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A spiraling 1955 house that was considered one of the icons of 20th-century organic modernism has been destroyed. And not just demolished but ripped out of the ground, as Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House in Norman, Oklahoma, had been built right into the state’s red earth. Its corkscrew shape, constructed over several years with artists Nancy and Eugene Bavinger and local University of Oklahoma (OU) students, contained floors lofted on cables above a stone ground embedded with a creek. The whole structure was almost hidden by a grove of blackjack trees.
On April 28, Caleb Slinkard reported for the Norman Transcript that “all that is left of the Bavinger House is an empty clearing.” According to Slinkard, the demolition was confirmed by Bill Scott, president of the Friends of Kebyar, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of organic architecture; Scott called the site where the house once stood “scorched earth.” Slinkard added that “multiple calls” to Bob Bavinger — the son of the house’s original owners and its owner at the time of demolition — “were not returned by press time.”
The news had been shared, three days earlier, in the Save Wright forum by Zachary Matthews, who posted an April 17 email from “The Bavinger Boys.” The text reads: “The Bavinger House receives the ‘It’s Gone” award.’” (This is seemingly a reference to the accolades the house received, such as the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award in 1987 and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.) A photograph shows a CAT excavator and not much else, the stone, glass, and metal remains of the house all hauled away.
Unfortunately, the destruction of the Bavinger House is not surprising. Back in 2011, the home appeared to suffer damage in a storm, and when a crew with News 9 attempted to see the house, they were “greeted with gunfire.” Then, Bob Bavinger told the Norman Transcript that he’d had to “remove the target,” meaning the house, as he thought OU was attempting to get in the way of his own restoration efforts. The status of the house remained something of a mystery (it sat on private property, accessed by a rural road) until last July, when PraireMod reported that it had been contacted by Bob Bavinger’s son, Boz, who claimed to be putting the property up for sale for the price of $1.5 million. An accompanying photograph showed the base of the building mostly intact, although the spire had been snapped off and support cables were mangled.
The Bavinger House was “seen by many as the crowing achievement of [Bruce Goff’s] extensive body of work,” wrote Greg LeMaire at ArchDaily in 2011. The following year, I wrote about Goff’s endangered legacy for Hyperallergic; the Bavinger House was still in limbo then, along with several of his other projects. Goff was one of the most creative DIY architects of the 20th century, often repurposing household objects (like pie tins for light fixtures), involving owners in construction, and connecting with natural settings in a tactile way, much like his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright. A 1951 Life magazine article on Goff’s Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, called him “one of the few US architects whom Frank Lloyd Wright considers creative” and said he “scorns houses that are ‘boxes with little holes.’” The Ford House was far from a box — more like a bird cage containing a living space — and like many of Goff’s projects received a mixed reception. The Fords famously put up a sign in their yard, proclaiming, “We don’t like your house either.”
If you’ve seen a Goff building and are not from the Midwest or Southwest, it was likely the curving Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which lets in light through fiberglass panels. I am from Oklahoma and happen to have grown up going to a Bruce Goff church — the 1961 Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bartlesville — marveling at his Space Age–themed 1963 Play Tower, and visiting the elaborate Shin’en Kan home, built between 1956 and 1974. The ethereal blue cullet that often accented his work, appearing gemlike against rough, muted stone; the unexpected angles; the mosaics that seemed ordinary until they caught the sun with incredible radiance — are all familiar to me, and in many ways shaped an appreciation for living with modern architecture that endures today.
But since Goff did some of his most enduring work with private homes, preservation can be precarious. Shin’en Kan, for example, was lost to a 1996 arson that was never solved. Nevertheless, there has been some recent attention that inspires hope. Last year, the 1957 Comer House in Dewey, Oklahoma, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; it has elegant support cables similar to those of the Bavinger House and was vacant for years, until being purchased in 2012 by a new owner, who worked on its restoration and now hosts private tours. The 1964 Nicol House in Kansas City, likewise, is currently cared for by a private owner who’s been preserving its triangular windows and hexagonal pool. The 1948 Myron Bachman House in Chicago, with its strange peaks in corrugated aluminum and brick, spent two years on the market before finding a new owner last month.
Some of his community spaces have also been restored. In 2014, a newly repainted Play Tower was reinstalled in Bartlesville, after vandalism and decades of decay, while the 1951 Hopewell Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, has a major restoration campaign underway. When I visited the church in 2011 (the pastor was nice enough to let me in when I stopped by out of curiosity), the shingles were falling off, and the floor was so caved in you couldn’t walk more than a couple of steps. Now it’s been repainted to its original red, with silver on the oil pipes that hold it up (they’re similar to the oil field–sourced material that once supported the Bavinger House).
Goff stated that with the Bavinger House, he “wanted to do something that had no beginning and no ending,” where life flowed through like water. Bedrooms were positioned on hovering platforms and closed with curtains; inside, the space was as cool as a cave in summer. A 1955 issue of Life magazine featured images of the “most gaped-at new house in the US” and described life in this “55-foot-high oil well pipe inside a round tower”:
A good deal of its ground floor is water. Its rooms are suspended saucers. Its tower sticks out of the trees like the sail of a Chinese junk. It has drawn so many sightseers that the Bavingers now charge $1 a person for the privilege of looking at the house. So far they have collected $4,000.
All of that is gone now, but you can still take a digital tour thanks to this video by Skyline Ink, created for the 2010 exhibition Bruce Goff: A Creative Mind at OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. There’s no reversing the destruction, but hopefully the loss of this distinct piece of architecture will be a reminder to preserve what remains of Goff’s career — which was ultimately about rejecting any preconceived notions of what made a house and finding an organic way of modern living.
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