Couple builds Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Debi Russell and Paul Higgins often greet neighbors from the side porch of their new home, which has a mid-century modern design.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Debi Russell and Paul Higgins often greet neighbors from the side porch of their new home, which has a mid-century modern design.

From the ground up

Years ago, Debi Russell surprised her husband, Paul Higgins, when she asked him what he thought about one day buying the overgrown lot across the street, tearing down the house and building something new.

“He thought I was nuts,” she said.

In 2010, it happened.

The elderly owner of the property died, and Russell and Higgins bought it and, in October of that year, tore down the house and began clearing the half-acre.

Russell knew exactly what she wanted her new house to be. She and Higgins had long been fascinated with mid-century modern architecture and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

“We wanted something to fit the neighborhood, something that fit the lot,” she said. “I didn’t want it to look like a ‘McMansion,’ I didn’t want it to look like it was just put here yesterday.”

The couple contacted architect Lionel Bailey with a basic floor plan and a book on Wright’s work.

“I told him that when I sit in the kitchen, I don’t want to miss anything going on outside,” said Higgins, who is semiretired from his business of manufacturing cultured marble.

It was a project that intrigued Bailey.

“They were not trying to copy a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but they wanted to pick up the elements,” the architect said. “They wanted the simplicity, the straight-forward design. They knew how they wanted to live.”

Even though the project was different from what Bailey normally does, it was something he enjoyed tremendously.

“Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is all about spreading out on the land, reaching out onto the site,” he said. “All about horizontal bands reaching out to the site.”

Bailey translated those horizontal bands by creating a darker line of horizontal brick that encircles the house. He used strong, clean lines and lots of glass.

Russell wanted the front door painted turquoise.

“The automatic thing to do would have been to paint the door an off-white,” Bailey said. “But the turquoise makes the walls read stronger and the roof plane read stronger.”

The horizontal lines are extended to the landscaping designed by Pete Newton, who used long, slender concrete pads in place of a front sidewalk. The simple plan focuses on two mature live oaks that became major focal points when the property was cleared. Throughout the entire house, the floors are light natural maple and pale shades of travertine stone.

The rooms have deep crown moldings, many designed by Higgins, who served as general contractor on the project.

“Everything is on the horizontal,” Russell said. “The windows are all horizontal. There are no curves. It’s all angles.”

The back porch is interesting in that it has no posts holding up a deep overhang.

“Paul said he was not going to have posts blocking his view, so he had steel beams going through the walls to attach the overhang,” said Russell, who is retired from Entergy.

Russell and Higgins spent about two weeks moving in last fall.

“We wheeled things across the street,” Russell said. “You could bring your dishes and put them away. We never boxed the dishes up.”

The final project, an outdoor kitchen, is almost complete, just in time for the cool fall evenings. It is very similar to the outdoor kitchen the couple had at their older home.

“I couldn’t live without an outdoor kitchen,” Russell said. “I couldn’t live without my outdoor fireplace and television.”

One requirement the couple did have was that the house had to adapt to their senior years. They wanted the doorways to be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs or whatever medical equipment they might need in the future.

“As long as they can get a gurney down the hall, I’m OK,” Higgins said with a laugh.