Neighborhoods - Home is where the WTF is

Three pieces of outlier architecture in Atlanta neighborhoods[| "]

Photo by Joeff Davis
Photo credit: Joeff DAvis

The Boat House on Edgewood

If 771 Edgewood Ave. looks nothing like its neighbors that's because, like an important piece of art, it couldn't have been made earlier and couldn't have been made later. In 2001, as owners Matt Beal and Deb Kahn were building what would become known as "the boat house," Inman Park was declared a historic district. New laws would prohibit such a modern home with its wall of glass curved like a hull, its stacks of porches that nose over the street like cruise decks.

A six-year construction process allowed time for a carpenter who used traditional Japanese techniques and a mathematician who patterned tiles. Beal spent years scavenging materials: retro windows from a demolished Buckhead mansion; mahogany beams from a Georgia barn. Found copper found a new life as shingles that flutter like dragon scales.

The home was designed by local architect Carlos Tardio who began in the late 1990s by interviewing the Beal children about what they wanted (answer: secret passages to stay close to family) and ended in the early 2000s by interviewing them as teens (answer: doors to outdoor balconies for some escape). Tardio told the AJC the home's tower, porches, and roofs were designed to echo the lacy turrets of nearby Victorians, not clash with them.

Still, if Victorians are respectable matrons who turn a prim face to the street, the house at 771 is a kid at a kegger whose mouth opens to a goofy smile, braces and all. Walls of glass and lacy latticework make the house seem so open as to be almost vulnerable. The design was something of a risk when the family bought the lot from friends in 1997 for $45,000, Kahn says. The neighborhood "seemed a little dicey" then, she recalls.

Six years later, Inman Park had gentrified enough that neighbors at the time were "really upset" over the aesthetic, Kahn says. The AJC called the house a "roadside attraction." As a teenager living there, Jane Beal says she was "very aware and self-conscious of how much we stuck out ... I also remember it being very strange to have people constantly coming up the driveway to gawk at the house."

Now, no one gawks. Down Edgewood, condos do a steady trade imitating the home's modern look or its found materials. And a neighborhood group even went so far as to ask Kahn to put 771 on an open house tour.

She turned the offer down.

"I said our house shouldn't be on your tour because it's not really representative of Inman Park," Kahn says. "We're not mad — but we're not on the tour because we couldn't build the house today."

The Tower on North Highland

Through the glazed windows of the shops on North Highland Avenue, the lot at 1209 looks like a sprawling wilderness — a kudzu forest, a haunted other. But peel back the overgrowth and there’s something there, something of stone and wood embedded with birdhouses and dripping with ivy.

This is what John Harich calls the Tower. It’s more of an art project than a home, more of a lifetime commitment than a weekend DIY project. Since 1975, Harich, 66, has been steadily working on building a house here. And not just some kind of house meant for dull people to live in, but one that is “perpetually inspiring,” he says.

Harich bought the lot in 1973 for $4,200, when Virginia-Highland was far from desirable. He remembers houses being razed for roads and others left abandoned. Harich rented nearby and used the lot for a studio for his handcrafted furniture business. But he started to wonder: If he could build a chair by hand, could he build a house to put it in?

More than 40 years later, the answer to that question is almost. Harich estimates he’s about 80 percent finished. But finishing isn’t the goal. Harich doesn’t live at the Tower or nearby anymore. Rents in the area have driven him out to Clarkston.

On the North Highland lot, Harich is consumed with a vision: To build a house without fabricated materials, a house where every room and hall and doorjamb gives those who pass through a feeling. Windows are octagonal, hexagonal, with glass arrayed in fairy-tale patterns. On the exterior, vertical stripes of boards are carved so they appear to drip down to the ground. Door handles are hewn from rough logs. A 10-foot-square porch took four months to build.

As Harich designed his masterpiece, he found himself looking abroad at the architectural traditions of countries older than our teenage nation. “The deeper feelings come from the deeper traditions in architecture,” Harich says. “America has none of that. It’s such a young country, you pretty much have to go abroad.”

Thus Japanese-style moon gates of white marble; fanciful woodwork that recalls a Swiss Chalet; and a castle-ready grand hall that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of “Game of Thrones.” (In December, Harich and his friends hosted a medieval-style banquet at the Tower.) The process has taken so long that ivy has overtaken stacks of stone on the site. But Harich is plowing on. Next on the list: “I’m working on getting the exterior done,” he says, “so it will look good for the neighbors.”

The Oakhurst Castle

Among the low craftsman bungalows of Oakhurst is a turreted stony thing topped with fortress crenellations and bordered with an iron fence: the Oakhurst Castle. Neighbors say a confederate soldier is buried in the yard and the blocks of granite came from Stone Mountain.

Sitting out on the porch of their home across the street one day years back, one of the Elliott boys shared what was later understood to be a prophetic vision. Rachel Elliott remembers her son said, “You know what? I’m going to get into that house.”

And then the Elliott family got inside.

In 2012 signs announced an Open House. Inside, the family saw what defied the notions of a castle: oversize windows and an inner courtyard blooming with plants. And the details! Doors with glass cut into ziggy helixes; a mural on a vaulted ceiling painted with a satirical take on the Sistine Chapel. Even the crooked, creaky floors seemed like a charming feature in a house that was like no other.

Someone would appreciate it, they thought.

And then it turned out that someone was them. “It does take a certain type of person to want to live here,” says Rachel, who waited a year while the home sat on the market before buying it.

The Oakhurst Castle was always a private home. According to historian David Rotenstein, the house was the vision of Frank Judson, the son of a noted landscape painter from Ontario, Canada, who had come to Atlanta to work in the home décor business as a salesman in the Atlanta Art Glass Company. While his brothers founded a glass company in California, Judson built his private Xanadu on two lots that records show he bought for $500. Judson raised a family here then faced mounting financial problems.

Rotenstein found that Judson sold the home to a creditor, who sold it to a widow and her family. In the 1980s, the house faced a teardown and again switched owners. The following owner sold the Elliotts their home complete with updated kitchens and bathrooms.

The Elliotts have discovered an interesting feature of the home: Strangers who stop by to tell stories of when they went inside years ago or kids who ask for a tour. So they’ve started a tradition of opening up the house on Halloween. “You can’t live in a castle,” Rachel says, “and not do something for Halloween.”

Joeff DavisALL HAIL OAKHURST: A knight guards the entrance to the Oakhurst castle, which features a kitchen ceiling in the style of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling art and stained glass that may date back a century.

Joeff DavisEDGEWOOD HO! Designed by local architect Carlos Tardio, building the boat house on Edgewood involved a six-year construction process, traditional Japanese carpentry techniques, a mathematician who patterned tiles, and lots of salvaged materials.

Joeff DavisWORK IN PROGRESS: John Harich has been building his tower on North Highland for more than 40 years. Swiss chalets inspired the look of the façade. The interior features a tree room and a Great Hall of Tranquility meant to evoke the feeling of a cathedral.