Essays - Winter 2006

Palladio in the Rough


A South Carolinian builds classical revival houses that really look old

By Witold Rybczynski

December 1, 2005


The suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, resemble those of any other modern metropolitan area: strip malls line highways, and drive-through restaurants mask a leafy interior of residential subdivisions with such names as Sweetgrass, North Creek, and White Gables. Most of the romantic-sounding names are developers’ inventions, but one—Otranto—is an exception. The name belongs to an antebellum indigo plantation that was subdivided in the 1960s. The original plantation house, which dates from the middle of the 18th century, still stands—a low, rambling structure surrounded by deep verandas that recall Margaret Mitchell’s description of Tara.

The recently built houses of Otranto are pleasant, if unremarkable—brick ranchers with two-car garages and basketball hoops in the driveways, clapboard split-levels, commodious bungalows with low-country-style porches. One of them, the house at the head of Leone Crescent, is different. Its façade is distinguished by a large classical portico of the sort that most people associate with small-town banks. Bulky square columns support the portico, and the plain, ocher-colored walls are rudely plastered and have tall windows with green shutters. The house is on one floor but is surprisingly massive, its ponderous simplicity suggesting great age, an impression reinforced by the lack of contemporary details and the roughness of its finish. Like the old plantation house, it seems to have stood there forever.

In fact, it is the newest building on the block. Alan and Julia Johnson moved into the house three summers ago. He is a high school science teacher; she’s a hospice nurse. They have two teenage boys, Julian and Eric. An SUV and a Saturn sedan rest in the driveway; a riding mower stands in the garage. In most ways this is not an unusual family, and the family doesn’t inhabit the house in an unusual way. The living room, which homebuilders would call a great room, is divided into several areas: couches in front of the fireplace, Julia’s upright piano at one end, and a television-watching area at the other. The furniture is comfortable but not particularly fashionable. There are lots of bookshelves. A compact kitchen overlooks the dining area, which is visible from the living room. The arrangement of kids’ and parents’ bedrooms and bathrooms and a compact study is also not unconventional.

But theirs is not an ordinary house. You enter the living room through large arches supported by 10-foot-tall classical columns with imposts, or capstones, in the shape of rough boulders. Arches crisscross the foyer. An open-air courtyard in the middle of the house provides light as well as a private outdoor space; its half-columns and arched openings make it resemble a Roman atrium. Then there is the scale. The living room has a 16-foot ceiling, the front doors are 10 feet tall, and the bedroom windows, which appear small from the outside, are equally tall. The exterior columns measure 30 inches on each side, as big as telephone booths.

How did the Johnsons come to build this new/old house? “We’d lived in our previous house for 15 years, and it no longer worked for us,” says Julia, “so we wanted to move.” They decided against buying an old house, since old houses in the South often have mildew and other environmental problems that might trigger their allergies and asthma. Books of house plans didn’t turn up anything suitable.

Julia’s brother, George Holt, is a builder, so from time to time they would show him plans, and he would comment on them. One day he appeared with some sketches of his own. “I really didn’t want to take it on,” he says. For the last 20 years, he had been renovating and building houses in downtown Charleston, and suburbia wasn’t his territory. But Julia was his younger sister, and George wanted to help. She was delighted. “Every house that George builds is different, so that we knew that it would be something special. I trusted his judgment.”

Holt started by asking what she and Eric didn’t like in their old house. The list was long. They didn’t like living on two floors—Julia has a problem with her knees—and they didn’t like the way the house was cut up into small rooms. With her medical background, Julia was concerned about the lack of handicapped access. She’d always wanted a walk-in pantry and a real laundry room; Alan lacked a study; and they needed space for his elderly parents. “They wanted a lot,” Holt says, “but they didn’t have enough money, so the plan kept growing and shrinking. It took me a year to finish the design.”

