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Sublime Sanctuary

Architect Ken Tate blends Federal and Greek Revival narratives in Oxford, MS.

Project: Residence, Oxford, MI

Architect: Ken Tate Architect, Madisonville, LA; Ken Tate, principal

Contractor: Grantham Construction, Oxford, MS

By Nancy Berry

"There is quite a subtext to the design – it's really a house within a house," says award-winning architect Ken Tate as he begins to describe the 9,000-sq.ft., U-shaped Southern Greek Revival residence he created for a couple in Oxford, MS – home to novelist and Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner. And much like Faulkner, who mastered a number of stylistic narratives based on the local color of Mississippi, Tate has also mastered the art of melding different stylistic narratives into his Southern vernacular designs.

The couple fell in love with the house site, a beautiful piece of land with mature trees and plantings; but the existing house on the property was far less desirable, so they hired Tate, giving him carte blanche to design a new house. After spending six months on a design that Tate describes as "the perfect 14,000-sq.ft. Greek Revival house," the couple decided they wanted to take another tack. They had visited the Briars, an 1818 Federal-style house in Natchez, MS, and were drawn to its Federal layout, although they still desired a Greek Revival idiom, which would be in keeping with the historic homes in Oxford.

Tate's challenge was to create a Federal floor plan within a Greek Revival context. "Southern Greek Revival homes typically are symmetrical two-story houses with a center hall and two square rooms off to each side of that passageway," says Tate. "The Briars is a one-and-a-half story house with an entry hall bordered by two rooms and a parlor that sits perpendicular to the entryway." Tate needed to marry the two styles under one roof without making the structure look schizophrenic. In order to achieve this goal, he created a narrative for the house – a fictitious timeline that would allow the design to appear as if it had evolved over a number of decades. "We really wanted the house to feel like a Federal that had been brought up to fashion 50 years later," says Tate. "Although the layout is Federal, the interior cornices, baseboards, pilasters and trim have Greek Revival proportions."

The revised program, consisting of a main house, a guest house and a pool house, mixes materials in the construction of the buildings: The main house is wood while the dependencies are brick. Again, this gives the illusion that the structures were built during different time periods. The house is sited on the property's highest point, which happens to be the farthest point from the road and the perfect spot for privacy. A long winding drive meanders through the established trees to an antique granite cobblestone car court that reveals the Greek Revival façade.

One of the greatest puzzles in designing the house was to express the Greek Revival style in the one-and-a-half-story house. "Federal proportions are not as tall as the common Greek Revival," says Tate. "Interior ceilings in a Federal are usually under 12 ft. high, but in a Greek Revival, they can be as high as 16 ft." To create the correct proportions on the exterior of the home, Tate placed the Ionic columns and plinth blocks that flank the front of the house below the porch floor level to achieve the desired scale. "The wooden columns on the house have a distinct Roman influence," he says. The columns support a large protruding pediment – a hallmark of the Greek Revival style – which contains a thermal fanlight window. The porch balusters are thick and masculine on this deep sitting porch, also in keeping with the Greek Revival language. To follow the illusion that the house had been altered and remodeled over time, Tate included a brick stair with an iron railing on the front of the house. "Many old wooden steps on houses in the area have rotted away and have often been replaced by brick."

Tate's ability to meld two divergent styles is evident upon entering the building. The Federal layout is cleverly overlaid with Greek Revival detailing. "We relied on 19th-century architect Minard Lafever's The Modern Builder's Guide to design the Greek Revival-inspired cornices, capitals and interior trim work in the interiors," says Tate. The entry hall is flanked by the dining room to the right and the gentleman's study to the left. The dining room, which was designed for formal dinners, has two large interior floor-to-ceiling windows opening into the living room. The interior windows serve several purposes: they create the illusion that this room was a later addition to the home; they increase the natural light in the rooms (the deep porches cut down on the amount of direct sunlight); and they create a flow to the spaces while the home is being used for entertaining. The 1,000-sq.ft. living room has a bank of custom double hung six-over-nine paned windows looking onto the back porch. To avoid them looking like one large modern picture window, the windows and their trim become an architectural device – a Classical frame for the porch and shimmering pool beyond. The window trim is built up into the cornice and the panes are made of hand-blown glass.

The service spaces – the sinker cypress kitchen, laundry and pantry – border the east side of the house to capture early morning light while the private spaces – the master bedroom, master bath, sitting room and his and her walk-in closets – border the west side. The 12-in.-wide heart-pine flooring throughout the house is reclaimed from old tobacco warehouses. Tate tucked two guest bedrooms into the home's front and rear pediments. Interior designer Jimmy Graham of Memphis, TN-based Jimmy Graham Interior Design added flourishes of the Federal period, which appear in the way of antiques and mural wallcoverings that reinforce the storyline Tate has created. The two masonry dependencies – the pool house and exercise cabana – that flank the pool are pure Greek Revival narratives; Tate describes them as masculine and austere. The brick structures and the Greek Doric columns were erected using traditional construction methods of stacked bricks with a stucco overlay. The wall and patio brick are queen-sized Carolina handmade brick. Tate had the bricklayers clean the brick with wire brushes (rather than harsh chemicals) to give it a more antiqued effect; the mortar is made of white lime and also gives the appearance of being older.

The end result of this Southern storybook house is a testament to Tate's deep understanding of the language of architecture and his ability to apply it in creating works of art in our built environment.  


Nancy E. Berry is the editor of New Old House magazine. She has written extensively about architecture and interior design for a variety of publications and is the author of Architectural Trim: Adding Wainscoting, Mantels, Built-ins, Baseboards, Cornices, Castings and Columns to Your Home (Rockport Publishers, 2007).  

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