most innovative of Geller’s housing schemes, was the “Vacation House System.” (1966–67) This system could be expanded in a kind of crystalline sequence of hexagonal sections sprouting from a core unit that contained living/bedroom, bath, and kitchen. All components would be manufactured in a factory. Wall sections were half glass wherever possible. When needed, additional sections could be delivered to the site by truck and connected with ease. The appeal of this multipart approach was flexibility and variation. Sections could be combined in different configurations. “Components may be assembled to produce any number of houses having distinctive characters. Thus an entire community of vacation houses could be built with no obvious ‘repeats.’” Principle clients for the Vacation House System were Kingsberry Homes of Chamblee, Georgia and Presidential Homes, a company best known for building prefab mobile homes. Despite the appealing logic, however, only one of the Vacation House units seems to have ever gone into production.
Funky Modernist: While the imprint of other architects can be detected in his work, Geller has never been forthcoming about his sources of inspiration. Somewhere between his father Joseph, a Socialist sign painter and Raymond Loewy, the genius of commercial packaging, a personal style emerged. It’s not easy to pin him down, and that’s what makes his work so compelling. One could go back to eighteenth century France and invoke the revolutionary structures of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux or Étienne-Louis Boullée, with their geometric simplicity and utopian idealism. Ledoux’s drawing for the “House of the Director of the Loue River” (c.1775) shows the river running straight through the center of a house shaped like a giant donut. One can imagine Geller proposing such a scheme.
Geller speaks of Frank Lloyd Wright with reverence and Buckminster Fuller seems to have been a touchstone. One also detects traces of Marcel Breuer and other Bauhaus architects, but the connections are fleeting. (He refers to Gropius with some disdain, but has respect for Mies.) Geller almost never repeated himself, except for in the housing work he did for the Loewy office, and in this way played something of the antimodernist, shunning the factory produced ideology of the Bauhaus. His houses were freeform expressions of individuality, not uniformity. That was the point: to celebrate the individual. While he may have borrowed a few basic moves from the European canon, he discarded the arcane language and the coolly detached presentation. A cutaway drawing of bunk beds and closets in the Hunt House of 1958 shows a striking similarity to Mondrian’s paintings of diamond forms intersected by vertical and horizontal elements. In Geller’s interpretation the non-objective geometries have been humanized with wet towels and bathing suits. He improvised and made up his own populist version of modernism, a kind of funky modernism. (One might include other self-motivated outsiders in this category such as Bruce Goff and John Lautner, architects who were neither émigrés from the European avant garde nor strict adherents, but preferred to blaze their own trails.
The truth is, Geller has probably always preferred to play the outsider, thumbing his nose at the high priests and hierarchies of establishment architecture. He never aligned himself with any single school, theory, or point of view. His works were rarely published in architectural journals but instead, found a place in mass market publications like Life, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire.
One might argue that his ideas were percolating from the same pool as Abstract Expressionism. It makes a certain amount of sense. Architects like Tony Smith and Peter Blake, working within a similar milieu, were associated with Jackson Pollock and the process of Action Painting. Geller’s method of working shared a similar sense of improvisation and spontaneity. But if the work of a single artist comes to mind it is not the accidental spills of Pollock or Robert Motherwell, but the death ships and quirky architecture of H. C. Westermann that combined surrealism and American pop iconography. Westermann’s manic imagery came from his experiences in the U.S. Navy during World War II, a background that he shared with Geller. Both expressed a kind of irreverent humor that was bred from the tedium and uniformity of military routine. With it came a contempt for authority and orders as in the “Kilroy Was Here” caricatures drawn by GI’s on latrine walls; the Sad Sack cartoons of George Baker; or Joseph Heller’s comic war novel, Catch 22. Geller’s designs were more in the spirit of pop culture than high culture—orbiting outside the refined aesthetic of Architecture with a capital A. His houses were designed for easy consumption and were accessible to anyone. There was nothing particularly subtle about them, no hidden agenda or subtext. It didn’t take an education in art history to understand their appeal. You either got them or you didn’t: box kites! square brassieres!! Each one told a story and sometimes, in his best work, this story took the form of a kind of comic strip imagery that recalled Krazy Kat, Rube Goldberg, Betty Boop and the bebop jazz that Geller loved. With its nautical tower, goofy smokestack, and rope railing, the Langman House in Sagaponack would have made a perfect stage set for a Broadway adaptation of Popeye. “Fort Fried,” the house he designed for Sy Fried in Fire Island in 1959, was a wood-framed medieval castle with poky little towers designed to entertain the client’s young daughter, who was dying from cancer. One writer of the period described it as “an authoritative merger of way-out Japanese and far-in King Arthur styles.”
