The Bixby House
from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012 |
Largely unheralded, this Kansas City masterwork of modernism deserves its place in the pantheon of great American houses.
Perched on a soft rise in the Country Club District of Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the remarkable architectural and design landmarks of the 1930s-the Bixby House (Figs. 2, 6). It is much less well known than the other great American houses of that decade, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater or Richard Neutra's VDL Research House, yet it may express as much as any work of the period about the fortunes of American architecture and design. The Bixby House's look drew in part from European precedents, but it was-and remains-a compelling testament of the ways in which an architect and an interior designer working in America sought to express the unique features of the country's lifestyle and outlook.
The imposing, 15,200-square-foot house was built as the residence of insurance executive Walter E. Bixby Sr. (1896-1972), who in 1935 commissioned local architect Edward W. Tanner to oversee the design. Bixby, born in Champaign, Illinois, had come to Kansas City in the early 1920s and joined the Kansas City Life Insurance Company as a clerk. After his marriage in 1923 to Angeline Reynolds, daughter of J. B. Reynolds, chairman of the company, he rose swiftly through its ranks, ultimately ascending to the chairmanship and playing a central role in establishing Kansas City Life as one of the nation's leading insurance firms.1
Bixby knew from the outset that he wanted a modern house-something different from the many other stately homes that framed State Line Road.2 Tanner was an unlikely choice for such a task. Upon arriving in Kansas City in the late 1910s (after earning one of the first degrees in architecture from Kansas University and serving briefly in the army), he had joined the J. C. Nichols development company. Over the next decade and a half he designed hundreds of houses and small commercial structures, all of them in traditional styles.3 His most celebrated works included the Crestwood Shops (1922) and a portion of Country Club Plaza (begun 1922), the Spanish revival commercial center that is still among Kansas City's most important landmarks. Aside from its ample plazas and gracious forms, what distinguished the complex was that it was the nation's first shopping area built to accommodate automobiles-a far-seeing idea in a time when car culture was in its infancy.4 Tanner's grasp on the stylistic language of modernism, however, was far less secure. He had traveled in England and France in the late 1920s and had almost certainly seen examples of the new architecture, but he had no experience designing modernist buildings.
That may well have been the reason he decided to collaborate with noted Los Angeles designer Kem Weber. Tanner and Bixby decided that Tanner would design the house itself, but they needed someone who had expertise with modern interiors. Weber had a national reputation at the time as one of the country's foremost interior and industrial designers and as a leading advocate for modernism. And Weber brought an added asset to the project: unlike most of the leading New York designers, he had been trained as an architect and had designed and built several modern houses. He could assist-or at least advise-Tanner on the house's design.
Weber also brought another important qualification: he was at the cutting edge of the effort to forge a distinctly American modernism. Although neither American by birth nor training (he was a native German and had been educated in Berlin), he had lived and practiced in California for more than two decades, and he was deeply committed to the idea of making an American modernist style distinctly different from that of the European avant-garde. He was especially interested in developing a casual, relaxed modernism that stressed comfort and practicality over mere appearance.5
But Tanner and Bixby's choice may also have fallen on Weber for another, more immediate reason. Weber was known for his streamlined designs and for employing clean, pure lines. What Tanner had in mind for the house was a long, low, contoured profile, with continuous "flowing" lines. Weber's aesthetic appeared to be an ideal match. It is not known to what degree the two men actually collaborated on the project; no records of their meetings or of Weber's trips to Kansas City have survived. But the interplay between the house and its interiors suggests that they must have worked together closely.
Tanner devised a two-story house with a large basement. The main body, constructed in reinforced concrete, concrete blocks, and stucco, consisted of a two-story central core flanked by wings on the northeast and southwest, the latter positioned a half story below the main section, with a terrace covered by a spreading, partially cantilevered roof.
The building's smooth walls, curved forms, flat roof, tubular steel columns, and aluminum alloy windows immediately announced it as a modernist work. But it was the interiors that set it apart. Weber was commissioned to design thirteen of the twenty-two principal rooms, including the two-story entrance hall, the formal living and dining rooms on the ground floor, a breakfast room, the family and guest bedrooms, and the "rumpus room" in the basement. Armed with an ample budget that allowed him to design custom furnishings and finishes, he lavished attention on the project, preparing a broad range of new pieces and ideas with painstaking care.The result was a deluxe version of his aesthetic.