Holt is a small, wiry man in his mid-40s. Though he has lived in Charleston most of his life, he has no trace of a southern accent. He was born in Madrid, his mother Spanish, his father a sailor in the U.S. Navy. For the next 15 years he lived on a series of naval bases in the United States, Europe, Turkey, and Latin America. In 1974, his father, a master chief petty officer who had served in World War II and Korea, was transferred to Charleston. Three years later he retired from the Navy and settled down—in Otranto—to sell real estate. George Holt found living in an American suburb an odd experience. He eventually attended the College of Charleston, and although he didn’t much like studying, he did enjoy living downtown. He rented a coach house from a local architect, who, he says, “used to show me drawings, models, books.” It was Holt’s first exposure to architecture, but despite finding it interesting, he never thought of studying it formally. “I liked history and old buildings. What would I have learned in architecture school?”

After dropping out of college and working for a year on the front desk of the Drake Hotel in Chicago, Holt returned to Charleston. “It was my starving-artist period,” he says. “I wanted to be a painter.” He spent two years as a bohemian and then gave in to his parents’ entreaties to join them in their real-estate business. He got his realtor’s license, but he disliked everything about it—the houses, the suburbs, the job. In one year he sold only three houses. “What do you really want to do?” his patient father asked. Holt, now 25, said he wanted to buy an old house in downtown Charleston, fix it up, and sell it.

It was hardly an original idea. In 1931, Charleston was the first American city to adopt a historic district zoning ordinance, and downtown has been a thriving place ever since. But Holt had his eye on a run-down neighborhood outside the traditional historic area. With a friend, Cheryl Roberts, as business manager, and with his father and an Air Force pilot friend as investors, Holt bought two derelict houses for $35,000. He and Roberts did much of the work themselves. They lived in the houses for a time, then sold them at a profit. In the time-honored tradition of small developer-builders, they bought more houses, renovated them, and sold those too.

Holt acted as designer and contractor. He had built his first all-new house when the carriage house that he was in the process of renovating was destroyed in September 1989 by Hurricane Hugo. In 1991, with his younger brother, Bob, as an investor, Holt bought a large inner-block parcel of land not far from the College of Charleston. He and Roberts restored one of the houses and built two new ones. It was a rough neighborhood, with crack houses and shootings, so they hired off-duty policemen to park their squad cars out front to discourage the drug dealers. Over the next five years, they bought more land on the same block, assembling three-quarters of an acre in all. They built two private lanes, Tully Alley and Charles Street, and created a charming mews-like arrangement of 20 houses and apartments. Meanwhile, the neighborhood improved, as they had hoped, and real-estate values rose. A house that he built in 1995 and sold for $220,000 was re-sold two years ago for more than twice as much. Holt recently finished a small three-bedroom house on Tully Alley that he put on the market for $595,000.

Holt’s company, Historic Renovations of Charleston, builds only a couple of houses a year. He has no intention of expanding, and appears uninterested in making a lot of money. A modest man, he dresses unassumingly and drives a beat-up Chevy Tracer that he shares with Roberts. “I don’t need a lot of stuff,” he says. He employs eight laborers, whom he has trained himself, and says construction is not an easy business. “It’s not like This Old House. That’s fantasyland. Nothing real ever happens on the show, like a subcontractor not showing up, or a carpenter getting arrested for cocaine. Everything always runs smoothly,” he says. “And all those fancy tools! Norm’s home workshop is better equipped than my cabinetmaker’s.”

Most of the buildings on Tully Alley are plain-vanilla Colonials, but mixed in among them are more exotic houses with colorful stucco walls and stepped gables that recall Amsterdam rather than Charleston. At the end of the alley is an industrial shed that looks like a down-at-the-heel body shop. This is Holt’s own house. He built it in the mid-1990s, when the neighborhood was still a dangerous place, and purposely made the exterior unassuming. Not the interior. When you enter you are brought up short, not just to avoid falling into the pool but also because of culture shock. The room is a mixture of an early Christian catacomb, a Byzantine church, and the set of a Douglas Fairbanks movie. Think The Thief of Bagdad. The swimming pool is flanked by arched colonnades supported by stained wooden columns, barely visible in the murky light that filters down from a narrow skylight. Holt explains that the room was much brighter when the entire roof was covered in fiberglass, but all that was destroyed in 1999 by Hurricane Floyd, and the current roof is a temporary replacement. “It’s supposed to be like an outdoor courtyard, with muslin draped across the rafters,” he says. A couple of Venetian lanterns dimly illuminate the cracked plaster walls and the cracked flagstones. Everything looks faded, shabby, timeworn.

