May 28, 2024

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Beverley Thorne: Both residences were testaments to the Brubecks’ love of modernism … Video

Beverley “David” Thorne, one of the last Case Study architects and the designer of Dave and Iola Brubeck’s modernist homes in California and Connecticut, died December 6 in Sonoma, Calif. He was 93. (Photo of Beverley Thorne, left, with Dave Brubeck and son, Darius, at the newly completed Brubeck house in Oakland in 1954).

Bev’s death was confirmed yesterday by architect Paul Wood, Bev’s colleague and long-time friend. Paul said from France that he learned the sad news from Jane, Bev’s companion. Bev was admitted to the hospital in Sonoma last week with pneumonia.

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I knew Bev through Paul, and I exchanged emails routinely with Bev (and Paul) since 2010, when I posted on Dave Brubeck’s contemporary homes in Oakland, Calif., and Wilton, Ct. Both residences were testaments to the Brubecks’ love of modernism and their early appreciation of residences with clean geometric lines that were fully integrated into their natural surroundings. In this regard, there was little philosophical distance between their homes, which were devoid of Americana or pre-war European influences, and Dave’s passion for modern classical and modern jazz. Bev’s home designs were breathtakingly radical at the time, considering most suburban builders then clung to the safety and conformity of picturesque farmhouses, Cape Cods and neo-Victorians.

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Bev was anything but a me-too designer. Throughout the 1950s, he was among a select group of architects re-inventing how we lived. His vision rejected the heaviness of stone and interior clutter and embraced sleekness and the use of plate glass, which allowed as much of the outside in as possible. By incorporating the spareness of Japanese tea-house design and a passion for right angles, his residences (and those of his colleagues) turned homes into works of modern art. These homes weren’t retreats but an entirely new way of living.

In the early 1960s, Bev was part of the celebrated Case Study Houses project. Between 1945 and 1966, Arts & Architecture magazine hired cutting-edge architects to design inexpensive, efficient homes in California and Arizona. These experimental residences were numbered, and steel and glass were used predominantly in the spare designs. The point was to show that modernist residences could be built for ordinary people using low-cost pre-fabricated materials. Bev designed Harrison House. Case Study No. 26, in San Francisco in 1963.

Ten years earlier, Bev had designed the Brubecks’ “house in the sky” in Oakland, where the Brubecks resided until they moved to the East Coast in 1960. The Oakland home, with its bold new futuristic design, was photographed for magazines and ads, and was the backdrop for TV interviews with Dave.

In February 2010, after Paul sent Bev my JazzWax interview with Dave, Bev reached out to talk about the Brubecks’ Oakland home and the thinking that went into the contemporary design. In December of 2010, I spoke again with Bev about Dave’s Wilton home, which I had just visited. In tribute to Bev, I’ve combined the two posts.

Here’s Part 1, on “Brubeck West”…

Bev Thorne: “When Iola Brubeck and I first met in Oakland in 1949, I was attending architecture school [with Paul Wood] at the University of California at Berkeley. A mutual friend and jazz aficionado introduced us. Oli told me she was interested in having a modern residence built on a lot that she and her husband Dave had purchased. I had no idea at the time that Oli’s husband was Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist.

“Oli and I first met to talk about the house at their rugged 50 by 100-foot site. Oli told me that she and Dave had purchased the property with a War Bond given to Dave by his father when he returned from World War II. The lot was high in the Oakland Hills and had a spectacular view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“When I asked Oli for her most important design criteria, she said there was just one: “I plan on having a large family so I want a single level house. No stairs.” When I looked at the site that day based on Oli’s criterion, the design that came immediately to mind was obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I believe any designer standing there would have arrived at a similar solution.

“The hillside site was plenty rugged. There was a large outcropping of bedrock that climbed about 25 feet up from Heartwood Drive. To the naked eye, the outcropping looked like a small bluff. My vision was to perch their house on top of that bluff, so Oli and Dave would have the panoramic view.

“But there was no road to the top of the outcropping due to the land’s physical contour and width. So stairs would be needed from the road up to the residence, but those would be the only stairs used on-site. Keep in mind, there was no road access to the rear of the house high on the bluff. That would come years later, when Dave and Oli, flush from success, began buying all of the empty lots on the hill. That’s when they built a new access road to the back of the house.

“But we’re getting ahead the story. In the weeks following my initial meeting with Oli in 1949, I sketched my vision for their home. My original design called for the kitchen and living room to be cantilevered, extending 8 feet and supported by three columns of thin pipe. For those who don’t know, a cantilever is a structure that is anchored only on one end. Imagine a T-square, with your foot placed on the short section to hold the longer part steady as it extends freely into space.

“Fortunately, the Brubecks could not afford to build immediately. I say ‘fortunately’ because soon after our meeting, I left the country to spend the next few years traveling through Europe and the Middle East. It was a journey that dramatically changed my view of architecture and design. I was particularly taken with Egypt, where the massing of structures is breathtaking, especially the pyramids.


