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Romancing Classicism

Architect Bobby McAlpine draws houses from his heart and history.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

In the small sawmill town of Vredenburgh, AL, where the architecture ran toward the bungalows and forester cabins of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, Bobby McAlpine designed his first house. He drew its floor plan on the back of the lid of a box of Whitman's Sampler chocolates, filling its pristine white space with free-flowing lines in blue ink. He was five years old.

"I don't know why I did it," says McAlpine, an architect, interior designer and furniture designer whose McAlpine Tankersley Architecture is based in Montgomery, AL, and whose McAlpine Booth & Ferrier Interiors has offices in Nashville, TN, and Atlanta, GA. "But I didn't fit in with my environment. What my heart understood and what it saw didn't match up, so I created my own private world where my body was a treehouse where I stored all my treasures. Ever since, I have drawn a floor plan every day of my life."

McAlpine, whose work has been featured in a host of publications ranging from The New York Times to House and Garden and who is the author of the best-selling Rizzoli book The Home Within Us: Romantic Houses, Evocative Rooms (read review), has built a reputation for building what he and his partnership – Greg Tankersley, John Sease and Chris Tippett – call "The Inheritable House."

"Our houses marry historical precedence with graceful modern living," says McAlpine. "We create architecture that has an upward lineage – it's worth more every day it is lived in. It never dates itself, and it has a vagueness of origin that makes it timeless and romantic."

The idyllic houses that McAlpine has designed since opening his own firm nearly three decades ago are linked by nostalgia, fantasy and sense of place. They pair grandeur and humility, lofty spaces and cozy corners, and they combine unexpected materials to make their soulful statements. They are not straightforward; those who enter must pass through a series of loggias, gardens and other chambers to reach their final destination – the front door, which more often than not is tucked charmingly into the side of the structure.

"I'm not a Classicist, I'm a romanticist," says McAlpine. "By that, I mean that I include Classicism in my designs, but I use it only to elevate the maturity of what I'm conceiving. My houses are organic – they are not objects like Classical homes, but they are loaded with symmetry." Thus it is in McAlpine's portfolio that a Mediterranean Revival house features sleek factory-sash windows and Classical Roman columns; a beach house gets a lift from a vaulted hallway that leads to a sun-filled salon; and a Scottish house dresses up its vernacular aspects with modern details.

"Every time I do something grand, say columns that are one-and-a-half stories tall, I follow it by an apology – say ceilings that are only seven feet high," says McAlpine. "This brings about the perfect combination of emotions where inertia and ascension exist. Nothing can survive without a little modesty."

Just as he did when he was five years old, McAlpine starts each house with a floor plan that includes the exact placement of furnishings. "I go to the site and mentally set up camp," he says. "I start with the living room, which is where all the major interactions and exchanges are made, and then the architectural shape of the house forms around the floor plan."

Although McAlpine doesn't favor any one style, he is partial to American architecture of the 1910s and 1920s and draws some inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright and Sir Edwin Lutyens. "The 1920s was a wonderful period," he says. "I liken it to the story of the 'Three Little Pigs.' All the Victorian architecture that was a failure was like the first little pig. That failure made America look to Europe, and we came away with taste and permanence and in the 1920s, like the third little pig, we built in brick."

Each McAlpine house tells a story that embraces all who enter, visually and emotionally. "You have to find the heart and soul, the ego and morality of the house first, and then the house will reveal itself on the outside," he says. "Using small rooms and low spaces is all but forgotten, and clients don't ask for it, but when I ask them where they spent their happiest moments, invariably they say it is in intimate spaces. It is my humble hope that my legacy will be heartfelt, soulful places that people will put on their wish lists and that my homes will influence other designers to include a little modesty in their plans."

A Living Laboratory
When it came to designing his own home, McAlpine did something he usually doesn't do – he looked to one particular iconic house for inspiration. Although he had designed a lake house for his own use, this was the first time he created his own primary residence.

The 3,200-sq.ft., two-story house, on a 75-by-200-ft. corner lot in Montgomery's historic Garden District, gets some of its striking English-cottage silhouette from Homewood, which Sir Edwin Lutyens designed for his mother-in-law. McAlpine likens his house to a statue that has broad shoulders and a simple face. "I love the way the bell-like roof huddles around the welcoming windows to create a portrait," he says.

McAlpine intended the house to be a showcase for his architectural principles and a laboratory for his "monastic modern" design style, where ancient-looking rough stone floors, modern corner windows with wavy restoration glass, sleek walls devoid of traditional trim, and shiny Classical columns live together amicably in the 21st century.

