Mid-century Arizona governmental brutalism at its finest.
Mid-century Arizona governmental brutalism at its finest.
I remember when I would’ve killed for a room like this…
Okay, it’s a bit large for just the two of us (we’d need a full-time, live-in housekeeper), but I do love the architecture. And it’s even local!
Except for that funky exhaust hood over the range, however. That’s DOA…
Having spent half my working life in the architectural profession, it should come to no surprise to anyone that I’ve designed my fair share of personal “dream houses.” Dozens. What might be surprising to learn is that I’ve never actually been a home owner.
I guess it stems from the very real refusal to settle down when I was younger. I loved the ability to pack up and move every six months if the desire struck me, and as much as I would’ve loved to have actually designed and built a home of my own, it was just never in the cards.
I was living in San Francisco when I finally started to get that urge to settle, and while I wasn’t making bad money, there was still no way I was ever going to be able to get a down payment together in the amount needed to buy a place. Moving out of The City wasn’t an option; as my friend Kent was fond of saying, “Why would anyone want to live just outside the pearly gates?” I’d rather continue to rent in San Francisco itself than own in Pittsburg.
And that financial situation hasn’t changed simply because we’re now back in Arizona. But that doesn’t mean a boy can’t dream.
Some of my dreams rarely progressed beyond basic sketches:
This particular one was inspired by an advert for the American Plywood Council (or something similar) in one of my dad’s architectural magazines when I was a wee young thing. The magazine is long gone but the image was forever imprinted into my memory.
This one—a small beach house—grew out of a triplex apartment development I had the pleasure of working on shortly after I moved to Tucson in 1980.
I can’t tell you how many house plans I’ve actually designed for myself since the architectural bug first bit in middle school. As my skill level increased, if my ideas got beyond the basic sketch stage, they burned with such intensity that I had to at least start a set of construction documents—if only a handful of those projects actually ever came to fruition with a complete, ready-for-a-bidding set of drawings.
Some of my first truly personal (i.e. not copied from another designer, a local builder or a magazine) designs were a series of desert houses originally inspired by Obi Wan Kenobi’s bungalow in Star Wars and the lower floor of the tri-level house my family lived in during my high school and college years.
Buried four feet into the ground with massive concrete walls to keep out the heat, this design motif resonated with me for years, eventually coming up with several variations…
At one point I even went so far with this theme as to design an entire apartment complex (small scale floor plans and exteriors only, I’m not that driven) on the then-vacant land on the southeast corner of Grant Road and Wilmot Avenue in Tucson—but I never really developed a good way of integrating multiple bedrooms into this particular ouvre—which obviously limited its appeal.
My move to San Francisco in 1986 inspired a new design aesthetic. I loved the Victorian row houses with their multicolored gingerbread trim, but I was equally impressed by the modern, contemporary variations on the theme that many local architects were utilizing.
This 3-story house was the vehicle by which I actually taught myself AutoCAD. I became so engrossed that I was literally moving objects in my dreams by calling out their cartesian coordinates!
In the mid 90s, I returned to my desert house design, armed with a new aesthetic gleaned from living in a 1920s-era Victorian for several years. The massively thick concrete walls remained, but the barrel vault roofs were gone and much more wood was incorporated along with an almost steampunk feel for the interior details.
I don’t remember what prompted me to do it, but a couple years after I tired of that exercise and had started contemplating leaving San Francisco and returning to Tucson, I pulled out a plan for a small house I once dreamt of building in in the northeast part of the city, at some undetermined point along the Catalina Highway before it actually started up into the mountains. I’d completed a lot of work on this plan already before moving to San Francisco—back when I was still doing overlay drafting with ink on mylar, but since I was now comfortable working in the virtual realm of AutoCAD, I decided it was time to transpose it into bits and bytes.
