By Stacy Downs
Photography by Bob Greenspan
The international legacy of Bruce Goff continues to grow. Along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, Goff in recent years has become considered one of the few American “starchitects.” Buildings designed by Goff (1904-1982) remain ahead of their time. German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz lets Goff architecture speak for itself in the 2003 documentary “Goff in the Desert.” There is no commentary about the 62 buildings featured in the film — noise comes from nature — so that the viewer can let the mind’s eye do the talking on the details that are purely Goff.
Goff residences stand out in neighborhoods because of their curious shapes including tepees, ships and canoes. Geometrics. Floor plans might be octagonal with a circular family room and triangular windows.
Ornamentation is abundant. Objects such as sparkling paisley tile and glass dime-store ashtrays play with light and cast reflections. Strips of cellophane were used as chandeliers and turkey feathers were attached to ceilings so they danced as a home’s occupants strode through. Even coal was used as a decorative application.
Walls, tile, countertops, carpet and ornamentation are in bold hues including emerald green, sapphire blue and bubblegum pink.
Lots of Light.
Although his houses stand out among the landscape, people can connect with nature because his houses are surrounded by windows and contain large skylights.
Sensible Floor Plans.
Living space is huge for entertaining. Private spaces, such as bedrooms, were kept small. Cabinetry and tables often were built into the home. In 1966, University of Kansas architecture student Kurt Youngstrom knew about Goff and the details that made his buildings unique. He encouraged his parents, Karl and Glenna Youngstrom, to work with a forward-thinking architect when they wanted to build their empty-nest retirement home in Lake Quivira, Kansas, a lakeside community in the Kansas City metropolitan area with an 18-hole golf course that became gated just that year. Youngstrom’s mother was keen on architect Fay Jones designing their home. Jones, who apprenticed for Wright and was a student of the Prairie School, was the first dean of the University of Arkansas School of Architecture and is now the school’s namesake. Jones later became famous for Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, only 20 years after it was built. Typically buildings take 50 years to be placed on the registry, but the tall glass-walled structure was considered so architecturally significant that it defied the rules. Jones held his first teaching position from 1950 to 1952 at the University of Oklahoma, working alongside Goff. Youngstrom’s father, a radiologist, wanted to work with Goff. “There’s excitement to his work,” said Youngstrom, who is now a working architect.
Goff’s story is exciting, too. He began working as an architect in 1916 — he was 12. By the time he turned 21, he designed 25 structures of which 12 were built. He was born in 1904 in Alton, Kansas, a town of less than 400 residents. Two years later, his family began a series of moves to other small towns in Oklahoma. They stayed with his great-grandmother who encouraged his drawing and whose collection of shells, crystals and feathers fascinated him. Much of his time was spent indoors be cause the weather was too hot, too cold or too windy. When the family did venture out, the bright colors and geometric patterns worn by Native Americans stood out among the bleak landscape. The family finally landed in Tulsa, small-town-turned-city because of oil. Its population increased from less than 1,500 in 1900 to almost 150,000 in 1930. Goff drew imaginary buildings, which his father encouraged. On a Saturday near the end of the school year in 1916, his father took him downtown and into the first architectural office he could find. He began apprenticing for E.A. Rush & Co. Architects. Rush admired the work of Louis Sullivan, and Wright, which in turn influenced Goff. “When I first saw Mr. Wright’s work in 1916 or 1917, I was extremely impressed,” Goff said. “In fact, I couldn’t eat, sleep or think of anything but Wright for about three years.” (The two would go on to be friends.)
