Houses Made of Wood and Light

[ Architecture ]

Houses Made of Wood and Light

The Life and Architecture of Hank Schubart

By Michele Dunkerley with Jane Hickie

Foreword by Munro S. Edmonson

This sumptuously illustrated volume about architect Hank Schubart and the island community he helped to create in British Columbia explores how this West Coast modernist used the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright to design houses in which nature flows seamlessly into architecture.

2012

$50.00$33.50

33% website discount price

Hardcover

10 x 8 | 208 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72942-1

American architect Hank Schubart was regarded as a genius for finding the perfect site for a house and for integrating its design into the natural setting, so that his houses appear to be as native to the forest around them as the trees and rocks. Salt Spring Island, one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada, offered him a place to create the kind of architecture that responded to its surroundings, and Schubart-designed homes populate the island. Built of wood and glass, suffused with light, and oriented to views, they display characteristic features: random-width cedar siding, exposed beams, rusticated stonework. Over time, Schubart’s homes on Salt Spring Island came to be considered uniquely Gulf Islands homes.

This inviting book offers the first introduction to the life and architecture of West Coast modernist Henry A. Schubart, Jr. (1916–1998). While still in his teens, Schubart persuaded Frank Lloyd Wright to accept him as a Taliesin Fellow, and his year’s apprenticeship in the master’s workshop taught him principles of designing in harmony with nature that he explored throughout the rest of his life. Michele Dunkerley traces Schubart’s career from his early practice in San Francisco at the noted firm Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, to his successful firm with Howard Friedman, to his most lasting professional achievements on Salt Spring Island, where he became the de facto community architect, designing more than 230 residential, commercial, educational, and religious projects. Drawing lessons from his mentors over his decades on the island, he forged an everyday architecture with his mastery of detail and inventiveness. In doing so, he helped define how the island could grow without losing its soul. Color photographs and site plans display Schubart’s remarkable homes and other commissions.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Foreword by Christopher MacDonald
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: First Glimpse
  • Chapter 2: Wright's Taliesin: "The Most Informing Experience of My Life"
  • Chapter 3: The Making of a West Coast Modernist
  • Chapter 4: An Emerging Sensibility: The Pirkle Jones House
  • Chapter 5: Salt Spring Island
  • Chapter 6: The Practice Flourishes
  • Chapter 7: Village Architect
  • Chapter 8: Mastery at Work
  • Afterword by Heather McKinney
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

On March 26, 1968, a cold, wet day, a Volkswagen van crossed the border from Blaine, Washington, into mainland British Columbia. Driving the van was fifty-two-year-old Hank Schubart, a California architect who, for the prior twenty years, had had an enviable practice in San Francisco. With him were his wife, Maggie, their sons Daniel and Paul, and their young daughter, Gabrielle. Steering closely behind on a three-wheel motorbike was son Matthew. Michael, their second son, was living in Toronto, and their eldest, Peter, was enrolled in school in Santa Cruz, California. Both older sons were of draft age, and the younger three were facing eligibility in the next few years.

This was not Hank Schubart's first visit to the island. That had occurred the year before, when clients commissioned him to build a house there on land bordering the main harbor. When he first saw Salt Spring Island, the rural island was a far cry from his home in San Francisco, which was witnessing the "summer of love," with its psychedelic circus and war protests. For the Schubart family—adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War—life in Canada offered their sons the choice to avoid the draft by becoming Canadian citizens. The decision to move meant a step backward financially, but was regarded within the family as its own "act of love."

For Schubart, there was a simultaneous force at work. Salt Spring, the largest of the mountainous Gulf Islands, was a place of such raw beauty and firm character that it held out the promise of a new chance to design the kind of residential architecture his sensibility craved. Located in the Strait of Georgia, a major navigation channel between the coast of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, the island was covered in emerging second-growth forests and populated by hardworking people who farmed, logged, and fished. Its natural borders of mountains and ocean shaped the remote lives of the residents. The island was framed by small settlements on its north and south ends, and farms and cottages dotted the landscape. The Schubart family's arrival came at the right time for him and for the island, which in the years ahead would try to forge a model of how to encourage development without losing its soul.