As you can tell, I tend toward smaller houses. Even this multi-structure design isn’t really that big. And this one’s builder-ready. Not only did I do the usual floor plan and exterior elevations that I do with all my projects, this was one of those instances when I did it all: foundation, roof framing, electrical, mechanical, and interior elevations. It was designed for a lot that gently sloped away from the street with an unobstructed view of the Catalina and Rincon Mountains. Sadly, while the land in that area was mostly untouched when I first envisioned this house in 1985, it isn’t any longer. My last visit to Tucson confirmed my fear that the area is now completely built-up and there are no more unobstructed views of anything except your next door neighbor.
And that brings us to my latest bit of mental masturbation:
This is the house we’re currently renting—with several changes. It’s the first time I’ve created a dream house based on a remodel, and I’m liking how it’s progressing. It started out as an innocent “what if” between Ben and I, but now it’s developed a life of its own and has morphed into a full-scale architectural exercise. As I’ve written before, it’s been an interesting excursion into the deep recesses of memory, pulling obscure AutoCAD commands from the dusty crevices of my head and continually surprising myself that I still know how to do this stuff. It’s also become my go-to “happy place” when I’m laying in bed awake and trying to fall back asleep at 4 in the morning…
Hey, it keeps me off social media (for the most part) and my blood pressure down (for the most part).
Made some small changes here and there. Had to do a lot of “repair” work as I call it when I realized that I’d drawn all the new interior walls the same thickness as the existing—which was a big error since new lumber is actually a different size than old lumber. (Old 2×4 studs were actually 2″ by 4″. New lumber is 1.5″ x 3.5″.) I also made the new master bedroom a big larger, trying to make it work with standard block coursing. Not entirely possible in all areas, but at least I got rid of the weird fractional dimensions. Not a big deal since I’m intending to stucco the entire exterior when I get to that point…
In addition to all the miscellaneous corrections and enlarging the bedroom, I got the pergola patio cover drawn as well as expanding the master bath a bit to accommodate a bench in the shower (Ben’s request).
Reacquainting myself with AutoCAD has been…interesting. Obscure commands are coming unbidden out of memory (half muscle memory, no doubt), surprising me with their reappearance. At the same time, how some other things work have either changed since the days when I was doing this stuff full time, are different in the Mac version than they are in the Windows version, or my memory has failed in their proper operation altogether. Some of Column A, some of Column B, and a bit of Column C I suspect.
And so the adventure continues…
…and to realize my AutoCAD skills haven’t atrophied nearly as much as I feared.
One of my favorite blogs, Life of an Architect, recently penned a post called—for lack of a better phrase on my part, “The Joy of Sketch.” Bob’s blog has always provoked a combination of misty-eyed nostalgia, envy, and abject admiration in me. It’s a constant (although not unwelcome) reminder of the career I regrettably—albeit voluntarily—walked away from 20 years ago. In fact I’ve exchanged a few emails with the him regarding my own sense of loss at having left the field. He’s urged me to get back on the horse if I miss it that much, but at this point in my life I know if nothing else my knowledge of construction (how the bits and pieces actually go together to create a structure)—if not my CAD/drawing skills themselves—are too far gone to ever entertain returning to the profession, but at doesn’t mean a guy can’t dream…or at least dabble on his own.
A few weeks ago, while waiting with Ben in the checkout line at Michael’s, I spied a display of sketch books that were on sale. They were sitting there screaming in my ear to buy them, but I dismissed that siren call by rationalizing, “When do I have time to sit and draw?” After we’d left, I immediately regretted that decision. It was now like an itch I couldn’t scratch. Make time, damn it! Seeing those sketchbooks reminded me of how much I used to enjoy drawing. I mean at one point, architectural drawing and sketching was my life.
The itch didn’t go away, so the following weekend I returned to the store and picked up one of the books along with an assortment of pens.
My first attempt, a free-hand sketch of what we’d like to do to our house if we ever bought it, didn’t turn out well. I mean, it was acceptable in a first-attempt, amateurish sort of way, but certainly not what I remember myself being capable of doing. I didn’t beat myself up too much over it because I knew those skills had atrophied over the years from disuse, and it would take a concerted effort to get them back to where they once were.