In his early 20s, Goff designed the Boston Avenue Methodist- Episcopal Church in Tulsa, regarded as one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the country. This skyrocketed his career, earning him publicity and commissions. Goff didn’t attend architecture school on the advice of Wright because he might “risk losing what made him Bruce Goff in the first place.” Goff’s unconventional approach to design made him a rare architect in the traditional times of the 1930s and 1940s. Although he remained classically unschooled, he was so respected artistically that he became chair of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma from the 1940s through the mid-1950s. Goff liked individuality. He enjoyed painting, appreciated Japanese art and composing and listening to music. Goff disliked conformity. “Commonism,” he said, was at least as great a threat to America as communism. He nicknamed developers’ subdivisions “Sunken Heights” and ranch houses “ranchburgers.” In 1950, he designed his most famous work, the Bavinger house, a stone-studded spiraling house built in Norman, Oklahoma. (Completed in 1955 and though on the National Register of Historic Places, it was demolished in 2011 after a microburst struck.) After leaving the university, Goff moved his office to the Price Tower, a Wright building in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and designed other noted Oklahoma residences and buildings into the 1960s.
Goff In Kansas City
In 1964, Goff moved from Oklahoma to Kansas City to create a commercial, prefabricated housing development. The project never came to light, but he did design four houses built in the area, including the Youngstrom house. All still stand. Goff lived in a bungalow south of 51st and Main streets, close to Kansas City’s world-famous Country Club Plaza, known for its Spanish-inspired architecture. Goff fixated on ornamental details that created illusions when they interacted with light. Architect Ted Seligson shared office space with Goff in the New York Life Building, a 12-story brick and brownstone tower in downtown Kansas City. Seligson remembers seeing something Goff created on the sidelights of his office windows. Using glue and toothpicks, Goff had placed sequins into patterns. When the sun shone, the sequins blazed like fire flames. “I respected him because he was so unique artistically,” said Seligson, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design in a 2005 Kansas City Star article. “But he was also logical mathematically. His houses were both innovative and pragmatic.”
Goff was soft-spoken, creative and easygoing. He wore traditional suit jackets but jazzed them up with Day-Glo shirts and socks and jewel-studded bolo ties. Goff took his clients’ wishes and needs into consideration. As a result, most of the homes he designed in Kansas City featured abundant family space. Goff’s houses often faced opposition while they were being designed and built. Developers and neighbors balked at their eccentric-shaped exteriors. To this day, motorists stop at the fish-scale shingled Nicol house (1965-67) that Goff designed near the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They ask: “Is this part of the campus?” The tepee-shape stands out like a spaceship among the Tudors and Italianate houses in the neighborhood. Inside, the view is just as jaw-dropping. The family room is a circle in the center of the octagonal floor plan. Banquettes surround a circular fountain underneath an octagonal glass skylight. At night, a fire pit glows above the fountain. A room juts off from each of the home’s eight sides, each painted in a bright color such as cobalt blue, orange or hot pink. Octagonal wooden cutouts from the windows were used to top accent tables. The house was built for James and Betty Nicol and their three children. The couple commissioned Goff to design the house after they heard him deliver a lecture in 1963 at the Kansas City Art Institute. Personal details of the family remain including five nickels embedded into a countertop that commemorate the year the couple married, the year the house was built and the years their children were born. The most eye-catching is the green flooring — five shades form concentric paths around the house like a racetrack. The house has been called a real-life Emerald City palace.
The 4,000-square-foot house was built in 1965 for Lawrence Hyde, a doctor with a wife and four children. The son’s bathroom was blue; the three daughters shared a pink one. Each private space is small in the cross-shaped floor plan. Also in Prairie Village is the Searing house (1967). The late Paul Searing, who worked as a salesman, loved working with Goff. “He was jolly like Santa Claus,” said Searing, who lived in the house Goff designed for him the rest of his life. “Even during the tough times, I never saw him lose his cool. He’d just chuckle.” On the Kansas side of the state line in the Prairie Village suburb, Goff designed the Hyde house (1965). Green colors the houses inside and out. More than 100 green glass ashtrays are fused into doorways, stair railings and sculptural lanterns. The exterior and interior are partly clad in pale-green ceramic bricks. Green bulbs provide accent lighting in the family room. Green geometric designs, punctuated with copper strips, border walls. Green laminate countertops are the focal point in the kitchen. Searing and Goff took field trips as they were planning the house, visiting the screened porch Searing loved in his childhood home. “You could see everything happening around you,” Searing said. “You felt like you were outside.” It took years for the 1,200-square-foot house to be built. Developers and neighbors did not accept plans for sites in south Kansas City and Leawood. Large, triangular metal railings line the front entrance. Metal spikes, like radio antennae, jut from the top and corners. The interior is a large triangle with a view of the outdoors from every angle, like a screened porch. Using accordion doors, the room can be closed off into separate spaces.