Geller’s scrapbooks were filled with caricature sketches of friends and acquaintances. One of his favorite subjects was his own dog Sebastian who would be depicted in an assortment of absurd situations—gambling, sick in hospital, or inserted into architectural renderings as an indicator of scale. In the bottom corner of many drawings one also finds the image of a mermaid. Her spear is used to indicate the direction of north, but there was another purpose. “My wife Shirley and I used to bury secret treasures for our children in the dunes,” said Geller. “They would have to dig into the sand and find them. Shirley once made a little mermaid doll out of cloth with orange yarn for her hair and sea shell eyes and lips. It was my daughter’s favorite treasure of all so I incorporated it into my drawings.”
Meanwhile, back in Amagansett, we are still on our quest for that simpler, less complicated age, crawling along Marine Boulevard in Geller’s yellow Mercedes. The ocean dunes undulate to our right, still pristine and untouched in some stretches but rapidly filling in with a disarray of architectural statements. It seems unlikely that any of Geller’s early houses could have survived the latest building boom. Are we lost, searching in the wrong area? Is his memory confused? We are almost ready to give up and turn back when he slows down.
“It’s the Green House,” says Geller at the wheel. “It must be.” We are in luck. The house was built in 1968 for Carol Green, a block and a half back from Marine Boulevard and the ocean. It was once the only structure on this stretch but is now squeezed between several other larger houses. If Geller hadn’t noticed an angular edge sticking out from the bayberry, we would have missed it altogether. It has a long, overhanging spacecraft roof and sloping glass clerestory windows. As with so many other Geller houses, the word “hovering” comes first to mind.
We approach with caution. The house has the smell of a group rental—suntan oil, Tequila, shampoo. We call out, but get no response. An inflatable raft drifts across the pool. A surfboard is propped against a wall. Loud rap music is playing from somewhere inside the house. We knock but no one is at home. They must be out on the beach.
Geller retains a sense of authorship over every house he has designed. They are his creations, after all, his children. He doesn’t hesitate to walk in, unannounced. He has no fear. The house is a shambles with bathing suits and towels strewn across the floor. The kitchen sink is filled with dirty dishes. Last night’s pizza lies half eaten in its box. I follow Geller up a cantilevered set of stairs and we peer into the tiny, dormitory-style bedrooms. They are jammed with all the accouterments of a furtive singles weekend: backpacks, earphones, running shoes, magazines, roller blades.
But even in this state of shambles, the Green House retains a certain purity, even serenity. Geller is pleased with himself. The house holds up remarkably well thirty-odd years after he designed it. The architecture is rudimentary but inventive and still manages to enchant as well as provoke. Structural bones are exposed and the wood has been left raw, in an untreated state. The overhanging windows capture light that has been reflected off the sand outside. The interior is, in turn, suffused with this sensual, indirect light. It casts a painterly glow over everything.
On our way back to the car, we peek inside the outdoor shower, a little shack that hangs off the north end of the house. Geller was a master of the art of the outdoor shower and notes with pride that this one is still in its original state. A creaky door opens into the wooden chamber. There is a rusty nozzle, a little bench and some pegs for hanging towels. An oddly shaped window looks out toward the ocean and frames a slice of sand and sky.
A few minutes later we are back in the car heading west when we find another Geller house: “There it is!” he cries. It is the small, oddly shaped house that he designed for Leonard and Helen Frisbie back in 1958. It sits in its own kind of time warp, perched at the very top of the dune, like some weather-beaten artifact washed ashore in a storm. Again, we walk in cold, but this time there are people in the house and we introduce ourselves to a slightly startled looking family who are sitting out on the deck. Our impromptu arrival is followed by blank stares, then a sudden smile of recognition on the woman’s face. Her name is Lenora Pearl and she is the daughter of the original owner. She recognizes the name and the warm smile of Geller’s bearded face and gives him a hug while the rest of us shake hands.
“I haven’t seen Lenora since about 1960,” says Geller, “You must have been only six or seven.” Her father had seen Betty Reese’s house when it was published in the Times and commissioned him to design a similar house for his family in Amagansett. This was the only time that Geller actually repeated himself—but a fortuitous duplication since the Reese house was destroyed. Like the first Reese House, the Frisbie House is a simple geometric shape: a sharply slanted roof with large windows overlooking the ocean and a small deck reaching over the ridge of the dune. It is the color of driftwood, with its cedar shakes curled back like fish scales. There is simple board and batten siding along the low-lying side walls. It is the most rudimentary sort of shelter, more like a camp site than a house—the beach house dream realized. The price, back in 1957, was less than $10,000. Frisbie was a stock broker and paid Geller’s design fee with shares of mutual funds.
