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21 First Drafts: Hugh Newell Jacobsen's Roberts Residence

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.

Hugh Newell Jacobsen
Roberts Residence in West Virginia
Date completed: 1958

Getting the Gig:
Hugh Newell Jacobsen, an impeccable stylist of minimal American homes who had both the taste and talent to retain Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a client, can seem like a gentleman from another era. Part of that old-school aura includes respect for his elders. While many architects can't wait to break out on their own and experiment with new ideas, Michigan-born Jacobsen seemed forever respectful of the lessons he learned up from his early mentors, Yale professor Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson, whom he worked with briefly after graduating in 1954 during the Seagram Building era (he was let go for being a lousy draftsman). Jacobsen said that after his first Architectural Record cover came out, Kahn, whom he described as the most important influence in his life, actually called him and told him that, "We all have to do a house like that someday, and I hope to hell you got it out of your system." But that wasn't Jacobsen's first solo gig. After a brief tenure at D.C.'s influential firm of Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon, he was laid off in a downturn in 1958 and, despite a bumpy start, decided to open shop on his own.

Description and Reception:
The simple wooden Roberts Residence looks very different from the gabled, minimalist, mostly white structures that would become Jacobsen hallmark. Clad in California redwood, it's an elegant take on a cabin, a simple structure elevated above the sloping ground near the Potomac River.

Impact On His Career:
The Roberts Residence first appears as an outlier in the Jacobsen canon, more woodsy and rural than the refined coastal residences and D.C.-area homesthat would become his early stock-in-trade. From his next projects on, including a glass-and-brick home in suburban Maryland (1959's Thoron House) and a Georgetown renovation that made him a Beltway star (1961's R.E. Lee House), he focused on more streamlined exteriors, adapting the white cladding that defined other minimalists such as Meier. Perhaps the Roberts Residence was, as he once said, the first time he felt the excitement of knowing that "people would actually pay you to do this stuff," as he told the Washington Post, so he decided to stick with residential architecture. But it could very well be an early example of appreciating, understanding and elevating local styles (there may be many cabins in West Virginia, but not many use California redwood). Looking at later works, such as barn-like buildings that make up Minnesota's Dixon House (1980), it becomes clear Jacobsen is much more adaptable than some might think.

Famous Future Works::
The Lee Residence (Washington, D.C.: 1965), Rehoboth Beach House (Rehoboth, 1969), Buckwalter Residence (Lancaster: 1982), Greene Residence (Eastern Shore: 1993), The Weitzenhoffer Wing (Norman: 2005),
Welles House (Vero Beach: 2009)

Current Status:
A few years after finishing construction, the home was engulfed in flames due to a local forest fire. While the original owners were thankfully able to escape without any injuries, nothing remains of Jacobsen's first work.

Hugh Newell Jacobsen 'Village' Seeks Second-Ever Owner [Curbed]
A Hugh Newell Jacobsen Masterpiece On McLean's Crest Lane [Curbed DC]
Award-Winning Jacobsen Renovation Asking Bonkers $10.5M [Curbed DC]