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Retaining Walls

4 Mar

I don’t know if we’ve ever shared one of the things about this house (or property) which disturbs us the most.  I think we have simply pretended it doesn’t exist.  You know, one of those things that you just look the other way because taking it on will be so massive and such a headache and you have fantasies about wiggling your nose and it’s all taken care of?  For free?

We have a swath of land to the south of our house that looks like it has been carved out of the earth.  Some efforts have been made at reinforcing the base of the huge evergreens, but the row of cypress have roots that are still exposed.




We have been pretty lucky this winter in that we have had no real storms or snow.  This gave us the opportunity to final tackle putting in a much needed retaining wall before we lost some lovely trees.

The big question was materials.  Now we probably could have gone and used interlocking bricks that are common around here.  And done it ourselves for about half the price.  Our issue was that we didn’t think they really fit with the mid-century feel of the house.  Plus, they have to be placed at an angle and wouldn’t have the nice lines of a straight wall.  (Our other issue was did Brett we really want to take on such a back-breaking project?  Really?)

Inspired by a few photos I found on this website Eichler for Sale, the vision began to come together.  (This site has some wonderfully inspiring photos for all mid-century home remodel needs.)



Our contractor brought out two samples for us:  a traditional cinderblock and a more textured block of the interlocking kind.  Guess which I chose?



Of course, neither match the stone retaining wall at the front of the house.  Pesky little detail.  But I think we will solve that by building a gate between the two, marking a separation between the front and the back of the house.

The project will start in about two weeks and I cannot wait!  Stay tuned for updates and let us know if you have any experience with retaining walls that would help us.


MCM Fireplaces

11 Feb

Yesterday the lovely blog Retro Renovation was asking people to upload photos of their mid-century fireplaces.  I flipped through them and found nothing, and I mean NOTHING like our very….ummm….unique fireplace with which I have a love hate relationship.  Some images from the Retro Renovation site:

Gavin in Scotland


And a few other favorites from my Pinterest board MCM Fireplaces:

Pinned Image

Pinned Image

Pinned Image

Okay, so now our design dilemma.  This is our fireplace.


Hmmm.  This has always flummoxed me.  For one thing, I like the shape.  The angles on the chimney are totally mid-century, as are the cement benches on either side.  However, the brick has seen better days and there is a wood-burning stove insert in it.  I can imagine a beautiful open fire once we remove the stove but the brick is the dilemma.  It’s old and no matter how much we try to clean it, it’s inconsistent and looks dirty.

We considered painting it.  (I am not one of those people who thinks there is a special place in hell for brick painters.)  But as you can see to the right, the brick wall continues outside through the window and the front door.  So if we commit to painting the fireplace, I think we have to commit to painting those walls as well for the sake of continuity.

Brett has suggested covering the chimney with metal like the photo above with the sunken living room.  I like the idea, but we are still stuck with some challenging brick.

Would love other people’s opinions!

The ABC of Architects

30 Jan

As a follow-up to my previous incredibly geeky primer on architecture, I have to share this wonderful video on The ABC of Architects from Ombu Architecture.  So fun.

Who’s your favorite and why?

Other People’s Homes: Vidal Sassoon’s Neutra House

9 Nov

From the site Wowhaus, a look at the Richard Neutra house that belonged to Vidal Sassoon.  I really do have a jones to live in California if only for these magnificent homes with magnificent pools.  Sigh.  Is it really unrealistic to have a pool in the Pacific Northwest???

Credit to Rachael Gibson for spotting a stunner, this 1950s Richard Neutra-designed Singleton House in Los Angeles, California, USA, which was the last home of hairdressing guru Vidal Sassoon.

It’s a stunning example of midcentury modern, with Neutra designing this iconic house in 1959. It’s described as ‘one of the most significant Modern homes in America’ by the agent and we certainly aren’t going to disagree. It also gets you a prestigious Mulholland Drive postal address too, which adds to the appeal, no doubt.

The house has been restored with ‘integrity, taste, and sophistication’ by Sassoon according to that same agent, although you can perhaps make your own mind up on that. We certainly don’t have any complaints about its minimalist interior, while the exterior is right out of a movie set. Vidal Sassoon loved architecture and this house is testament to it.

