This was a happy house.
Cil Rockwell, earlier today, signing my copy of Gary Gand’s Julius Shulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism.
Mrs. Rockwell was referring to the home we were standing in; the one her husband, Deever Rockwell, designed and built; the one they shared together with their four children ("a symmetrical family") before the children grew up and moved away and they sold it to the nice couple from LA who own it today.
We were there at the invitation of Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond for the release party of the above mentioned book, and we spent our afternoon collecting signatures of the owners of several other Chicago Mid-Century Modern homes, who were also there, whose homes were also photographed by Julius Shulman near the end of his life.
Photographed. Not shot.
Julius Shulman, we learned today, didn’t shoot photography. “No guns,” he would say. He made an image, painstakingly, using a 4x5 view camera, taking on average two hours per frame.
Gary Gand and his wife Joan were friends of Shulman, and we have them to thank for coaxing the master into capturing what may be the only photographic collection of Mid-Century Modern Residential Architecture in Chicago. The story of how they did that is in the book.
Mr. Rockwell was there today too, and kindly signed my book when I offered it to him as though at a yearbook signing party. He also answered my star struck question about what it was like to study under Mies at IIT. (As you may have guessed, it was “extraordinary”, but he made more time for the grad students than the undergrads.)
The home Rockwell built on the bluff alludes fondly to his professor’s Farnsworth House, but unlike the unrelenting steel frame of the house on the Fox River, this one is anchored to the earth through an extraordinary application of red flint. The small vibrant stones run through the concrete forms that anchor the corners of the glass box, and chisel out the terraces against the steep wooded bluff that leads into the ravine at the back of the house. The same red flint runs through the polished floors of the home, and transitions effortlessly to the aggregate walk and the loose pebbles of the courtyard.
About those loose stones: Mrs. Rockwell told us that one winter a gentleman was using a snow blower in the courtyard when he kicked up some pebbles and sent them shattering against one of the large glass panes. The entire wall rained down in cold, brittle shards. They patched it up with neoprene and duct tape while they organized a repair.
I asked the new owner if she had heard the story of the pebbles in the winter. She had. “The first thing we did was get rid of the snow blower,” she said. “We shovel our snow.”
Another cold winter story: the glass walls aren’t Thermopaned – “We didn’t even think of it,” said Mrs. Rockwell. “Oil was so cheap.” So in the winter time when the frost moved in they would move the mattress to the living room and sleep in front of the fire.
“That was nice,” she said, her smiling eyes deep pools of memory.
A happy house.