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21 First Drafts: Paul Rudolph's Atkinson House

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Paul Rudolph
Atkinson House in Auburn, Alabama
Date completed: 1939

Getting the gig:
Kentucky-born Paul Rudolph, son of a Methodist minister, came to study at Alabama Polytechnic Institute with exactly the kind of traditional southern background that wouldn't set him apart. But the future architect ended up standing out, a quiet guy with a big presence on campus. Considered one of if not the most talented architecture student on campus, Rudolph was involved in a fraternity, conducted the glee club, and sported loose sweaters and a more casual attitude compared to the straight-laced, suit-and-tie look of the era. He was "slightly bohemian for the campus," says Timothy Rohan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wrote a book on Rudolph's career, catching the attention of fellow students and faculty. When Professor T.P. Atkinson in the Foreign Languages Department needed an architect to design a home for his family on a shaded corner lot near campus, he hired the architecture school's BMOC to design the $5,500 home. While he asked for a simple family home, the resulting design would presage Rudolph's upcoming modernist experiments, drawing ever-so-slight influence from the Rosenbaum House, a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian design in nearby Florence, Alabama, that served as a catalyst for the young architect.

Description and Reception:
Coming out of a school pushing a Beaux-Arts curriculum, the 21-year-old still dived headfirst into the modernist movement with his first independent project, attempting to provide an airy, open floor plan for the 1,364-square-foot home while staying within his limited budget. While it was far from a radical design, notable flourishes—including built-in furniture, contemporary features such as central heating, and material experimentation—showed him looking toward the future. The layout not only foreshadowed future work, especially his string of Modernist residences in Sarasota, but it also demonstrated that he was rooted in the Southern vernacular and the concept of open-air living. One touch that showed both a strong vision, as well as perhaps a nod to Art Deco, was the exotic six-by-ten-foot mural he carved over the fireplace. Cut out of Homasote, a fiberboard material, the almost mythological image of a fisherman struggling with netting has been seen as both a nod to past styles and, potentially, a homoerotic design with a slight sexual undercurrent, a sign of the architect's self-expression. Regardless of its intent, the artwork showed that Rudolph's then-recent class on mural design, required for all fourth-year architecture students, had paid off.

Impact on His Career:
Along with his class work, Rudolph's design for the Atkinson House convinced his professor, Walter Burkhardt, that he belonged at one of the country's premier architecture graduate programs. Burkhardt encouraged him to apply to Harvard, where he would first encounter Philip Johnson and Walter Gropius. In early encounters with such a heady, high-achieving group, it was a mark of pride to already have one commission under his belt. Rudolph would also maintain close ties with API, later renamed Auburn, eventually returning to redesign the Kappa Sigma fraternity house and building the cantilevered Applebee-Shaw House for a university art professor.

Famous Future Works:
Cocoon House (Sarasota: 1951), Riverview High School (Sarasota: 1958), Yale Art and Architecture Building (New Haven: 1963), Endo Pharmaceuticals Building (Nassau County, 1964), Orange County Government Center (Goshen: 1967), Tuskegee University Chapel (Tuskegee: 1969), Dharmala Tower (Jakarta: 1988)

Current Status:
While some of Rudolph masterpieces have not been cared for, this home is in near-perfect condition, and was actually sold to a private owner two years ago with the mural and many interior fittings intact for $160,000.

On Paul Rudolph and Sarasota's Forgotten Modernist Mecca [Curbed]
Paul Rudolph Townhouse Where Warhol Partied Wants $40M [Curbed]
Brutalist Pioneer Paul Rudolph's NYC Home Relists for $28M [Curbed]