Lenora Pearl explains to us how, after her parents died, she and her brother decided to keep the house in the family. They also agreed to keep the house just as it was without new additions or fancy kitchens. Then, in time, it would be passed on to their children. Lenora and her husband Terry now commute every summer from Seattle and spend the month of July living here in intimate relationship with the ocean, sand, and sky.
“It’s a real honest-to-God beach house,” says Terry Pearl leading us through the small living room with a broad window spilling out onto the dunes. Inside, the house is spartan and conspicuously low tech. No heating. No insulation. You can even see openings in the ceiling where daylight shines through cracks in the old shingles. Most of the living happen on the outside, out on the broad sun deck or on the beach itself. Upstairs there are a few tiny bedrooms with bunk beds. A single indoor/outdoor shower serves the whole family. There is a simple wood flap along the kitchen counter that can be raised to become a little table and then there is the ingenious system of ladders that lead to the loft spaces and can be pulled up or down by a rudimentary system of pulleys and lead counterweights. The house is completely closed up in October, the pipes are drained and the big windows are covered with plywood. (Geller originally designed special canvas covers for the windows but they rotted away a long time ago.)
“It’s the only house along this stretch of beach that wasn’t swept away by a hurricane or moved back from the dune,” says Geller, pointing west to the riotous looking dunescape. We are now sitting on the edge of the Frisbie’s deck, our feet dangling in the dune grass. Lenora Pearl comes over and sits down beside us. Her children run back inside the house.
• • •
Start with house, I guess.
Where I’m sitting.
First came September 1990.
Didn’t have a clue.
She drove blue Jimmy (with lift kit) after sushi on Hudson Street, Tribeca. Late and dark Friday and we’d been drinking saki with Chet Baker slow blues through nowhere Jersey, west and then north, over some bridge.
We’d only met the week before at end-of-season, inter-gender softball behind a church in East Hampton, me on first, she in right field. I didn’t know anything other than that she was tall (like me) with a Brit but colonial edge to voice. Australian? Kiwi? South African?
(First impression: high-powered Amazon. One drink at Lucky Strike, then forget it.)
“Who are you?” I asked, not intending to sound like lame pick-up.
“Who are you?” she fired back, rudely but flirty.
Turned out she was Dutch, from Amsterdam, lived and worked in London, thus Anglo accent, former model, now fashion designer with big sleepy eyes and long legs.
She’d been using my old outfielder’s glove and refused to give it back.
“It has ‘Gordon’ written on it,” she says. “You said your name was Alastair.”
“Yes. Gordon’s my last name.”
“Oh, OK,” her eyes turn up, then away, handing me the glove like she still didn’t believe it was mine.
Next day we went for picnic and swim at Accabonac and shared mutual passions for design, for dark British humor–Goon Show, Dudley Moore & Peter Cooke, Monty Python. Her father, a Communist architect, had been in German Concentration Camp while mine, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, had been in Japanese death camp, so we were off to a good start.
A week later I’m sitting in the passenger seat of her fashionably distressed GMC listening to Chet Baker and wondering where the Hell she’s taking me: past lakes, dumbstruck deer by edge of road, trailer park, back woods, abandoned boy scout camp.
She made a slight sucking sound between her teeth as she drove–trapped sashimi?–later confessing she’d popped a valium with the saki. For nerves.
Where the hell were we again?
She named a place I’d never heard of, way out of Manhattan-Hamptons-Maine-Princeton comfort zone.
What was that? A family of suicidal possums? Up winding, spooky lane lined with pines to small clapboard farmhouse with hand-hewn beams and big fireplace. Sounds of gurgling stream. Blue enameled antique stove and Dutch coffee grinder in kitchen.
A little boy’s navy uniform hanging on bedroom wall had me flashing on Glenn-Close-in-Fatal-Attraction-style scenario, gorgeous but crazed, with no one ever finding my mutilated body parts.
Chet was singing Let’s Get Lost and I still didn’t know where I was but that’s how it felt, like when you get lost in the woods, a little scary at first and then not so scary as your eyes and body adjust to the surrounding environment. Then you let go, like with anesthesia, and succumb.
When I woke in morning she was already outside, standing in her underwear, shooting arrows at a target made of straw.
Goddess of the Hunt, I thought.
There was a James Bond book sitting on the shelf and I could see that it was her on the cover, much younger, wrapped in furs, lying provocatively on a giant golden gun.
Diana of the Golden Gun.
Twenty-one years later this coming Labor Day weekend we’re still together but the house has expanded from that rough little hideaway to a fairly rambling residence/studio for work and four children, somehow, leaving 18th-Century parts in tact, paring back to original bones, while adding modern loft-like spaces to one side. “Best of both worlds,” we kept saying to ourselves and anyone else who bothered to ask.