So to that end, I cracked open the book again this past weekend and this time (armed with a pencil and architectural scale) I did much better. Still not what I used to be capable of—I could actually draw perfectly straight lines without assistance at one point and wondered why everyone else couldn’t—but it definitely more in line with what I was hoping for. And quite frankly, I was surprised how easily using the scale returned to me…
All I can say is, “Practice, practice…”
And there, and there, and there…
Especially with this feature.
Probably architecturally too severe and colorless for Ben, but I could live there:
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to track down a particular house I saw in a magazine when I was a kid. Since the Google had been of no help in locating it, I realized I would have to spend a few hours down at the Phoenix Public Library going through the magazine archives issue by issue—hoping I could at least find it that way.
I had some time today, so after lunch I headed downtown and plopped my ass down in the magazine archive section of the Burton Barr Library.
Mom subscribed to four magazines that I readily remember: House and Garden, House Beautiful, Architectural Digest and Interior Design.
Searching through 10 years of House and Garden came up with nothing, although I knew I was at least pointed in the right direction. And I did run across several houses I remember seeing at the time that obviously subconsciously influenced some of my own subsequent architectural designs.
Thumbing through these magazines also brought into very sharp focus how truly horrid most interior design was during the 70s. Still reeling from the pop influence of the late 60s, garish color was everywhere and so many fabric patterns were happening in single rooms it looked like Moiré vomit. It’s no wonder I was drawn to the stark, clean aesthetic that was also inexplicably wedged in this sea of Colonial gingham and neon floral prints.
What I found equally interesting while perusing the pages of these musty magazines were the plethora of small black & white ads that occupied the last quarter of each issue. Obviously they were companies operating on shoestring budgets, but many of them definitely knew a certain percentage of the magazines’ intended clientele weren’t just bored housewives looking for tips on how to accessorize their family rooms:
“Against the pristine background of the Caribbean, the author-photographer recreates a living image of the first days of Man.” Uh huh.
But I digress…
Anyhow, I knew from what I’d seen so far I was close to finding my prey. Time to move on to House Beautiful.
I actually hit pay dirt with the second volume of HB issues I pulled from the shelves. The homeless guy in the adjacent aisle who’d been carrying on multiple profanity-laced conversations with the voices in his head finally got very quiet when I blurted out, “Found it!”
There it was in the March 1973 issue in all its glory:
Okay, while this wasn’t the particular article about this house I had lodged in memory, I do remember seeing this one, and more importantly I now had a fixed date in time and space and the architect’s name (Tony Woolner). After I got home I consulted the Google again—and still came up surprisingly empty handed, save for only four additional photos and a physical street address (25 Baxter Road, North Salem NY):
(Can’t say I honesly care for this elevation; it looks like a munitions bunker.)
Next time I’m downtown with some time to kill I’ll head back to the library and look through Architectural Digest and Interior Design to see if I can come up with the article I was hoping to find.
It’s just nice to have finally solved the mystery.
Although I will admit it would look ridiculous in Phoenix.
Something from back in the day when I was still designing things…
Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, I remember looking at one of my mom’s architectural/decorating magazines and seeing an absolutely amazing home that was basically a glass cylinder laid on its side nestled among a wooded lot that overlooked an open field or stream. The glass part of the cylinder was a series of curved skylights between structural rings that stretched from floor level to slightly a bit past overhead where they butted against a solid structure.
I don’t know if it was House & Garden, or House Beautiful, or some other magazine, but numerous online word/image searches using any combination of tubular, glass, cylindrical, skylight, house, forest, stream, 60s, and 70s has come up with absolutely nothing. Since I can’t narrow the time frame down to anything more concrete than prior to 1972 but later than 1968 maybe—and even that may be in question—even locating the original magazine at a library may an endeavor.
So I thought I’d throw it out into the blogosphere and see if this jogs anyone’s memories (because I have such a huge readership) before I resign myself to spending a weekend at the library…
They never look like this on any of the flights I take!
…even if the view is a little too much like what Baltar had right before the Cylons attacked Caprica.
A few weeks ago the remodeled house down the street from CopperStar finally went up for sale. Ben and I laughed when we saw it being marketed for half a million, even with the crappy, unfinished back yard. It was a ridiculous asking price for the ‘hood, even if it had been pristine. I mean, the place is nice and all, but it’s not worth that much.