In 1968, the island was changing and growing. More frequent ferry crossings and a new Long Harbour terminal connected the island more directly to Vancouver on mainland British Columbia and to nearby Victoria on Vancouver Island. A growing regional economy attracted new residents, some fleeing crowded metropolitan areas, some seeking a warmer place in which to retire or pursue a simpler life, and some, like the Schubart family, driven north from the United States by the Vietnam War. Upon arrival, the Schubart family found a hospital, a grocery store, a general store, schools, and a few basic services.

The island's official population in 1968 was about two thousand full-time residents, and no one could have predicted that it would to grow to more than ten thousand by the time Schubart died, thirty years later. It is a wonder that when he first saw the island, he knew that it offered him a place to create the kind of architecture that would respond to its surroundings in an endless conversation. But that is jumping ahead of the story.

Personal History: New York to Paris and Back

A continent away, far from the wild beauty of British Columbia, Henry Allen Schubart, Jr., called "Hank," was born in New York City on August 15, 1916, the first of two sons born to Pauline (Werner) and Henry Schubart, Sr. His early years were comfortable; the family had an apartment in New York City and spent weekends and summers on their farm, Chumleigh, in Ossining, New York. Hank's father was a businessman and cotton broker whose financial acumen helped preserve the family's wealth through the 1929 stock market crash. His mother was an artist who, rare for the time, held both a bachelor's degree from Smith College as well as a master's in social work from Barnard College (Columbia University). Although Hank's father had little time for social activism, his mother's involvement in social and political matters, including public housing, instilled in her eldest son a lifelong determination to make a difference. Pauline Schubart's father, a graduate of the City College of New York, had been an influential lawyer and a Hebrew scholar. Still, according to Hank, it was not his grandparents' accomplishments that impressed him as a child. Instead, he remembered "that Grandpa Werner always had turkey gravy on the napkin that he tucked under his chin at Thanksgiving family dinners, which always were good big feeds and at which brother Mickey and I sneaked out to the carpeted big front hall where we had fun goosing a white marble Greek statue of the Venus de Milo."

His privileged background enabled Hank to attend private schools in New York City, including the Horace Mann School. When he was thirteen and his brother Mark was eleven, the family moved to Europe.

Although Henry Sr. had managed to avoid the stock market crash of 1929, friends had not. For two years, Henry Sr. took frequent trips back to the United States to help the widow of a less fortunate friend while his family lived in France. But the Schubart boys were unconcerned with such weighty worldly matters, attending the Lycée d'Antibes on the beautiful Côte D'Azur. Hank then enrolled for a year at the Académie Julian in Paris, taking design courses at the École des Beaux-Arts. He threw himself into painting and drawing, adding anatomy classes to bolster his drawing skills. His fluency in French remained for the rest of his life, and from that young age, he and his brother always conversed in French. If the trip marked the beginning of a new chapter in Hank's life, it also marked an end: at fifteen, Hank's formal schooling came to a close. That was not the end of his education, however, and with his parents' acquiescence, he enrolled in art school to become a painter. The effects of this decision would resonate later in life, particularly when he sought professional licenses to practice architecture.

Hank's time in Paris produced friendships and professional associations that would last long into his adult years. For example, Martin Baer, with whom he studied in Paris, became a lifelong friend. In Paris, he was a student of the artists Egon von Vietinghoff and Alexander Archipenko, and Hank continued to study sculpture with Archipenko after his return to New York. Although he would follow an architectural path in the years ahead, these early experiences of studying art in France remained important to him. His training as a young art student taught him to see and laid the foundation for the freehand drawings he used throughout his career.

In 1932, with the world still mired in the Great Depression, the Schubart family returned from France and settled into their pattern of spending weekdays in New York and weekends on Chumleigh Farm. At Chumleigh, Pauline and Henry Sr. allowed Hank to remodel the second story of the main house to use as his art studio. But the familiar family routine was not to last; shortly after the return to New York, Henry Sr. told Pauline that he was leaving her and the boys to marry his friend's widow, Fanny Kilburn, the source of his frequent trips back to New York. For the next several years, problems surrounding his parents' divorce consumed Hank's family time and altered his relationship with his father. Laying the blame for his parents' divorce squarely at the feet of Henry Sr., Hank gave his allegiance to his mother and dealt his father out of the family deck. For months after the divorce, Hank avoided speaking to his father, and for years he refused to ask him for money for living or educational expenses, though the two did eventually reestablish ties.

