HERE’S A DOOZY FOR YOU Describe the floor plan of Rex Thompson’s house in a way that won’t boggle the minds of the people attempting to understand what the heck you’re talking about And. please, get back to me as soon a! you can. I’ve been working on that one fora week, and I still don’t have a clue Here’s the way Thompson describe.* the house-which, from the street looks like a rippling, walled bunker topped by an eight-foot-high leafy dome: "It’s the arc of a circle."
Still with me?
I could draw you a diagram-and that might help. But unless you have a fairly good grasp of geometry, it wouldn’t help much. In fact, it might just confuse you further. And if I were to tell you that the structure, known as the ’"Round House," isn’t round at all but is. instead, long and circuitous. I would probably lose you altogether.
The simplest explanation is that the main entryway forms an arc (i.e. the curve of a circle) with various spaces shooting off from that. But even if you were standing in the center of the space-oops, the center is actually a fountain located in the middle of the atrium outside, so never mind-and you were able to survey every inch in every direction, you still wouldn’t have an accurate image. Because what you would see is only a fraction of what’s there. Which is exactly what the architect, Bruce Goff, intended. This is a house designed to be experienced-one glorious space at a time.
Those familiar with the iconoclastic Goff (who taught at the University of Oklahoma from 1946 to 1955 and lived in Tyler from 1970 until his death in 1982) are nodding their heads right about now. This description-defying house is standard protocol when it comes to Goff’s work. The gifted prodigy, who began designing buildings as an apprentice at age 14. spent his life rewriting the rules. He’s been called one of America’s most important and most misunderstood architects. For him to say that he approached each creation as a new beginning was not mere hyperbole. Even a cursory glance at his portfolio of" exquisite, unconventional designs (a futuristic Las Vegas hotel, a spiral-shaped house, a mammoth wooden tepee) proves that.
When Thompson calls his house "a cross between the Flintstones and the Jetsons," his intent is simply to raise a few eyebrows. But, in fact, his clever sound bite is dead on target. Goff ’s architectural goal was what he called a "continuous present" in which no design referred specifically to the past, present, or future, but rather melded the three into a vision-actually, a series of visions- all his own.
A peer and one-time protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, Goff was profoundly influential during his teaching days at OU (renowned architect Eric Mendelsohn once said Goff had created the greatest school of architecture in the world), but was dismissed by some critics as beside the point. The proof: Many of his odd dwellings, they believed, couldn’t be built.
Like the Round House, Goff’s designs often consist of recognizable geometric components organized around a central volume, with angled links that obscure that symmetry. Another signature element is the blending of exterior and interior spaces, along with the frequent use of natural resources-everything from stone and wood to water and air (there are eight ponds scattered throughout the house, at least one sky light per room, and no doorknobs). Goff’s goal was to provide physical comfort and spiritual sustenance. In keeping with that, the client’s needs and desires were paramount.
The Round House was designed in 1954 for one of Goff’s students, Eddie Parker. The two met during the early ’40s, then lost touch after the war. But as fate would have it. Parker’s father, Floyd, owned an import business, which represented the well-known Frankoma Pottery company. Frankoma founder John Frank, who lived in Sulpulpa, Okla., commissioned Goff to design a house. Eddie followed the construction of the house and was so taken by the design that he asked Goff to create something similar for him.
It took five years to complete (construction began in 1956). but the result was breathtaking. An intensely private space (standing in one room, you might never know there *s another room just beyond that wall, which is in fact a door), it combined the luxurious with the profoundly tactile, epitomizing the phrase "handmade." Hand-cut walnut panels compose the living room walls and ceiling, which were constructed without the benefit of error-hiding moldings, as were all the walls. A thin ribbon of ceramic tiles dipped in 24-karat gold meanders through the house- racing across the top edge of the curved entry wall, slicing vertically down the side of a bedroom. Goff designed an unheard-of glass-and-tile combination for the main entry wall, which Frankoma produced. The master bedroom shower is a curtain-less, glass-and-tile-framed, recessed square of terrazzo carved out of one corner of the room.
The stonemason spent three years completing his work; the cabinetmaker, five. The almost-unfathomable number of noteworthy details includes a sweeping double-lined copper fireplace with 2-foot airspace, Italian glass mosaic murals, solid brass hardware, hand-carved wood panels from China, bamboo and rattan mat walls from China and the Philippines, hand-carved mahogany from Hawaii, and Japanese porcelain tile-influences drawn from Eddie’s import business.
The Parkers owned the house for 30 years, making a few modifications along the way. Eddie added a guest wing of his own design to the initial plan; the dome was added in 1964, at Goff’s suggestion- to add even more privacy. A pool and courtyard were enclosed in 1974.
By the time Rex Thompson and his then-wife, Yvette, entered the picture in 1994, the Round House had been dormant for a number of years. Parts of the mosaics lay in crumbled piles on the floor, the pool system needed to be replaced, the water system was a mess, the fountains were filled with dirt, most of the light switches didn’t function-and those were the obvious obstacles- Not that any of this deterred Thompson, who bought the house without even walking through the whole thing. And he’d never even heard of Bruce Goff.
If the only thing you know about Thompson is that he’s the Collins Professor and department chair of Finance for the Edwin L. Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and a distinguished scholar in financial markets and accounting, the fact that he forked over more than a half-million dollars for a house he hadn’t even seen in its entirety (much less inspected) might sound a bit odd. But to those who know Thompson well, it makes perfect sense. In fact, it’s hard to imagine someone better suited to the place.