The house is unembellished compared to other Goff residences. The Searings wanted a minimal look that highlighted the post-and-beam, barnlike construction. However, Goff did get a bit of glitter: the hearth includes a few sparkly red tiles. The Searings enjoyed the growth of their architect’s legacy, and considered themselves lucky to live in a rarity. Goff designed about 500 houses and commercial buildings. Of those, 147 were built and fewer than 80 still stand. The Searings received frequent calls, emails and visitors who wanted to experience a glimmer of Goff for themselves. The last of all Goff houses built in Kansas City was the Youngstrom house in 1968, part of the common, uncommon Goff legacy.
Scott Lane, co-founder and president of KC Modern, an advocacy organization for modern architecture and design, is familiar with all of the Goff houses in Kansas City and many across the country. “Although all of the Goff houses in Kansas City might differ in floor plan, but they share a feeling inside their walls,” said Lane, who has lived in the Goff-designed Hyde house. “There’s grooviness, but more than that, there is tranquility and calm.” Sails and Canoes Lake Quivira is a 20-minute interstate commute from downtown Kansas City. On the north side of the 224-acre lake is a four-level house on a hillside with unusual mandorla-shaped hoods on the corners. The exuberant design is quintessential Goff, and oddly enough, the perfect lake house. “Sails and Canoes,” says Youngstrom, is what Goff called his parents’ house. The home turns its back to the street with few windows in favor of the views of the lake from each room including the master bedroom. The treed lot, with walking paths to the private boat dock, is situated in a quiet cove with views of the golf course. “My parents enjoyed their time there,” Youngstrom said. They sailed and canoed. His mother, who had been executive director of the Friends of Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, kept a room devoted to orchids, a passion of hers. His father, chair of radiology at the University of Kansas Medical Center, loved walking with his Irish Setters to the golf course.
Youngstrom believes Goff’s work with Hyde, a fellow physician, influenced his father’s decision to work with Goff. The Youngstrom house was designed to fit a large Chinese rug, which belonged to Glenna. A strength of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where she worked, was and continues to be the Chinese collection. She and Goff shared an affinity for Asian arts and culture. “Although I was an architecture student at the time, I actually stayed out of the design process and let my parents work with Mr. Goff without many of my opinions,” Youngstrom said and smiled. And that process took a few years, starting in 1966. It went through three sets of designs before it was purchased. The couple lived in the home for just more than five years. His father’s declining health made different living arrangements necessary. As a gift to his parents, Youngstrom had created a sculpture for the house. Subsequent owners sold it in an estate sale and it had been absent from the house for years. In an odd coincidence, the current owners of the house found the sculpture at a Kansas City furnishings store, and returned it to the home. Youngstrom is proud that his parents worked with Goff a halfcentury ago this year. In his living room in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb that’s about a 15-minute drive from his parents’ house, is an original drawing of Sails and Canoes — his glimmer of Goff.
Third Time’s A Charm
Architect Bruce Goff’s first proposal for Karl and Glenna Youngstrom, completed in March 1967, had not been to Glenna Youngstrom’s liking. It combined cylindrical and rectangular elements, “decorated as if by a milliner,” said architect David G. DeLong in the book he wrote, considered to be the Goff bible, “Bruce Goff: Toward Absolute Architecture” (The MIT Press, 1988). The second proposal, developed in greater detail over the next two months, was more compelling. In plan, three half-mandorlas project from a central core containing a spiral stair. The house was to be three stories high. The Youngstroms were pleased with the design, called “The Orchid House,” but cost estimates exceeded their budget by three times, and the commission was temporarily halted. The third and final proposal for the Youngstrom house, with its grandly scaled window scoops at the corners, was built in 1968. The Youngstrom house is a four-level raised ranch. On the exterior corners are massive scoops: Sails and Canoes.