Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

How to Save (and Live in) a Masterpiece of Modern Design

Photo by Bill Maris.

“New rules or no rules?” asked Architectural Record in 1961, reviewing four recent projects by Paul Rudolph, then the chair of the department of architecture at Yale. The flashiest of the four was presented first: a two-story beach house under construction high on the dunes of Ponte Vedra, Florida, outside Jacksonville.

The House of Seven Levels was a shining example of “the new freedom” of Rudolph’s work, a home in which there was very little need for doors, or walls, or even furniture, thanks to built-in storage, ceiling heights and floor levels that varied to create spaces both cozy and dramatic, and cushions that could be arranged around the central conversation pit for a big old party. From the pit, guests had a picture-perfect view of the ocean framed by concrete walls deep enough to shade the glass from the sun.

From the beach the house looked like a series of squared-off caves, itching to be explored. At the residence, which was commissioned by lawyer and arts patron Arthur Milam in 1959, even the indoors felt like outdoors, and relaxing in the pit could feel like chilling on the beach in the shade of a giant umbrella.