In terms of the space here, that’s down as being four bedrooms and five bathrooms (the master bedroom being described as ‘incredible’), along with kitchen, dining room, ‘bonus’ room, guest and maid’s quarters, living room, media and music room and laundry as far as we can make out, but that’s obviously only a fraction of the tale of this single-storey house. The images tell it better.

Outside, there’s a private pool, open courtyards, garage, carport and long drive behind the gate. It also sits in an impressive 5+ acre plot with tasteful gardens. It’s a house for entertaining – and if you owned it, you’d be a fool not to show this place off.

Of course, owning this Bel Air home is just a dream for most of us. The price has gone down since it was last marketed, but is still at $17,995,000. There’s a huge Euromillions draw tonight – you might need a ticket if you have aspirations for this place.

Find out more at the Redfin website

Culture vs. Commerce: The Fight to Save Prentice

7 Nov

I am sharing this thoughtful post from the excellent blog Matter Observed because it addresses some topics near and dear to my heart:  Chicago architecture, Northwestern University (my alma mater) and the question of historical preservation as dogma.  I would be interested to know your opinion.  Demolish and rebuild?  Recycle and reuse?  Move?  Thoughts?

The heated debate over Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Woman’s Hospital building came to a head yesterday as the Commission on Chicago Landmarks finally heard the argument from staffers of the Department of Housing and Economic Development (HED) as well as public support to save the brutalist structure from demolition. After nearly six hours of hearing and granting preliminary landmark status, the Commission, chaired by Rafael Leon, overturned landmark status by a landslide vote of 8-1 at the meeting’s finale rendering Prentice a sitting duck.

As a recent adherent of this preservation saga, admittedly not knowing the all the intricacies and politics that undoubtedly lie beneath the surface, I see both sides as having valid positions:

Northwestern University

Northwestern University, the rightful owner of the property as of early Summer 2011, wants to build a brand new, massive (1.2 million square feet) biomedical research facility on the current site with aspirations to become a global leader in research on cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders. University spokesman Alan Cubbage said that Prentice is a 1970’s hospital designed for a totally different purpose, and can’t facilitate 21st medical research. He (Northwestern) believes that preservation of buildings with historical and cultural significance is a good goal, but doing research into diseases that kill people, and bringing thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research funds to Chicago are also very good goals. According to its website, the University will “attract an additional $150 million a year in new medical research dollars, create 2,000 new full-­time jobs, and generate an additional $390 million a year in economic activity in Chicago.” Northwestern University plans to demolish the old Prentice building and hold a design competition for its new research facility within the next calendar year.

The Save Prentice Coalition

Conversely, the preservationists are urging the commission for preliminary landmark status in order to protect the relatively young, 37 year old quatrefoil-shaped building designed by notable Chicago architect, the late Bertrand Goldberg. Though the University believes that Marina City is a better example of Goldberg’s work, the preservationists argue that Prentice is vitally important on numerous fronts. First, the architect is one of Chicago’s own, and he’s just now beginning to get the credit that he’s due. Second, the building is important to Chicago’s architectural heritage and the history of Streeterville. They also argue that if you look at Prentice in terms of its architectural design (cloverleaf-shaped concrete tower), its engineering (cantilevered decks from a single column), how it was designed to change the way that woman’s healthcare was provided (“care clusters”), and the fact that it was one of the first buildings to have used computer aided design software in its design, that it is extremely significant to the legacy of modern architecture. According to the Preliminary Summary of Information in the official Agenda of the Commission of Chicago Landmarks:

“Goldberg was an early adopter of computer technology within the architectural profession, and during the design of Prentice he modified software then in use by the aeronautical industry to design the building’s unprecedented cantilevered structure. Prentice is one of the first tall structures designed using computer analysis, and the computational method used to create it is now an essential tool in architectural and structural design.”

Original floor plan of Prentice Woman’s Hospital

Supporters and Detractors

A cadre of noted architects and engineers are in favor of preserving Prentice, including eight Pritzker Prize winners and the entire office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM). The Chicago architecture firm Studio Gang submitted an unsolicited rendering of an adaptive reuse solution, building a 31 story bowed square-shaped tower on top of the original building (see below). The Save Prentice Coalition immediately praised it, and the University just as quickly rejected it saying it doesn’t meet basic criteria for their vision of a modern, state-of-the-art research facility.