“When I returned to the U.S. in 1953, Oli and Dave had the financing necessary to build their dream home. Oli told me, however, that she needed two more bedrooms. Her family was indeed growing. By then, my trip abroad had made me realize that the pipe columns I had originally envisioned could be eliminated in an altered design. When I reworked the plans, I extended the original cantilever to 16 feet and replaced the pipe supports with a 16-inch thick concrete wall. I also added a bedroom wing and used an 8-inch thick masonry wall for its support. [Pictured above, Bev’s rough sketch of the property drawn exclusively for JazzWax]

“The bedrooms I designed were like monastic cells. They had to meet my established 8-feet by 8-feet modules. The reason for these strict dimensions had nothing to do with some spiritual leaning on my part or an architectural play on Dave’s terrific music. The dimensions simply matched the inexpensive, standard-sized building materials of that era. It was a cost decision.

“The master bedroom was cantilevered just short of a nice pine tree that I insisted we keep. To anchor the steel girders supporting the cantilever, I attached one to the outcropping of rock at the top of the site. The other girder was supported by a deep, standard foundation pad at the upper level.

“Soon after the house was completed in 1954 and the Brubecks had moved in, they had enough money to add a carport down at the lower level on Heartwood Drive. However, that pine tree I had originally insisted we save now restricted the dimensions required to house two cars.

“The problem was we needed an additional two feet. The local zoning ordinance prevented us from building the garage wall closer than five feet to the property line. That’s when it dawned on me: If we cantilevered the entire carport roof structure, anchoring it to the bedrock rather than the ground, we would eliminate the wall, be able to extend the roof, and still be within the local setback requirements for a roof edge.

“This may sound easy, but the pine tree we saved was in the way again. It was impossible to extend the anchored part of the carport’s steel girder back far enough to counterbalance its overhanging weight.

“I’m sure Dave has never forgiven me for this, but I decided to build a concrete pad above where the carport’s girder was to be anchored. Doing this would allow me to place a heavy boulder on top of the pad to form a counter balancing mass for the steel girder supporting the carport roof.

“All went well until the boulder arrived. I had plans to lift it into position using a hoist suspended from one of the girders supporting the bedroom wing of the house. But when Dave came by to see the planned procedure, he was fearful that the boulder’s weight would bend the girder. He nixed the operation with a thunderous, ‘Thorne, stop! I will get a crane up here to set that boulder.’

“So we used a crane, and all went well. The bonus for Oli is that we covered the carport roof surface with a canvas veneer. The canvas surface gave the children a soft level play area that Oli could observe from the kitchen deck above. The roof deck had low, protective Plexiglass walls, making it completely safe for the kids.

“For some strange reason, Ed Sullivan did one of his shows from the house. I am certain of this because Patricia, my fashion-model, artist wife at the time, was there to watch the proceedings. Patricia and I had spent our honeymoon in the Brubecks’ house. We were there for three months. This period of our lives was right out of a Hollywood script: ‘Architect lives in first house with new redheaded bride.’ Fantastic times for both of us, as you can imagine.

“Dave liked to write his compositions using glass as a tabletop. Since we had the site rock outcrop exposed inside the house where he played and composed, I decided to get a piece of tempered glass to use as a table for him. As I recall, Dave, Oli and I cut a slot into the rock, wrapped the glass edge with a soft cloth and set it into the rock. This table became the birthplace of a lot of beautiful jazz!

“The rock was very important. As I understand it, Dave and Oli used to go up to the rock just after they bought the lot in the 1940s to see the San Francisco view, dream about building on it one day and, I would guess, smooch a bit.

“One day in 1960, my wife and I were invited over to the Brubecks’ home just before they moved East. We were Camen mcrae 06there to hear a preliminary rendition of The Real Ambassadors, which Dave and Oli had written. Louis Armstrong was going to be the lead male singer. Dave was singing his part, off-key, and the woman there that day singing the female part was Carmen McRae, who was appearing nearby at San Francisco’s Black Hawk.

“I will never forget Carmen or the terrible scar she had across her lower neck [the result of a childhood accident with boiling oil]. It looked like someone had had a knife fight with her. Carmen was a delight and a humble lady. When Dave and Oli rented a farmhouse in Connecticut during the period when I was designing their East Coast home, Dave had a basement studio there with a piano. I often worked in that studio. When Carmen came to visit Dave, she loved looking over my shoulder at my sketches. [Pictured: A Sears Kenmore washer ad featuring the Brubecks at home in Connecticut.

“But back to California. The Heartwood House or ‘Brubeck West,’ as the Oakland home came to beknown, received much attention over the years since its completion in 1954. The person who deserves credit for bringing my design to life was builder Art Houvanitz. He was the low bidder on the project, and we were very fortunate that he agreed to build the house on such a ridiculously contoured site, especially given the Brubecks’ minimal budget.