Well, it sold—for the full asking price.
The house remodeling I wrote about a couple weeks ago is nearly finished, and it’s looking sweet.
As I have lamented on this blog previously, one of the biggest regrets of my life was that I’ve gotten rid of so many things I wish I’d held on to.
The first of those things being the notebooks I’d amassed that were full of audio manufacturer literature from the 70s and 80s. I don’t actually recall at this point if I intentionally threw them out or if they were inadvertently left in a closet when fleeing an unfortunate roommate situation in 1989, but the fact remains at some point they disappeared.
The second of those things were the multiple notebooks of the floor plan/exterior elevation handouts I’d collected from Hallcraft Homes for the duration of my dad’s employment with the company. I believe I left them in Dad’s care when I first moved out of my folks’ house in the early 80s, with the intent of eventually getting them back at some point. Well, life happened and I’d all but forgotten about them (and the dozens of actual construction blueprints in our possession) until some time after he moved to the Bay Area and I inquired as to their whereabouts. “Oh, I threw all that stuff out after the divorce.”
Well fuck me.
My heart sank. Looking back on it now, I think his tenure at the firm (especially the last few years after they’d been bought out by a Canadian company) became increasingly difficult and when the opportunity presented itself for a purge of all physical reminders of his time there, he went for it—something totally out of character for my dad who seemed to hold onto every other thing in the world.
With the advent of the internet, I’d always fantasized what a great resource having all those handouts would be to current owners of the homes—if only for historical reference, and after his death I’d hoped against all odds that my sister would find a hidden cache in his things. Alas, no such cache was found.
Searching online for already published examples of those handouts has been a lesson in futility—until yesterday. With all the Phoenix history swirling through my brain of late, I did a search for “Hallcraft Showcase of Homes.” This led me to—of all places—the Sunburst Farms HOA page. Sunburst Farms was the first of several Hallcraft subdivisions with one- and two-acre lots. (Ben’s grandfather actually still owns a home in one of the east side developments.) On this HOA page there was a link to “Historic Documents” and on that page were links that sent my heart fluttering: Hallcraft Flyer 1, Hallcraft Home Plans 1, Hallcraft Home Plans 2, Home Elevations, Home Prices…
It wasn’t a treasure trove, but considering I’d previously only possessed three floor plans and an equal number of exterior elevation sheets, being able to add three more was like Christmas to me.
This morning, while I lay awake at 4 am again, another thought came to me: Craigslist! and I thought, “Fuck It! If I don’t put it out there, it will never happen.”
So now I have a “wanted” ad on the Phoenix Craigslist seeking these handouts; not to buy, but simply to scan or photograph in hopes of getting them all posted online. In the 1970s alone there were about 45 different single-family floor plans, and probably an equal number of townhouse/fourplex plans. The fact that someone kept a few—that I didn’t have—tells me that somewhere in Phoenix, in boxes at the back of closets and garages, my treasure may be lurking.
The images above are from yesterday’s discovery, and that particular plan was actually one of my favorites even though—god forbid as far as my mother was concerned—it didn’t have a separate dining room. That seems silly now, as I could easily see using the “family room” as a separate dining space since I could never understand the need for having a living room and a family room.
We’ve been watching this little place undergo a major renovation since shortly after we got back to Phoenix. It’s a couple blocks from our favorite coffeehouse, so we drive past it often. At one point it was gutted down to the studs (which was probably needed for a house of this vintage), but it’s now in the final stretch of being finished. I love everything about it—from the basic 40s-era design and the choice of colors to the walled front patio and the garage-turned-guesthouse in back—without even having seen the inside.
Ben and I would love to buy a place like this, or failing that at some point talk the current owners of our rental into selling us the place. I would love to do a makeover on it like the one above.
Mid-century realness—no doubt facing the wrecking ball at some point to make room for more overpriced paid-for-by-mommy-and-daddy student condos as ASU/UofA press ever northward from downtown.