“People come in here and they usually ask me what this place was originally,” he continues. “They assume it must be old. It’s not just the columns and the arches but also the roughness of the materials, which seem to be from another time.” Holt works hard to achieve this quality. He’s had to argue with plasterers, for example, who want to make everything perfectly smooth. “I love a sense of crudeness,” he says. He points out that some of the columns are intentionally slightly out of plumb. Large doors, which are not quite centered on the wall, lead to the main room of the house. This astonishing space is about 20 feet square and capped by a tall dome supported on pendentives, triangular vaults that transmit the weight of the dome to the arches below. Arches springing from elaborately carved imposts atop wooden columns carry smaller domes at the four corners. A chandelier in the form of a huge bowl made out of what looks like carved stone hangs from the ceiling. The fireplace, surrounded by carved lacy decorations, takes up most of one wall. Light enters the room from two sides through tall, triple-arched windows. In addition to a small drafting table, a couple of easy chairs, a sofa, and a chaise lounge complete the furnishings. The room is rather messy and unkempt, cluttered with books and drawings. It manages to be both theatrical and oddly religious and reminds me of the Venetian palazzo of the Art Nouveau designer Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949).

Holt can’t understand why all architects don’t design their own houses, saying he would never push his theories on someone else if he hadn’t tried them on himself. It took two years to finish his house. There are two small bedrooms, one of which opens onto a tiny courtyard—an air shaft, really—with a fishpond and a trickling fountain. There is a minuscule kitchen (he obviously doesn’t cook), two small offices, and a separate suite of rooms where Roberts lives.

Holt describes the style of his house as 10th-century Byzantine. He mentions this matter-of-factly, the way someone else might say Federal or French Provincial. Byzantine architecture has a rich heritage. The Byzantine Empire, the late-Roman Empire’s eastern portion, was founded in the fourth century and lasted more than a thousand years. Its buildings were characterized by a masterful use of dome construction, low-relief decoration, and colored-glass mosaics. Although there are some exceptional European examples, such as the church of San Vitale in Ravenna and the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, there has never been a Byzantine revival. Which is a shame, according to Holt, who describes Byzantine as a young person’s architecture. “People react differently to my house,” he says, “but the people who really, really like it are the college students.” I’m not sure how my own students at Penn would react. Ivy League schools of architecture are wedded to the avant-garde, but in a narrow-minded, conformist fashion, and Holt’s eccentric exploration of historical themes would probably strike them as bizarre.

“When I became interested in Byzantine architecture I couldn’t find any books in local bookstores,” he says. “This was before the Internet. So a friend borrowed them from the Clemson library and I spent hours at Kinko’s photocopying.” While designing his house, he thought he should study the real thing, so he went to Istanbul. He had not been in the city since he was five years old, and he loved its seedy, dirty, slightly run-down quality, its state of disrepair. He saw many Byzantine buildings, including the great church (now mosque) of Hagia Sophia, which he calls “my number one favorite building in the world, no question.” The visit encouraged him to continue with the Byzantine design of his house.

Travel appears to be one of Holt’s few indulgences, other than his house. He and Roberts try to spend a month in Europe every year. He looks at buildings and sometimes collects details that he can use in his work, “but mostly we just hang out,” as he puts it. They generally go to Mediterranean cities, although he also likes Ireland, for its “rough Celtic architecture.” They return over and over to Rome and Istanbul.

Despite his newfound enthusiasm, Holt didn’t design a Byzantine house for his sister. “It would have been too gimmicky in that neighborhood,” he says. “The corner lot is rather prominent, so a Palladian villa seemed like the thing to do.” The great Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, is another of Holt’s obsessions. Palladio’s country houses are distinguished by their nobility, their beautiful proportions, and their inventive use of classical elements. They are also marked by a canny practicality, for Palladio was trained as a stonemason and was first and foremost a builder—like Holt.