“I’ve often wondered why this house has received so much attention and acclaim. To me, it was simply a straightforward, economical solution to an impossible site. The solution to me always seemed obvious, but to others the house took on a magical quality. In all honesty and fairness, credit for Heartwood House must go to Oli Brubeck (right) and her ‘step-less’ requirement back in 1949. Three cheers and double kudos for her!”

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Here’s Part 2, on “Brubeck East”…

In December 2010, I interviewed Dave Brubeck for The Wall Street Journal at his home in Wilton, Ct.

When I pulled up at Dave and Iola’s house, the tructure from the road looked like an unassuming one-story Japanese house. But once inside, I saw that it wasn’t a single-story house at all but a split-level abode built into the hill. I also noticed that the back facade of the home is nearly all glass. The massive windows allowed for a panoramic view of the trees, hills, rocks, a lily pond and a rushing stream that runs alongside the house. The sound of the waterway permeates the glass and creates enormous tranquility. It’s Christmas in Connecticutmeets The Fountainhead. [Photo above of the Brubecks’ home from the second-story catwalk, by Bev Thorne]

During my afternoon with Dave and Iola, Dave told me that Bev often slept outdoors on the property in a sleeping bag while designing the house. He did this to chart where the sun emerged in the sky each day so he could best position the structure for maximum sun exposure during season changes. You could only appreciate how much Dave adored the sun if you saw him bathed in it. Only then would you see that the piano wizard of dark clubs and college-campus stages is really a California raisin at heart. [Photo of the home’s exterior gardens, by Bev Thorne]

Upon my return from Connecticut, I reached out to Bev for his thoughts on the house. Here’s Bev on “Brubeck East”…

Bev Thorne: “While I was designing the Brubecks’ home in Connecticut, I worked in the basement of the farmhouse Dave and Iola were renting. Many times I would work very late or even all night. The large window above my desk would attract all manner of bugs from the local area, since my drafting-table light was the only one within miles.

“It used to scare the hell out of me when the big bugs banged into the screen on the window. However, their clatter did tend to wake one if there was a tendency to doze off for a few minutes.

“The boulder you wrote about in your Wall Street Journal article about is indeed granite, at least to the best of my geologic knowledge. This is one reason I spent so much time at the building site in Connecticut. The stream and the boulders were an integral part of my design composition. [Pictured: View from the Brubecks’ house facing the boulders and stream, by Bev Thorne]

“As you most likely noticed, the entrance to the Brubecks’ home sits on a large boulder outcrop that emanates from the natural ground. I wanted to continue this rock theme that was started on the ‘Brubeck West’ house. [Photo of Bev Thorne with Iola Brubeck, courtesy of Bev Thorne]

“As you recall from our earlier conversation, at the very top of their West Coast home was an outcropping of rock inside their home thatrested about three feet above the floor. This is the rock that we notched and installed a 3/4” thick sheet of glass in order to make a table for Dave to use for writing music. To continue the theme out West, we used a large boulder as the counter balance for the cantilevered carport’s wide flange beam.

“For the East Coast home, I also allowed an outcropping of granite to emerge into their living room, forming a garden.

“I do hope you found Dave and Iola as regular and unassuming as I had mentioned to you. They have always been very family focused and down to earth. Even with all of Dave’s fame, I don’t believe they have changed very much. [Pictured: View of the Brubecks’ living room, courtesy of Bev Thorne]

“To emphasize this point I would like to relate a simple short tale to you:

“When Dave was just beginning to get some notoriety in  California, he was playing at the Black Hawk in San Francisco, I believe. We used to meet near the club on his breaks to talk about the house I was designing for him and Iola.

“One evening Dave and I were working on the plans during an intermission. Naturally, a long line had formed outside trying to get into the club to hear this new jazz pianist sensation.

“Well, when it became time for Dave and the group to return to the stage, Dave was nowhere to be found. Then one of the waiters saw Dave and me standing in line waiting to get into the club with everyone else.

“The comment from the waiter, who stepped outside, to Dave was priceless: ‘Mr. Brubeck, you really don’t need to stand in line to get back to the stage.’ Three cheers for that!

“PS: Dave’s story about the soup bones in your Wall Street Journal article is true. My wife and Dave’s wife used to go shopping together for groceries at the “dented food-can center” down in Berkeley, where prices were reduced to an absolute minimum.” [Pictured: Dave playing on his favorite concert grand, accompanied by his son Matthew on cello in lower left-hand corner, courtesy of Bev Thorne]

The composition that reminds me most of Dave’s Connecticut home is Nomad,by Dave and Iola Brubeck. It also musically expresses Bev’s passion for modernism and organic design. I’ll miss Bev, and I miss Dave, who died in 2012. Iola died in 2014. What an afternoon that was in Connecticut.

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