Throughout the early 1930s, as the Depression had worsened, Weber had struggled to find work. Much of what he produced had been for large furniture manufacturers in and around GrandRapids, Michigan (then the center of the American furniture industry), who were eager to embrace modernism, hoping the new style would lift their flagging sales. (In the course of his work, Weber gave frequent lectures throughout the Midwest, which is perhaps how he had come to Bixby and Tanner's attention.) The pieces he created were clear and direct, though with decidedly less expensive materials than he typically employed (see Fig. 18). With the Bixby House, he had the opportunity to experiment more freely and to push his ideas in new directions.
Weber labored on the interiors through 1936 and into 1937. His surviving drawings and later photographs of the installations show that he was particularly concerned with making a livable and appealing environment. The furnishings are soft, with contoured edges and warm, inviting upholstery. Color-lost in the period black-and-white photographs-took on a significant role, as can be seen in the drawings and some of the surviving pieces: coral red, maroon, vibrant yellows, and cerulean and midnight blues were set off against black, "oyster white," or brown.6 He paid minute attention to lighting (at a time when sophisticated lighting techniques were still in their infancy), employing individual fixtures or concealed overhead lighting to spotlight various features or offer an ambient look (see Fig. 4).
To underscore the modern appearance of the house, Weber used a full array of new materials, including aluminum, linoleum, Masonite, glass block, veneered plywood, and cork paneling.7 But he also took pains to mitigate the impact of Tanner's sharply orthogonal rooms. Despite the house's flowing, streamlined exterior, most of the rooms were boxy and undistinguished. Weber, wanting to avoid any form of modernist regimentation-"nature," he once wrote, "isn't designed with a T-square and a triangle"8-introduced moveable and built-in furnishings, veneered paneling, and other devices to transform the lines of Tanner's design into lithe curvilinear shapes. A blue leather bench in the basement playroom, for example, extended out into the room in a two-thirds circle (see Figs. 13-15); the dining room featured a large round freestanding table, with upholstered chairs bent into similarly soft, rounded shapes (Fig. 17). Weber continued the theme of circles and rounded forms in the grand foyer, which was framed by a dramatic curving stair and featured an inlaid linoleum floor in shades of gray with accents of coral and black (see Fig. 1).
His intention, however, was not merely to devise an interior that was visually arresting; he also wanted to promote a sense of freedom and repose. Some of the furnishings and installations were architectonic-fully engaged with the walls; others were set freely within the spaces, often at angles to the walls and thus "liberated" from the structure. Weber's rooms also mixed varying moods and ideas. The grand entry and stair, which featured Baccarat glass posts set within an aluminum railing, was elegant and graceful, while the bathrooms were playful, and the rumpus room, positioned immediately beneath the entry hall, was very much about leisure and relaxation (Figs. 13-15).
The appearance of easy and informal living carried over to the house's private spaces. The bedrooms were warm and inviting, and Bixby's private study, though clearly functional, with a marked air of modern reserve, was nonetheless cozy and tranquil (see Fig. 5).