Christina Morris of the National Trust for Historic Preservation said that this “doesn’t have to be an either/or choice, and that there’s room for both reuse and research;” Architecture critic and WBEZ contributor Lee Bey said that “the preliminary landmark designation would temporarily spare Prentice from demolition for a year, and it would give City Hall the ability to examine whether a permanent designation and reuse plan are possible by working with the university, preservationists and experts” (a sensible idea, though time is of course money); Mayor Rahm Emanuel has recently sided with the politically powerful institution saying, “It is clear that the current building cannot accommodate the groundbreaking research facility that Northwestern needs to build, and I support the decision to rebuild on the site,” essentially sealing the fate of old Prentice; while the Chicago Architectural Club, in conjunction with the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects has called for new ideas from architects, artists, and designers in an open competition called “Future Prentice” – which could amount to a “what if” exhibition if landmark status is not granted.

So What’s Your Point?

This brings me to why I’m sounding off on this issue that again is relatively new to me: of all the figurative pushing and shoving I’ve read on both sides of the issue, and of the few adaptive reuse concepts that I’ve seen in the press thus far (I’m interested in seeing more), to my knowledge there has not been one mention of structure relocation as a viable solution and a way to appease both the University and the preservationists. In spite of its structural shortcomings and, to some, aesthetic shortcomings, wouldn’t recycling Prentice by moving it to a new site and giving it a new purpose be a logical solution to the problem? Northwestern can build their billion-dollar research facility, and the preservationists can have their Goldberg. Though not historic preservation in the purest sense, it is, after all, a better outcome than a plaque and box of photographs.

Now I certainly don’t know or claim to know the financial investment or logistical scope involved of what would surely be a challenging feet of structural engineering in order to save Prentice from the kiss of the wrecking ball – but, in a “make no little plans” city, a city that reversed the flow of the Chicago River and twice built the world’s tallest building (the Willis Tower in 1974 and the Burj Khalifa in 2010), if Prentice is truly an architectural masterpiece and a national treasure as so many have claimed, isn’t the topic of structure relocation and a recycled Prentice as a compromised solution in lieu of demolition worthy of at least a conversation, if not further exploration? And, by gifting the building to the city in order to save it (and responsibly move it off the land), wouldn’t Northwestern save in millions of dollars of demolition costs? Now that Rahm has spoken and a decision has been made, I’m curious to know if recycling Prentice is something both parties would even consider at this point. It may still be too early as I’m certain we haven not heard the last word from the preservationists.

My Connection to Goldberg and this Story

Why has this story grabbed my attention so much as to spend time thinking and blogging about it? Well, I’ve been familiar with Bertrand Goldberg for years. My father was a construction worker for James McHugh Construction Co. and helped build Marina City back in 1964; I recently worked on an interior design project in Goldberg’s boutique hotel turned condominium building, Astor Tower in the Gold Coast; and, living across the street from a mothballed brownfield, site of the old Grand Central Station (Harrison and Wells), I can’t help but see another complicated Goldberg structure just to the south, Marina City (1972-1989). As many problems the building has endured over the years (namely flooding), every day packed tour boats navigate down the South Branch of the Chicago River to River City showing hundreds if not thousands of architecture buffs and tourists alike the strangely unique concrete S-shaped complex. Irony or not, directly across the river is the land where 141 years ago, Catherine O’Leary’s infamous cow knocked over the lantern (or so the legend goes) that ultimately razed and paved the way for the city to become a hotbed for architects from all over the world to rebuild the city, thus beginning Chicago’s world renown architectural heritage. Despite these three connections to Bertrand Goldberg’s buildings, until the recent media attention over the preservation of Prentice, I had never really given too much thought into his work or his legacy on the city in which I call home.

Marina City

Astor Tower

Architectural boat tours

Preservation via Structure Relocation

As I mentioned above, I live across the street from a brownfield site that has been sitting vacant since 1971, around mid-construction of Prentice Woman’s Hospital. The seven acre plot that runs adjacent to the Chicago River has been an unauthorized park for the last 20 years, where people use the land for various activities, including golf, football, baseball, soccer, Frisbee, cross-training, pep-rallies, and theater, to name a few – there’s even a cricket league that plays their matches there. It’s also the city’s largest unofficial dog park.

