11 February 2008

1937 Armstrong Designed Home for Sale

In response to the question, "Why is there a Harris Armstrong modern house way out in Moberly?" I've written the following:

I suspect the "story" behind this house is rather interesting indeed. The house is unusual for many reasons: it's design, it's client, it's location, and the fact that Armstrong did not seem to have taken any pictures nor published any articles about it.

In being an International Style / Art Deco / Art Moderne influenced design made a great deal of sense in relation to Armstrong's having won a Silver Medal from the French Government for the Shanley Building (Clayton, 1935) at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts) that year (i.e., 1937). Armstrong designed very few houses in this mode: using white stucco, flat roof, cantilever, and other European modernist attributes. The closest examples would be two cubic white painted brick homes: the Cori Residence in Glendale of 1935 and the Deffaa Residence in South Saint Louis of 1937.

The design is striking in its strong emphasis on the garage as the house's most striking visual element. In the 1930s, the design of garages on homes typically involved hiding the car altogether or creating garages that appeared to be carriage houses. Armstrong's love of long classic cars (see photo of Armstrong with his Rolls Royce) is reflected in the design although I don't know what sort of car the house's client owned. Armstrong's rendering for the Shanley Building published in 1935 features just such a car.

The client for the house was apparently a husband and wife with the family name Green. Armstrong's drawings for the house do not indicate the client's name nor the house's address. The set of construction documents is simply titled "A House to be Built in Moberly, Missouri." Why the name and location of the house were kept "secret" is a mystery.

Some possible explanations (purely speculative) for Armstrong's apparent lack of acknowledgment and promotion of the project include:
1. A stipulation that the location and owner's name be kept anonymous.
2. A disagreement between Armstrong and the owner's during the course of the construction.
3. Armstrong may have been dissatisfied with the result.
Regardless the reason for the house's anonymity, Armstrong was careful to save the drawings and specifications for the project in his office files following his retirement from active practice in 1967 (some thirty years later). The perspective sketch of the house is taken from the title page of the specifications for its construction.

Some anecdotal, unsubstantiated stories from a recent owner of the house suggest the idea for an overtly modernist house in a rural town in mid-Missouri was the wife's idea. It seems Mr. Green was reasonably successful financially. He may have married someone from a more "cultured" urban part of the country. Apparently she was either trained as an interior designer or was fascinated with the Art Deco mode of interior design that was then viewed as being up-to-date and cosmopolitan.

After having made a substantial investment in the design and construction of the house, it seems the Greens didn't remain there for more than a year or two. Whether this was due to business opportunities, financial difficulties, personal issues, or other problems is not known.

Although Armstrong designed works throughout the Midwest and by the end of his career, throughout the United States, the Moberly house seems unusual in being located in a largely rural town far removed from Missouri's major metropolitan centers (Saint Louis and Kansas City). While Moberly is today within commuting distance of Columbia (where the University of Missouri is located), I'm not sure the roads of the 1930s in that area would have allowed for that kind of regular automobile transportation.

The house stands out dramatically contrasting the other homes and buildings in Moberly. Facing onto a substantial farm, the horizontal line of the garage and its cantilevered roof seem to relate the house to it's site in relatively flat, plains landscape. A railroad track cuts diagonally across the area, bringing a note of modernity and industry to this generally rural area. Some local residents have suggested the unusual house was known as the "Boat House" for many years, probably due to certain details that suggest a steamship such as pipe railings and an external spiral stair.

Armstrong was adept at documenting, photographing, and publicizing his work. Especially during the 1930s during the Depression, he was constantly looking to find clients sympathetic to modernist design. Making a living designing modern buildings in the generally conservative atmosphere of Saint Louis at the time was practically impossible without other means of support. Armstrong's wife Louise sold real estate and took on other jobs to help keep their small family fed and housed.

So why this project was simply known as "House to be Built in Moberly, Missouri" without photographs or other documentation remains a mystery. Perhaps evidence of the Green family, their business, and activities in the area are known to some area residents or recorded in a library or historical society.

I'm looking forward to the house being purchased by a sympathetic owner who might uncover more of the house's secrets and bring it back to a state allowing for its proper appreciation and enjoyment."

Photograph by Andrew Raimist, April 2007.

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