Kentucky is a state of geographic contradictions. The geographer John Fraser Hart commented that “few if any states have such enormous diversity within such small compass.” I see this as I venture from one side of the state to another – not only in our landscape, but in our buildings.
Treasures are to be found in every corner, and while I often write about those whose age and history is apparent in every weathered elevation, there are some modern masterpieces, flaunting convention and perception in every angle and carefully thought-out design. It was with delight, then, that I encountered Triaero, a house designed by architect Bruce Goff in Jefferson County, Kentucky.
Goff, a child prodigy, has been called one of the most inventive and iconoclastic architects of the twentieth century. I blush to say I was completely unaware of his existence. (Vernacular architecture is my passion – rural, historic vernacular architecture of the 19th and early 20th century. This has not typically encompassed modern, architect-designed buildings.)
Born in 1904, Goff spent most of his career in Tulsa, Oklahoma, except for a period in the Navy and his time in Chicago. He never went to architecture school, but when a child, wrote to both Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, expressing admiration for their work. As an adult, he and Wright became friends.
It was in Chicago that Goff met Kenneth Bartman, a student of his at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Bartman’s mother, Irma, commissioned Goff to design a small weekend house for her in the country. The project began in 1941, and went over budget (they always do…) but when completed embodied Goff’s willingness to experiment with materials, a strong emphasis on geometry, and a focus on a lit, centralized hearth.
Triangles and glass form an airy structure that seems not completely of this earth. The cantilevered roof hangs over the walls of the house, with the clerestory dividing the two elements. The two inverted triangles (painted brown) on the sides are storage closets. The interior of the house, about 900 square feet, originally had furniture designed by Goff and a modern interpretation of a Murphy bed built into the wall.
Goff’s emphasis on strong, regulating geometry and innovative use of materials (coal for walls) were as revolutionary in the 20th century Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s ideas on space and design in the early 19th century, and somehow, both of these architects found receptive clients in Kentucky. Unlike Latrobe’s work, around 55 of Goff’s houses are extant. John H. Waters, an architect and scholar familiar with many of Goff’s designs, stressed that though consistencies can be found in Goff’s work, ” there is a degree to which he was willing to re-think the problem each time.”
Triaero suffered many indignities to the original concept and design since it passed out of the Bartman family. The current owners purchased the house in 1992, and have lovingly attended to its restoration (as much as feasible) and maintenance – and were generous and welcoming hosts.
A unique and innovative building designed as a summer weekend house for a wealthy owner doesn’t necessarily translate into the best structure for a year-round family home. But this manifestation of Goff’s design principles laid the framework for later (and larger) projects, and thanks to owners who appreciate this expression of architecture, the tiny triangle of a house remains to enchant visitors.