In 1931, William Randolph Hurst moved the Santa Maria de Ovila Monastery 6,500 miles from Spain to San Francisco. What if…

we were to take the old Prentice building and relocate it 2 miles southwest to the site of 700 S. Wells (with or without the Miesian black box it currently sits on), turn the grounds surrounding it, including the riverfront, into a public park (think the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum), encase it in a glass box envelope (to prevent the “frosting drip” on concrete buildings when it rains) creating a light-filled atrium. One possible occupant could be the Chicago Center for Green Technology, giving it a secondary location, one that is closer to the people of Chicago (and to the thousands of tourists that pass the site every day on the architectural boat tours… i.e. a new revenue stream on the river, if you will) as its current location is 4.5 miles west of the Loop. Farr Associates, who have completed some amazing preservation and LEED projects, including the Chicago Center for Green Technology, and Perkins+Will would tag team the preservation, architecture, and landscape design.

“Frosting drip” on Prentice

Glass box examples

Chicago ranks among the top cities in the United States in green building design. What better way to symbolize both our architectural heritage and our leadership and commitment to green building practices and cradle-to-cradle design than to breath new life into old Prentice?

In yesterday’s hearing, Phil Enquist of SOM urged the Commission to “embrace the tradition of big, bold ideas, and identify a plan for reuse.” My (quickly conceived and crudely rendered) concept is just one example of many “big, bold” ideas for reuse I am certain are out there, if only the architects and planners were given the opportunity and a little more time.

Re-imagine, recycle, and reinvent.

Long live Prentice.

The Tracy House – FLW 1955

1 Nov

Have I really been away that long?  Please don’t feel abandoned.  I still love you all and mid-century design and our house.  It’s just that I love my family more.  With Maeve in her first year of high school and Ainsley in her first year of middle school, these past few months have been insane with homework, football games, homecoming, rehearsals for the Haunted Forest and the Nutcracker, our annual Halloween bash.  It’s amazing I’ve had time to do anything else at all.  But I have.  (Or ‘we’ have, rather.)  I have lots to share once I get it all organized.  Stay tuned for that soon.

But leave it to my friend Jenn to send me something yesterday that gave me a gentle nudge back into the blog because she knew I wouldn’t be able to resist sharing it.  The Tracy House by Frank Lloyd Wright is for sale in the Seattle area.  It’s called ‘usonian’ design, which I had never heard of and was happy to learn about.  For just slightly less than $1MM, you can own this part of history.  And believe me, if I had that money, I’d be first in line.

Bill and Elizabeth Tracy were admirers of Wright when they moved to Washington State in the early 1950’s. Bill had studied architecture, though he eventually became an engineer. Elizabeth, originally from Michigan, had taken art classes from Alma Goetsch and Katherine Winckler at Michigan State College. As a student she had visited the famous Wright designed Goetsch- Winckler House (1939), Okemos, Michigan. After establishing themselves in Washington the Tracys purchased a 100 foot wide high bank west facing waterfront lot on Puget Sound. The property had mature trees and featured magnificent views of Puget Sound and the snowcapped Olympic Mountains. They became acquainted with Seattle based former Wright apprentice Milton Stricker and initially considered having Stricker design their home. However (and much to his credit) after visiting the property Stricker told the Tracys that their property was so magnificent that it deserved a design by Wright himself. He wrote a letter of introduction to Wright which eventually led to Wright accepting the commission.

Early on the Tracys expressed interest in the specialized custom concrete block system Wright called Usonian Automatic. These houses were derived from his famous textile block houses built in the Los Angeles area in the early 1920’s. The Tracy’s liked the aesthetic qualities of the buildings and also appreciated the system for it structural integrity. The idea that they could cast the blocks themselves, thus reducing the ultimate cost of the building, appealed greatly. The preliminary plans arrived and they asked Wright to complete the technical drawing with only very minor modifications. Wright had already constructed five “Usonian Automatics” so the Tracys felt comfortable that the system was well developed. They had the steel forms fabricated locally and set to work casting two sets of blocks each day working five days a week – in addition to their day jobs as engineer and physical therapist. They cast over 1,700 blocks!!!

When telling the story it was always intriguing that they emphasized the “five days a week” as they made it clear to all that they reserved their weekends for getting to the mountains to ski, ride their trail bikes and generally enjoy nature! They hired local contractor Ray Brandes, who had built his own Wright Designed house in the Seattle area a few years earlier, to build their house. They were well served by this choice. Brandes built a sound and well-crafted building.