Thompson’s goal was to return the Round House to its original splendor. Imposing his own lifestyle or design ideas into the equation wasn’t part of his pian; understanding the architect’s genius- from the ground up-was.
"The house had caught my eye years ago, and I had wondered. ’What’s the story with that place? What is this atrium about?"’ Thompson says. "It was winter, and there was no foliage, and the dome looked like a bunch of rusty poles with sticks on it. Even then you knew somebody was trying to say something. There was a reaching-out there. It raised your curiosity about what else might be lying beneath the surface.
"I didn’t know anything about Bruce Goff, but I knew enough about integrated wholes. I’m an academic, and one of the things I’ve tried to do in my career is research what I think is an integrated whole and an expression of a certain set of ideas. I have a very refined sense of what good research has to contain-and I don’t work on things I can’t bring a certain total expression to."
The Round House fit Thompson’s qualifications. Like Goff, the 47-year-old Thompson is an individualist who is essentially rootless. Although he’s been at SMU for nine years, it’s his fifth university position; his previous professorship was at the prestigious Wharton School. But the world of finance is hardly his only home turf. He loves to roam, and he loves to learn about what makes things work. He rebuilt his first car in high school; since then, he’s become a vintage Jaguar enthusiast. He once carved a rocking chair from a single piece of wood because he wanted to know if he could. At one point in his life, he lived in an Airstream trailer for six months. At another point, he bought a tugboat, which he planned to convert into a floating home. He spent two years building a cabin he designed near Vancouver, which he sold within hours of finishing. These days he contemplates converting a 1947 Flxible bus into a traveling home.
In other words, Rex is anything but an average Joe-just as the Round House is anything but an average home.
"I knew after I was in the house 25 feet that this was something very unique," Thompson says. "It had been thought through completely. I looked at it and said, ’I don’t know what’s around that wall, but I’ll tell you what, it fits with the rest of this place. And that’s pretty damn interesting.’ This place was built by people, not by machines. There’s a certain crudeness to it that appeals to me."
What the Round House offered Thompson was a mother lode of problem-solving opportunities just begging to be tackled by a self-proclaimed "professional learner"-from the rewiring of the electrical system to the upgrading of the (now commercial-size) air conditioning system to the repair of the dome, which was damaged during a storm. All of which is fine by Thompson.
"I always buy things that need help," he says. "I buy projects because it’s the doing that’s the draw. That cabin I built, I spent every weekend for two years on it, and it came out really beautiful. But at the end, I sat there with my buddy and we looked at each other and said, ’Well, now what?’
"It was the doing-the getting there, the process-that was appealing to me. I feel that way about this house: It’s the restoration of it. If I ever got this thing completely done, I’d probably sell it. Because I’d know it then; it would be over."
Of course, living here isn’t hassle-free. There are the rooms whose light sources still are a mystery, the rattan furniture that doesn’t quite make sense in the ’90s (much of the original furniture remains in the house), the bathrooms that aren’t all that accommodating. Then there’s the constant pressure not to break any of those one-of-a-kind tiles or scratch any of those wood panels, which can’t be reproduced (a legitimate concern since Thompson’s 2 1/2-year-old son, Dylan, spends several nights a week here). It’s enough to have a guy constantly walking on eggshells.
But no,Thompson says, living in a house of this caliber isn’t like walking on eggshells at all: "It’s like walking on glass. Eggshells-you’ll just crush ’em flat. They’ll adapt to you. But this house does not adapt to you. You adapt to it, or you’re not going to be happy here."
For now, he’s content. After all, there’s still plenty of work to be done. And this is a swell place for throwing a party, which Thompson does fairly regularly. SMU faculty and students-who are invited wholesale to decorate his Christmas tree even year-are frequent guests. And Thompson ’is friends don’t hesitate to volunteer the place for their own parties. Not thai Thompson’s interest is strictly social. Walking visitors through the house provides him the ideal opportunity to reveal a bit of himself without ever saying a word.
As Thompson puts it, "This house makes a statement. It’s not a statement of wealth: it’s a statement of idiosyncrasy. A person wouldn’t feel comfortable in this house if there wasn’t something peculiar about them.
"Of course, owning something like this doesn’t make you that kind of person," he adds with a smile, "but it gets you closer. I’m pleased that I like this house. It also gives me a chance to say to those who would ask, ’Why do you live here?’ Well, this is a piece of art and what I do with my research is art. Then I have an invitation to tell you that what I do is an attempt to achieve this within my little domain."
Not that everyone instantly falls in love with the place.
"It’s the kind of house people feel comfortable in if they’ve thought through themselves," Thompson says. "To me, it’s like the inside of somebody’s brain: Somebody closed their eyes and drew what they saw. That’s something you can apply to yourself, as well-to say, ’Who am I? I’m at peace with myself.’ If not, fix it.
"People who are comfortable with themselves tend to have the best time because they can just run through and say, ’Wow, this is amazing!’ as opposed to ’You’ve got a lot of cracks in your windows up there.’"
As for what he personally gets from the house, Thompson says, "I find it more an inspiration to stay the course. You’re living in a piece of art that gives you a sense of what creativity can accomplish. So when I go out the door, I have this inclination not to compromise, not to go to the median, but to play it my way, to be myself-whatever that may involve- because the person who designed this house had that as his engine. He did it his way. The designer, the various players who were important here, they let the horses run."