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What Makes a Home Architecturally Significant?

April 30 2010

Architecturally significant homes are treasures that draw admiration generation after generation. They are usually one of two types of homes.

The first is the work of ground-breaking architects, if you’ll pardon the pun, who push the limits of new design concepts to create a signature style that stands the test of time.  The second is a sublime example of a period style, even if the architect’s name has been lost for eons.

The key to the significance is in the architect’s skill and the details of the home. A home is architecturally significant if the home an outstanding example of a given period or style, particularly if the architect originated the style. The home is always distinctive with aesthetic qualities that are inimitable.

Such homes are true to their nature.  An architecturally significant home such as a Queen Anne Victorian will be pristinely Queen Anne Victorian from the scrolls on the outdoor woodwork to the claw-foot bathtubs.  The details will be authentic and artistic.  As much of the original structure, wallpapers, moldings, colors and details will be preserved or meticulously reproduced, with any updating of plumbing fixtures giving a nod to the original style.

The Architect’s Pedigree

One of the most easily recognizable signatures are homes by one of the most famous architects of all time. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), built homes and commercial structures that are well-known examples of his organic style.  Wright’s homes blended into the surrounding landscape and organic details were taken into the interiors, extending even to furniture he designed specifically for each home.  Wright is famous because he started a style of architecture (organic-Prairie) that is instantly recognizable and influences architects and designs to this day.  The Robie House, Taliesin West, and Fallingwater are among the most noted homes ever built.

Another famous American architect, Charles Ormond Eames (1907-1978) also designed furniture, textiles, mosaics and other details to be included in his highly acclaimed John Philip Meyer residence completed in St. Louis in 1938.  Together with his wife, Ray Eames, the Eames signature became the modern glass house and sleek bentwood furniture (the famous tulip chair).  The architecture of the glass house called for spare design on the interior and Eames put together a unique style that is cohesive, spacious and modern as seen in the Eames house. 

Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) specialized in apartment buildings in Hungary and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), taught at Harvard.  Their architectural partnership heavily influenced modern homes with the use of concrete and steel.  The Gropius house, built in 1938, is a pinnacle of the partnership, now a National Historic Landmark.  It was sensational when built because of the minimalist combination of wood, brick, and fieldstone mixed with industrial materials of glass block, chrome, and acoustical plaster.  The furniture was designed by Breuer and all the family possessions are still in place. 

For new homes, Richard Meier (1934-) has pushed the envelope on modernism.  His concepts of  light, color, and space” create clear, defined spaces within the home.  He also likes mystery as defined by the Rachofsky home in Dallas, Texas.  The austere elevation presents a gleaming white, horizontal facade to the street with a glassed extension that houses a stairway that would have those unfamiliar with the home wondering about its purpose.  Greenery, a pond, and sky are visible from inside every room, again relating Meier’s belief in a procession from exterior to interior and back throughout the home.

Most architects of note become famous when they have graduated from smaller projects of homes to commercial buildings.  An exception to this progression is I. M. Pei, who started with big buildings and whose most famous work is the glass pyramid at the Louvre.  However, the majority usually don’t start becoming well known until they are commissioned to design and build high profile residences of the rich and famous. 

Prime Examples of Specific Designs

Richard Neutra is credited with building the first steel frame house in the United States, the Lovell House built between 1927-1929 in Los Angeles.  It is an outstanding example of International Style, and reflects Neutra’s interest in cubism.  The exterior is known also from the motion picture, L. A. Confidential. 

The Gamble House, constructed in 1908-1909 in Pasadena by Charles and Henry Greene for David B. Gamble is described as an Arts and Crafts masterpiece.   Custom furniture was also designed for the home by the architects and details include extensive use of teak, maple, oak, cedar, and mahogany throughout the home.  The wood details of the home inspired the family to eventually deed the home to the City of Pasadena in a joint agreement with the University of Southern California School of Architecture.  The exterior has appeared in the motion picture Back to the Future.  

The Belmont Mansion built in Philadelphia in 1745 is considered one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture.  Designed and built by William Peters, the home played host to many historical figures such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 
Henry Hobson Richardson developed the Richardsonian Romanesque style of heavy, rough-cut granite laid in courses of varying heights.  One of the most noted examples is the Glessner House, completed in 1887 for tycoon John Jacob Glessner.   A spacious courtyard lets natural light into the main rooms. 

Italianate design has its pinnacle in the Breakers, the 70-room, 65,000 square foot summer mansion built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in Newport, Rhode Island.  Completed in 1895, the design was by Richard Morris Hunt.  Constructed as fireproof as possible, the interior used steel trusses and no wooden parts.  The opulence of the “Gilded Age” is manifested in the lush interior decorations by Jules Allard and Sons and Ogden Codman. 

The Biltmore Estate House is another Gilded Age construction for the summer retreat of George Washington Vanderbilt.  Richard Morris Hunt designed epitome of the Renaissance style to reproduce the working estates of Europe.  It is the largest privately owned home in the United States at 175,000 square feet.  The grounds and buildings have appeared in over 14 motion pictures.

Architecturally significant homes are turning points in architecture.  They define a legacy of style arising from aesthetic beliefs, opulence, and creativity of the architects. 

American homes have a wealth of inspiration of every style from Colonial, Federal, Plantation, Victorian, Prairie, Arts and Crafts, International, and Modern by the greatest acclaimed architects.  In every part of the country, there are architecturally significant homes of renown to view and tour.