Bill and Elizabeth were also committed to maintaining the building in pristine condition. Due to the beauty and simplicity of the design, the magnificence of the site and buildings excellent condition it has been widely published and is a favorite among Wright fans. The building is placed at an angle across the property and is afforded excellent privacy from neighbors. The manner in which Wright nestled the building into the landscape brings the line of the landscape up to the bottom of the bedroom windows creating an intimacy that he was afforded in very few sites. The native fir trees often welcome eagles and other native birds.

It is a tranquil setting that encourages peace and contemplation. Bill and Elizabeth enjoyed these qualities. They spent time every evening listening to music and/or reading to each other. They chose to entertain friends in small groups and valued intimate quality conversation.

The House is often described as a jewel box filled with books and music. This is true in the day time when the sun floods the living room and is softened by the tile-red integral color concrete floor, the redwood panels of many interior wall surfaces and the gold toned built-in seats. Evening brings new qualities when the colors of the setting sun are reflected in the full height pairs of doors that define the living and dining area and open to the spacious water side terrace. In summer the terrace, in effect, doubles the available area for entertaining.

As the sun sets the coffered concrete ceiling seems to float on the illuminated pierced concrete and glass piers that support the roof. The perforated concrete corner blocks with mitered glass that make up these piers are repeated in other parts of the house. Three ceiling levels enliven the play between spaces and the over-all result is a compact house that causes the eye to explore and feels much larger than it is.  One has an experience approximating living in the wilderness while being only twenty-five minutes from downtown Seattle.

The Tracy house is listed on the National Register of Historic Houses.

The House and its furniture are protected by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

House Basics:

The house will be sold with a complete set of archival documents including, original plans, bibliography,

construction photos, plans for a later addition proposed by the Taliesin Associated architects (only the

cascading pools were built), and copies of all Wright and Tracy correspondence relating to the house and a

copy of the DVD of Bill and Elizabeth describing the house and its construction to visitors. Additional material

including writings by Bill Tracy, family photos, and other ephemera will be available through the Tracy Family

archives in Boise, ID.

• Approximately 1,150 sf. Plus a detached two car carport with storage.

• Three bedrooms and one bath, Living, Dining, Kitchen facing the water view, plus utility with laundry

• Principal materials: Concrete, redwood plywood panels and glass

• Lot: 100’ Puget Sound waterfront, 31,000+ sf., located in a distinctive community on a quiet dead-end road.

• The Tracy site is part of the Normandy Park plat and thus includes membership in the beach club with

access to the club house, swimming pool, tennis courts and secure access to the private beach.

• Price $949,000.

• Shown by appointment only

• Contact: Larry A. Woodin, Executor 206.794.5276 Email


Happy Birthday to Eero Saarinen

20 Aug

Eero Saarinan’s Womb Chair on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. 1959. The Womb Chair was designed by Eero in 1946 for Knoll.

Eero Saarinen was one of the most prolific, unorthodox, and controversial masters of 20th-century architecture. Although his career was cut short by death at age 51 in 1961, Eero Saarinen was one of the most celebrated architects of his time, both at home and abroad.

In the postwar decades of what has been called “the American Century,” Saarinen helped create the international image of the United States with his designs for some of the most potent symbolic expressions of American identity. Saarinen is best known for his post-war masterpieces including the 630-foot tall stainless steel St. Louis Gateway Arch, the TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, numerous university campus plans and the General Motors Technology.

The TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Project Years 1956-1962.

The MIT Chapel. Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts Project Year: 1955. Stain Glass Detail

The MIT Chapel. Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts Project Year: 1955. Wall Detail

General Motors Technical Center located in Warren, Michigan. Project Years: 1948-56. Staircase Detail.

General Motors Technical Center located in Warren, Michigan. Project Years: 1948-56. Detail of Building Exterior

The St. Louis Arch. Located in St. Louis, Missouri. Designed in 1947. Project Years: 1963-1965. The St. Louis Arch is 630 feet high. If you need a comparison the Eiffel Tower is 1,063 feet tall.

Eero Saarinan himself relaxing in a Grasshopper Chair of his own design. Designed in 1946 the Grasshopper Chair was the first chair design that Eero did for Knoll.

(Via Modernica)

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