To that end, the grand and humble harmoniously co-exist, starting at the entrance, which is on the side of the stucco house. The entry's seven-ft. ceiling crescendos into a 19-ft.-high living room/dining room/fireside lounge, whose primary presence is muted by a seven-ft. mezzanine that seems to fly through the air, save only for the Classical columns that anchor it. "You can actually almost touch the mezzanine when you're in the main room because it's only seven feet high," says McAlpine. "And the columns deliberately don't go all the way to the ceiling because they aren't needed as supports. In essence, they become big chess pieces."

In the same room, an 18-ft.-long concrete console topped by a 16-ft.-long candle ledge creates a balance between what McAlpine calls the "bold and tender" pairing of opposites. "Concrete is a humble material," he says. "I deliberately made the candle ledge flimsy so the candles tremble in a garden of bounty. And the console is used to store wood for the fireplace. These contradictions, like the rest of the ones in the house, really love each other."

The Hidden House
A 6,000-sq.ft. house in Nashville's Roaring Twenties Belle Meade neighborhood was built for a newlywed couple who wanted a romantic haven. "Imagine playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey," McAlpine says. "You enter from the side – you'd be hard-pressed to even know which side is the front of the house. It's like you are blindfolded and are turned and twisted so much that everything – the street, the day, your cares – is forgotten as you go through the motor court, loggia and several chambers. It's a gift of disorientation, and unlike its neighbors, it doesn't look like a paper-doll house lined up at the street to watch a Fourth of July parade."

After all this suspenseful buildup, is not what one would expect. Instead of a vaulted great room, there's a small room with a low ceiling. That's what makes the garden, visible on all four sides, all the more surprising. "The house is almost like a garden pavilion," says McAlpine. "It wraps around three courtyards, and every room gives an invitation to outside life."

The three-story, four-bedroom house of slathered brick and stucco, which McAlpine describes as more French than Italian, has a roof of reclaimed tile that originally topped a convent. A series of colossal columns that rise one-and-a-half stories along the motor court at the entrance to the two-acre estate aren't as grand as they look at first glance – they are made of slathered brick. "If they were limestone, they would have a Beaux-Arts or Classical look," says McAlpine.

The house's other formal elements, including its arched and vaulted-ceilinged loggia, are brought back to earth by the garden, which has been allowed to grow out of its boundaries. "It almost has a shaggy and disheveled look as if it's letting its hair down," says McAlpine. "It has a thousand axes and symmetries going on, but it's ignoring its borders. I love using the loggia as a foyer because the first thing that's offered is the garden; you're in the arms of the architecture before you even enter the house."

A House for the Garden
In a new development in Springfield, MO, McAlpine built a house that is designed to give top billing to the garden that the new owners planted on the two-acre property. "It became the job of the house to create the ambience for the garden," he says. "There was nothing there before, so the house and the garden had to be created. In the planning stages, we talked mostly about gardens, not about architectural aesthetics."

McAlpine looked to 1920s England to create a rambling, 5,000-sq.ft., one-and-a-half-story wood-shingle cottage that wraps around four garden chambers. To give it a real American feel, he added a dash of New England charm in the form of Colonial double-hung windows.

The home, a primary residence for a young couple with two small children, has the spirit of a country house. It is entered through a covered gate that leads to a courtyard. A breezeway off to the side catches the eye then draws the feet toward the door. Inside, the floor plan is simple: Two nearly identical rooms – a kitchen and living room – are split by an old-fashioned dogtrot-like foyer.

"The house keeps its head down inside and out," says McAlpine. "It may be derived from historical styles, but it does have modern touches. For example, the color palette is monochromatic, and every room owns a courtyard."

The Indoor-Outdoor Pavilion
In Nashville's Belle Meade neighborhood, a single-story stucco structure was built for a couple who wanted to commemorate their stay in Italy, where they fell in love. "This is not so much a house as a celebratory Beaux-Arts pavilion," says McAlpine. "It's not a residential carriage; it's not a house that's built of rooms."

The four-bedroom home, whose pool connects to a guest house, contains one 70-ft.-long, 15-ft.-tall cruciform-shaped shell that combines spaces for dining, lounging and cooking and that gives unfettered views of the garden.

"I'd wanted to do this for a long time," says McAlpine. "I paired brute Italian architecture and a 1930s modern window system. It's almost as if the space had been built never to be enclosed and later the glass showed up in a modern way."

The single "living room" gave McAlpine a prime opportunity to do what he does best – create architecture through the layout of furnishings. "The walls are entirely muraled in pencil," he says. "They pulse with life that is inside and outside."  


Nancy A. Ruhling is a New York City-based freelance writer.

 

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