Lovely Bones

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words by Juliet Johnson // photo by Agnes Lopez

In 2009, when the housing market was at rock bottom, Richard Wolfe and his wife Rebeccah Beller had been house-hunting for months. Independently, they found a  single photo of a flat-roofed cube that intrigued them. Presuming it to be a foreclosure, the couple figured a visit couldn’t hurt.

“It felt sad and droopy,” says Rebeccah,  “but it had spectacular views, and an imaginative flow.” That whole “sad and droopy” bit wasn’t too far off—the home’s cantilevered beams were sagging. The cube-shaped residence was divided into four towers, connected by a low rise staircase scissoring each floor. Overwhelmed at the work required to fix up such a place,  Rebeccah forgot all about it. Richard, however, was captivated, and confided his curiosity to a friend.

When he and his friend went to explore the place together, the friend recognized the structure as a William Morgan build. (Morgan, an award-winning architect, was a pioneer of sustainable design and has three designs included on the American Institute of Architects’ list of Florida’s Top 100 Buildings.) In fact, the “sad and droopy” cube was actually the 1967 Hatcher House: Morgan’s interpretation of renowned architect Le Corbusier’s Villa Shodhan in India.

Richard was eager to rescue the iconic modern home; Rebeccah, delighted to see him so enchanted, agreed they would rescue and revive a landmark home, creating a completely modern classic. Despite being asked by their Realtor if their marriage could “survive a house like this,” they forged ahead, surviving bidding wars, financing fumbles and snarls with insuring the “neighborhood eyesore.”

Did we mention the house was uninhabitable?

Undaunted, Richard and Becky met with the original owners to understand the home of 1967. They even met with William Morgan, who weighed in on the renovation. Morgan explained he had deliberately used native Northeast Florida material—coquina stone, cypress and yellow pine. Further, he had designed the home to optimize the same aspects as Villa Shodhan: sun, wind and views. Using a spiral design, 3,600 square feet of interior space is designed proportionally, as a reference to Fibonacci’s numbering sequence of recurrence relation (sort of like the nautilus shell in nature and the Golden Rectangle in architecture).

The couple decided to restore the home’s original floor plan, removing the mirrored tile ceilings and wet bars on every floor that the last “rescuers” had installed. Mercifully, the enormous cage left over from a former resident’s pet squirrel was already dismantled.

Morgan agreed that the lapped cypress siding wasn’t his best idea and, though leery, he could see the benefit of newer, more durable materials—in particular corrugated metal siding. Metal would be lighter (weight is a significant issue with the house’s cantilevered structure), cheaper, more weather- and water-resilient, and would present the same textural element of lapped siding. Plus, it came in red!

That the family then moved into a 300-square-foot camper on the property to supervise construction is simply the house’s tradition. The last rescuers, of mirrored-tile repute lived on their sailboat, which sat parked on the back lawn, during their reno. But long-term camping for a family of four is not easy. There were many “opportunities to excel,” as Rebeccah says, including one morning of going to work in mis-matched shoes. Rebeccah would make her way from camper to car across the grass. She had no sense of the differing heel height until she reached the office one day, when she noticed her shoes were also different colors.

The family made it through the long, hot summer interspersed with house-sitting gigs as, slowly, the renovation began. Halloween passed, then Thanksgiving, when the turkey got stuck in the small camper oven. Construction lurched on. A timely trip to visit family in Australia saved Christmas, but their return to the First Coast was met with the legendary floods of January 2011. As soon as it was possible, the family moved into the top floor of the house as building continued.  Of course, without a kitchen, they had still to eat outside for a while.

Becky’s determined credo—Winston Churchill’s “I am an optimist, it does not seem too much use being anything else”—was tested time and again. Little things, like the first day of air conditioning or the first indoor, hot shower, took on magical pleasure as the house slowly emerged. Richard’s family eventually came to stay for three weeks to help paint the home, drawing this close-knit family even closer.

Eventually, the home was 90% complete. Twice, it has been featured on the Arlington Mod & More House Tour—the first time, to answer neighborhood curiosity and share their progress; the second, this last November, to celebrate a gloriously archetypal mid-century modern home now almost completely improved and revitalized. Today the house stands gracefully—a landmark in mint condition, peacefully impervious to its torturous journey.

The 18-month renovation, replete with missed deadlines, misunderstandings and even some litigation, is a mere chapter of its life. Receccah loves that, “thanks to the open plan, everyone knows where each other is. We don’t have to be in the same room to feel together.”

No matter how you enter, whether through the garage or the front door (which is the home’s only solid exterior door), the first space you see is a two-story library. The concrete floor—typical of the era—is softened by a round rug with a Jetsons’ sofa and chair. Here, you’ll find triangular side tables and a formerly anachronistic brass chandelier, now painted white in a whimsical mod touch.

It’s up a couple of stairs to the front door and then up a few more to the main, newly bambooed floor of the kitchen and dining room. One of the home’s two fireplaces separates the two spaces. The double-heighted dining room is lit by three dramatic Foscarini light fixtures dangling like clouds—bright white against a red accent wall, the exact hue of the red corrugated metal cladding outside.

Simple white cabinets and smooth white countertops set up the big picture windows facing Little Pottsburg Creek (one of many creeks off the St. Johns River). Here, one can watch nutria, ospreys and even the occasional manatee as one washes dishes or prepares a meal. An enviable walk-in pantry the full length of the kitchen, which sits behind the appliance wall, enables the kitchen to be kept appropriately spare.

Behind the pantry is the playroom, with a modest TV (a lot of Wii is played here), a growing trophy collection and the children’s desks. A red ottoman inspires creativity but can easily be moved to one side to make way for puzzles on the floor.

Up a few steps to the third floor, visitors will find another double-height ceiling, this time the 20-by-20 foot living room. The windows are massive 20-by-12 foot panels of low-emission glass. A sunken seating area around the home’s second fireplace is left faithfully roughhewn, as Le Corbusier preferred “material crudely unfinished, inside and out, the marks of wooden formwork plainly visible.”

The master suite sits behind closed doors, next to a linen closet that once housed stereo speakers—it was the late ­’60s after all. Large walk-in closets open to the Euro-style bathroom, which features floating cabinets made from wood left over from construction. The look is modern, clean and simple—Rebeccah and Richard’s preference (naturally, Richard works for the similarly minimalist tech company Apple).

The fourth floor houses the children’s bedrooms, a bathroom and a lovely, expansive terrace. The couple’s son Ethan wakes up to views of the river, while daughter Kate to leaves, branches and sky, as if in a tree house.

The number “four” is a recurring theme in the house. It’s a cube (four sides) with four floors and four towers, and the address even consists of factors and multiples of four. It was built 48 years ago, and the Beller-Wolfe family of four have been living in it for four years now.

Said Le Corbusier, “Space and light and order. Those are things that men need just as much as they need bread and sleep.” It seems that the blood, sweat and tears on which the house was renovated gave way to Le Corbusier’s mantra and the Hatcher House stands proudly once more. Survival badges
to all.
 
The Arlington Mod & More 2014 House Tour is an annual event celebrating the neighborhood’s delightfully varied array of mid-century modern architecture. This year’s tour even included a former silent movie studio and a nuclear fall-out shelter. The Hatcher House sits on Empire Point, which might not normally be considered Arlington but is technically a part of Old Arlington, as defined by the neighborhood’s rich history along the St. Johns River. Plans are currently underway for the 2015 tour, to be held in November.