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Bev Thorne: Brubeck Home Designer

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Beverley D. Thorne is among the last surviving architects from the Case Study Houses project. Between 1945 and 1966, Arts & Architecture magazine hired cutting-edge architects of the day to design inexpensive, efficient homes. These experimental residences were numbered, and steel and glass were used predominantly in the spare designs. The point was to show that amazing structures could be built for ordinary people using low-cost pre-fabricated materials. Bev designed Harrison House, Case Study No. 26, in San Francisco in 1963.

What does all of this have to do with jazz? Ten years earlier, Bev designed Dave and Iola Brubeck's celebrated modern “house in the sky" in Oakland, CA, where the Brubeck's [pictured] resided until they moved to the East Coast in 1960. The home was photographed for magazines and was the backdrop for TV interviews with Dave. Bev today lives in Hawaii with his lovely fiancee Jane. After reading my interview with Dave last week, Bev agreed to talk about the Brubeck's Oakland home and the thinking that went into the contemporary design:

“When Iola Brubeck and I first met in Oakland in 1949, I was attending architecture school at the University of California at Berkeley. A mutual friend and jazz aficionado introduced us. Oli told me she was interested in having a modern residence built on a lot that she and her husband Dave had purchased. I had no idea at the time that Oli's husband was Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist.

“Oli and I first met to talk about the house at their rugged 50 by 100-foot site. Oli told me that she and Dave had purchased the property with a War Bond given to Dave by his father when he returned from World War II. The lot was high in the Oakland Hills and had a spectacular view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“When I asked Oli for her most important design criteria, she said there was just one: “I plan on having a large family so I want a single level house. No stairs." When I looked at the site that day based on Oli's criterion, the design that came immediately to mind was obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I believe any designer standing there would have arrived at a similar solution.

“The hillside site was plenty rugged. There was a large outcropping of bedrock that climbed about 25 feet up from Heartwood Drive. To the naked eye, the outcropping looked like a small bluff. My vision was to perch their house on top of that bluff, so Oli and Dave would have the panoramic view.

“But there was no road to the top of the outcropping due to the land's physical contour and width. So stairs would be needed from the road up to the residence, but those would be the only stairs used on-site. Keep in mind, there was no road access to the rear of the house high on the bluff. That would come years later, when Dave and Oli, flush from success, began buying all of the empty lots on the hill. That's when they built a new access road to the back of the house.

“But we're getting ahead the story. In the weeks following my initial meeting with Oli in 1949, I sketched my vision for their home. My original design called for the kitchen and living room to be cantilevered, extending 8 feet and supported by three columns of thin pipe. For those who don't know, a cantilever is a structure that is anchored only on one end. Imagine a T-square, with your foot placed on the top section to hold the long part steady as it extends freely into space.

“Fortunately, the Brubeck's could not afford to build immediately. I say “fortunately" because soon after our meeting, I left the country to spend the next few years traveling through Europe and the Middle East. It was a journey that dramatically changed my view of architecture and design. I was particularly taken with Egypt, where the massing of structures is breathtaking, especially the pyramids.

“When I returned to the U.S. in 1953, Oli and Dave had the financing necessary to build their dream home. Oli told me, however, that she needed two more bedrooms. Her family was indeed growing. By then, my trip abroad had made me realize that the pipe columns I had originally envisioned could be eliminated in an altered design. When I reworked the plans, I extended the original cantilever to 16 feet and replaced the pipe supports with a 16-inch thick concrete wall. I also added a bedroom wing and used an 8-inch thick masonry wall for its support. [Pictured: Bev's rough sketch of the property drawn two days ago; click to enlarge]

“The bedrooms I designed were like monastic cells. They had to meet my established 8-feet by 8-feet modules. The reason for these strict dimensions had nothing to do with some spiritual leaning on my part or an architectural play on Dave's terrific music. The dimensions simply matched the inexpensive, standard-sized building materials of that era. It was a cost decision.

“The master bedroom was cantilevered just short of a nice pine tree that I insisted we keep. To anchor the steel girders supporting the cantilever, I attached one to the outcropping of rock at the top of the site. The other girder was supported by a deep, standard foundation pad at the upper level.