With the self-confidence of a favored son, Hank set out to find his own path. Nearing his sixteenth birthday, while his peers were contemplating college, Hank searched for a profession. He enjoyed physical labor, craftsmanship, and art, activities far removed from his father's business practices. Pauline encouraged her son's artistic interests. In fact, both Schubart boys would go on to have careers in the arts: Hank in the visual arts and architecture, and his younger brother, Mark, in music. The turning point for Hank came when his mother's sister, Adelaide Werner, bought him a copy of Frank Lloyd Wright's An Autobiography; as he later recalled, "That's what started the whole thing as far as Taliesin was concerned." This book was an account of Wright's work, personal life, and philosophical approach to architecture. Published when Wright was a well-known public figure, it was revealing, charming, and audacious, and it captivated Hank at an impressionable time. When he happened upon a New York Times article about the newly established Taliesin Fellowship, Hank, then sixteen, began to think of applying.

***

Wright was sixty-three years old when his third wife, Olgivanna, suggested that they found a school for educating young architects. This idea, which came at a low point in Wright's career—the Great Depression had had a devastating impact on architecture generally—proved inspiring. The original prospectus outlining the fellowship was published in October 1932, and the newspaper article describing it enthralled Schubart. The fellowship was to be an apprenticeship program in architecture as well as in music, sculpture, and painting. The apprentices, up to seventy-seven in number, would live and work on Wright's family farm, Taliesin, located on 200 acres of pastures in southwestern Wisconsin, near the town of Spring Green.

Hank found the promise of a collective teaching experience alluring. It was clear that, for him, the solitary life of a painter was not appealing: he sought a wider range of experience, something that would combine a creative life with that of building trades. On August 20, 1932, Hank sent Wright a letter, introducing himself and inquiring about the requirements for admission. Writing on Chumleigh Farm stationary, he described himself as fluent in French and as someone who enjoyed both painting ("my life work!") and physical labor. With its call for architecture combined with craftsmanship, gardening, carpentry, and general physical labor, the description of Taliesin as a "bookless school" was, for the young Schubart, "like a dream come true." He continued, "Two months ago having read your autobiography very eagerly I found in you a man of my ideals and a sympathetic and understanding individual so that writing to you and asking whether I might be able to share this beautiful venture, thrills me. If you feel that I am worthwhile material for your fellowship I would like to know more about it.

Despite being designated a "fellowship," the program at Taliesin required students to pay tuition, and Henry Sr. did not support his son's desire to attend. Hank was undeterred. He spent the next year in New York and wrote again in 1933, asking about admission requirements that fall, particularly regarding any minimum age or educational requirements. Within a week, Schubart had a response. Karl Jenson, the secretary of the Taliesin Fellowship, informed him that a new fellowship prospectus was being prepared and would be mailed soon. He offered that a Mr. Churchill, in New York, was familiar with Taliesin and could advise Schubart about the program: "You will find in the new prospectus that the tuition has been raised from $675 to $1100 for the year. There are no requirements as to age nor formal education—although most of our apprentices are post-graduate from various universities. The requirement necessary is a desire to come under the conditions of the prospectus which has been changed considerably from the one you have."

The changed prospectus called for a much more informal structure for the fellowship. Enrollment was limited to twenty-three apprentices, but the three basic elements of a Taliesin education remained: first, training in drafting skills by assisting with Wright's architectural work; second, learning building techniques and construction methods by framing, modifying, repairing, and remodeling Taliesin; and, finally, acquiring the knowledge of how to maintain buildings, make minor repairs, and support the daily routine at Taliesin, which included cooking, gardening, laundry, and all the other work required to maintain a life without servants.

Hank acted without hesitation. He wrote to Wright that he would like to come and stay with him for a while. He wrote of having cooked, painted, and done all kinds of hard work on the family farm. Wright wrote back: "Come ahead."

Michele Dunkerley was introduced to Schubart’s work on Salt Spring Island in 2003. She drew on Schubart’s copious files and notes, as well as files at the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives and the Friedman Archives at the University of California, Berkeley, and interviews with family, clients, and contractors, to author this exploration of his life and works. Dunkerley is a business attorney whose current portfolio of work involves helping revitalize Stephenville’s historic downtown square.

Jane Hickie is Senior Research Scholar and Director of the Politics, Scholars, and the Public Program at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

Jim Alinder’s photographs have been published in ARTFORUM, American Photographer, Popular Photography, and Creative Camera, as well as in the books Picture America, Consequences, Sparkling Harvest and The Sea Ranch.

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