Many American architects, starting with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, have been influenced by Palladio, but American Palladianism was filtered through 18th-century British eyes. In the process it became a rather delicate architecture of brick and white-painted wood, characterized by carefully proportioned moldings and classical details. By contrast, Holt’s robust villa in Otranto is directly Italian in inspiration, but a little cruder, a little less refined. It recalls Isabella Stewart Gardner’s 1903 Fenway Court in Boston’s Back Bay, which has the same idiosyncratic mix of sources, the rough edges, and the mossy atmosphere of old Venice.

Holt’s design for his sister is not based on a specific Palladio villa, although the Renaissance master did design several suburban houses. Palladio’s villas usually had a raised basement containing the kitchen and service area, as well as an attic; the Otranto house has neither. Yet, the recessed central loggia and the temple front are unmistakably Palladian. “I was concerned that the temple front would look pretentious,” Holt tells me. “Square columns seem cozier to me than round columns.” Cozy is not the word I would use to describe these massive piers. They are modeled on the rusticated bases of the colonnade of Palladio’s Palazzo Pretorio in Cividale.

Holt’s approach to Palladio is refreshingly unacademic, and not dissimilar to Palladio’s own attitude to the past. Palladio studied ancient Rome, then put it through the wringer of his own, fertile imagination. He admired Roman temples, but since he was designing country houses, he grafted old forms onto new. Holt loves Palladio, but he loves Byzantine architecture, too, so he happily combined them. Hence the arches in the living room, which are supported by columns whose impost capitals are based on originals he saw in a Justinian cistern in Istanbul. The imposts are concrete, but they are made to look like roughly carved stone. “I wanted the rough capitals to tone down the interior and keep it from looking too polished,” he says. In fact, the house is much less rough than his own, though the tight budget has kept the details simple. This doesn’t bother Holt. “I love fabulous moldings,” he says, “but if a room is well proportioned it will look good without all that ornament.” Because he has manipulated the scale of the rooms, they appear larger than they are, but they feel good because they are smaller than they look.

Holt was able to roughen things up on the exterior, especially in the portico. The columns are made out of stacked-up pieces of precast concrete, each about a foot thick. Instead of using one standard mold, however, he made a dozen molds, each very slightly different in size. Before casting the concrete, the interiors of the molds were coated with a mixture of sand and vegetable shortening, which produced a rough-finished surface. The dye that colored the concrete was also varied from batch to batch. Finally, the finished columns were painted with three coats of linseed oil, “which tends to soak in unevenly, and livens up the color.” The variations in size and hue are barely perceptible, felt rather than seen. The subtle effect is similar to the slightly splotchy surface of the cement plaster on the walls.

Holt frequently incorporates flaws and blemishes in his work. “I really like the handmade quality of older buildings,” he says. But his penchant for flaws is not simply a desire to simulate the wear of age. He talks about visiting Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. This church dates from the sixth century, after the fall of Rome, when the early Christians were trying to reclaim the lost art of building. When he first saw the building, he was dismayed by what appeared to be a coarse and ill-formed imitation of ancient Roman architecture. But when he returned a second time, he realized that the lack of finesse and the crudeness were endearing. “You could see that the builders had put a lot of love into their work. It’s as if they were trying to do something and weren’t sure exactly how to do it.”

Roughness and imperfection distinguish Holt’s work, not only from modernist buildings, which celebrate precision and accuracy—the machine aesthetic—but also from the architecture of so-called modern classicists such as Allan Greenberg and Robert A. M. Stern, whose designs, while they use an architectural idiom derived from the past, exhibit a similar machinelike precision. “The problem with many modern houses is that they are too perfect, and perfection can be intimidating,” Holt says. Of course, most architecture is intended to intimidate, or at least to impress. What makes his houses unusual—and appealing—is the air of hesitation that he imparts to his designs. “For me, architecture is always an emotional experience,” he says. And the emotion one feels most strongly in his buildings is, oddly enough, a sense of human frailty, which makes these houses, despite their ancient roots, very modern, indeed.

Witold Rybczynski is emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, How Architecture Works: A Humanist's Toolkit.

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