“Soon after the house was completed in 1954 and the Brubecks had moved in, they had enough money to add a carport down at the lower level on Heartwood Drive. However, that pine tree I had originally insisted we save now restricted the dimensions required to house two cars.

“The problem was we needed an additional two feet. The local zoning ordinance prevented us from building the garage wall closer than five feet to the property line. That's when it dawned on me: If we cantilevered the entire carport roof structure, anchoring it to the bedrock rather than the ground, we would eliminate the wall, be able to extend the roof, and still be within the local setback requirements for a roof edge.

“This may sound easy, but the pine tree we saved was in the way again. It was impossible to extend the anchored part of the carport's steel girder back far enough to counterbalance its overhanging weight.

“I'm sure Dave has never forgiven me for this, but I decided to build a concrete pad above where the carport's girder was to be anchored. Doing this would allow me to place a heavy boulder on top of the pad to form a counter balancing mass for the steel girder supporting the carport roof.

“All went well until the boulder arrived. I had plans to lift it into position using a hoist suspended from one of the girders supporting the bedroom wing of the house. But when Dave came by to see the planned procedure, he was fearful that the boulder's weight would bend the girder. He nixed the operation with a thunderous, 'Thorne, stop! I will get a crane up here to set that boulder.'

“So we used a crane, and all went well. The bonus for Oli is that we covered the carport roof surface with a canvas veneer. The canvas surface gave the children a soft level play area that Oli could observe from the kitchen deck above. The roof deck had low, protective Plexiglass walls, making it completely safe for the kids.

“For some strange reason, Ed Sullivan did one of his shows from the house. I am certain of this because Patricia, my fashion-model, artist wife at the time, was there to watch the proceedings. Patricia and I had spent our honeymoon in the Brubeck's house. We were there for three months. This period of our lives was right out of a Hollywood script: 'Architect lives in first house with new redheaded bride.' Fantastic times for both of us, as you can imagine.

“Dave liked to write his compositions using glass as a tabletop. Since we had the site rock outcrop exposed inside the house where he played and composed, I decided to get a piece of tempered glass to use as a table for him. As I recall, Dave, Oli and I cut a slot into the rock, wrapped the glass edge with a soft cloth and set it into the rock. This table became the birthplace of a lot of beautiful jazz!

“The rock was very important. As I understand it, Dave and Oli used to go up to the rock just after they bought the lot in the 1940s to see the San Francisco view, dream about building on it one day and, I would guess, smooch a bit.

“One day in 1960, my wife and I were invited over to the Brubeck's home just before they moved East. We were there to hear a preliminary rendition of The Real Ambassadors, which Dave and Oli had written. Louis Armstrong was going to be the lead male singer. Dave was singing his part, off-key, and the woman there that day singing the female part was Carmen McRae, who was appearing nearby at San Francisco's Blackhawk.

“I will never forget Carmen or the terrible scar she had across her lower neck [the result of a childhood accident with boiling oil]. It looked like someone had had a knife fight with her. Carmen was a delight and a humble lady. When Dave and Oli rented a farmhouse in Connecticut during the period when I was designing their East Coast home, Dave had a basement studio there with a piano. I often worked in that studio. When Carmen came to visit Dave, she loved looking over my shoulder at my sketches. [Pictured: A Sears Kenmore washer ad featuring the Brubeck's at home in Connecticut; click to enlarge]

“But back to California. The Heartwood House or 'Brubeck West,' as the Oakland home came to be known, received much attention over the years since its completion in 1954. The person who deserves credit for bringing my design to life was builder Art Houvanitz. He was the low bidder on the project, and we were very fortunate that he agreed to build the house on such a ridiculously contoured site, especially given the Brubeck's minimal budget. [Pictured: Heartwood House today, courtesy of Google Satellite]

“I've often wondered why this house has received so much attention and acclaim. To me, it was simply a straightforward, economical solution to an impossible site. The solution to me always seemed obvious, but to others the house took on a magical quality. In all honesty and fairness, credit for Heartwood House must go to Oli Brubeck and her 'step-less' requirement back in 1949. Three cheers and double kudos for her!"

--Beverley D. Thorne (February 2010)

A special JazzWax thanks to architect Paul Wood.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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