Saturday, May 24, 2014

Unexpected Modern

The Billings-Cole House (1947)

    Sometimes we find beautiful examples of Modern architecture in the most surprising of places. The small brick town of Malvern, AR in home to a rather remarkable house. On Hwy 67 on the eastern edge of Malvern, less than a mile from one of the largest ACME Brick plants in the country, sits the Billings-Cole House. This is a road that is not commonly traveled by most people, even natives of Arkansas. So imagine my surprise when I happened to take a back way to a friends house in Hot Springs, AR, and I stumbled upon this Modern gem. After a bit of time and a lot of research, I finally was able to find some of the history of this remarkable house.
    The Billings-Cole House was built in 1947 by Dr. A.A. Billings. He commissioned the services of Hot Springs architect Irven D. McDaniel (1894-1960) to design him and his family a home. He had seen a few houses while on trip to Mexico that struck his fancy. He decided to take Mr. McDaniel down to Mexico to show him what he was wanting in his new home. It turns out that the buildings that Mr. Billings was inspired by were early Modernist structures, and that is exactly what he was wanting in his new residence. The only problem was that, until this point, McDaniel did not really have any experience in Modern architectural forms. However, he did have experience with Art Deco architectural design, as we seen in McDaniel's design for the Royal Theatre in Arkadelphia (1932).
Royal Theatre Arkadelphia, AR (1932)

   One of the interesting things about this early Modern house is that it lacks the general composition of typical international style buildings, in that it does not have an asymmetrical arrangement. In fact, the Billings-Cole House has almost perfect symmetry, rather like most Art Deco buildings. There are other elements about the house that lean more towards Art Deco than International Style. The verticality of the central massing looks more at home with the Art Deco WPA courthouses that we find around the state than with simple, streamlined, horizontal Modern buildings such as Stone's Fine Arts Center at U of A or Johnson's design for the National Old Line Insurance Building in Little Rock, AR.
 This should somewhat be expected though, being a early Modern building in Arkansas. Many early Modern buildings in Arkansas have significant influence from the Art Deco period, most notably the Matthews House (1928) on Goshen Ave. in North Little Rock. However, McDaniel added design elements to offset the Art Deco accents. One counterbalancing element is the effect created by the white stucco. To balance the Art Deco veriticality, McDaniel used stucco to create horizontal influences. These white elements also create a bit of asymmetry in the facade. Thus the International Style white stucco balances the Art Deco buff brick on the facade. Another place we see this point-counterpoint is the glass block and black steel windows. Glass block was very common in the late Art Deco style of Art Moderne, and here it is used in the above mentioned Art Deco-esque vertical element.
However, this is contrasted by the very Modern steel windows, windows which turn the corners of the building. This feature is quite common in Bauhaus and Modern architecture of the early years of the movement. However, a small difference here is that, unlike the glass curtain walls of the German Modern architecture, these windows are actually structural in nature. They serve to support and stabilize the heavy corners of the house, but the steel frames create a light and airy appearance to the corners. Thus the same material, glass, is used here in architectural contrast.
     In the Billings-Cole House, we see an interesting and innovative example of Modern architecture in the state of Arkansas. Similar to the Matthews House in Park Hill, North Little Rock, the Billings-Cole House strikes a remarkble balance of Art Deco and Modern architectural elements, and also like the Matthews House, the Billings-Cole House is a striking example of early Modernism in the state, and a truly unexpected architectural surprise.