Weber's choices for the individual furnishings show the same blending of casualness and sophistication. Most of the pieces he had custom made at the Robert Keith Furniture and Carpet Company of Kansas City; a smaller number he took from his own lines of mass produced furniture or from other modernist designers' collections (the rattan chairs in the basement, for instance, came from his friend Paul T. Frankl's shop in Los Angeles, as did one of the tables in the library). Underlying all the designs, however, was a reliance on clear form and proportion. The coffee table created for the living room, for example, was based on the idea of semicircular cutouts, flipped down to form a lower shelf (Fig. 11). But in every instance Weber's intent was to establish a pleasing and relaxing environment. "Restfulness," he told one reporter, "is more than a matter of deeply cushioned chairs. It is a matter, as well, of harmonizing lines and low, restful tones, and a sensation of unlimited space, even in a small room. That, perhaps, is an optical illusion, but it is none the less effective for all that."9
When the house was finished in 1937, the Kansas City Star hailed it as a triumph of modernist principles in domestic design.10 The newspaper's reporter, like almost all later observers, though, may have missed its true importance. Those writing about the house then and since have all stressed its stylistic features, variously describing it as a consummate exemplar of the "streamlined moderne" or the International Style. But Weber's interiors belong really to neither category. Although he drew from the vocabularies of streamlining and European functionalism, his rooms display an original and distinct vision of modernism, one not limited by the standard stylistic classifications. He instead took an evolutionary approach, attempting not to forge a definable style but to answer the specific needs of his clients. "It must be our ambition," he wrote, "to express beauty in our daily commodities, through the most simple, most logical, most graceful forms and designs-without appearing to be freakish-and the most natural development based upon the understanding of the problem, will be retained as the best possible solution."11
Above all Weber sought to find the Americanness of modern American design, to convey the unique conditions of the American lifestyle and attitudes. What drove his design decisions was an interest in matching the Bixbys' lifestyle with an aesthetic that was both appropriate and up to date; by doing so, he was able to achieve a compelling and beautiful statement of a particular time in American history. His design, indeed, was the full realization of almost two decades of American efforts to find an idiom that was both modern and American. Only a short time later, with the arrival of large numbers of European modernists fleeing the rise of Nazism, much of what characterized that new American aesthetic would be swept away by the rising flood of the International Style. Walter Rendell Storey, then the design critic for the New York Times, writing about the Bixby House in the London Studio International in 1939, recognized the special features of Weber's achievement: "The modern style, international though it is because it has grown up in many countries and has certain fundamental unities, is nevertheless varied. Different social and individual needs must be met, different methods of manufacture taken into account and regional tastes provided for. In the United States, where contemporary fashion developed much later than in Europe, these variations are most evident."12
Weber's remarkable interiors, sadly, no longer exist. Walter Bixby Sr., sold the house in 1949, and the furnishings were distributed among various family members and friends or sold. His son, Walter Jr., in an homage to the original design, fitted out the private screening room of his penthouse apartment in Kansas City with a group of Weber's Airline chairs he had saved.13 Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house itself remains in excellent condition, carefully restored in the early 1990s.14 In 1990 it served as the backdrop for the film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. All that remains of the original installations are the railing in the circular stair hall and the curved sofa in the basement. But the house stands as a testament to a special moment in American architecture and design and to the efforts of Weber and Tanner to forge a true, indigenous modernism.
1 Charles and Mary Baer, Edward W. Tanner, Architect (Meseraull Press, Kansas City, Missouri, 2000), pp. i-viii; "E. W. Tanner, Plaza Architect, Dies." Kansas City Times, April 26, 1974; National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, United State Department of the Interior, 1974; Richard B. Fowler, Leaders in Our Town (Burd and Fletcher Company, Kansas City, Missouri, 1952), pp. 425-428. 2 Cydney Millstein and Carol Grove, Houses of Missouri, 1870-1940 (Acanthus Press, New York, 2008), p. 230. 3 Baer and Baer, Edward W. Tanner, pp. 1-25. 4 George Ehrlich, Kansas City, Missouri: An Architectural History, 1826-1990 (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1992), pp. 72-74. 5 On Weber's early life and work, see David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton, Kem Weber: The Moderne in Southern California, 1920-1941 (University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1969); and Christopher Long, "Kem Weber and the rise of modern design in Southern California," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 175, no. 5 (May 2009), pp. 96-103. 6 Kurt Helfrich, "Designing the Moderne: Kem Weber's Bixby House," brochure for an exhibiton at University Art Museum, Santa Barbara, November 29, 2000-February 11, 2001, n.p. 7 Ibid. 8 Kem Weber, "Bit by Bit," California Arts and Architecture, vol. 57 (June 1940), p. 23. 9 Carleton Cady, "Kem Weber Tells What He's After in Modern Furniture," Grand Rapids Herald, July 3, 1936. 10 "This State Line House Exemplifies Modern Residential Design in Kansas City," Kansas City (Missouri) Star, January 10, 1937. 11 Kem Weber, "Modern Art Movement," unpublished lecture, 1929, Kem Weber Archive, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design and Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara. 12 Walter Rendell Storey, "Interior Decorators of Today: Kem Weber," Studio International, vol. 117 (June 1939), p. 264. 13 Helfrich, "Designing the Moderne: Kem Weber's Bixby House," n.p. 14 Loring Leifer, "Executives at Home: A Modern Masterpiece," Ingram's, vol. 19, no. 10 (October 1993), pp. 49-51.
CHRISTOPHER LONG is professor for architectural and design history in the School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin.