Architect's 50-year-old homes in Columbia inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright

Thursday, December 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:51 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 3, 2009
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William Bernoudy was a St. Louis native who studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright. A few of his houses were built right here in the Columbia area, and they're still standing today amid trees and atop picturesque bluffs. Here's a look at the outsides and insides of just a few of his works.

COLUMBIA — When the sun sets, the warm light escapes as the shadows creep through a wall of windows at 1844 Cliff Drive. Moving quickly across the waxy green floors, often without being seen, Randy Hill’s cats seem to know the secrets of his architectural masterpiece better than he does. They peek out from under the custom-made end table next to the fireplace or perch atop the second-floor balcony held in place by steel beams encased in wood.

In the 1950s, an architectural movement was happening, and Columbia was a small part of that revolution. At a time when people wanted something more sleek and modern, architect William Bernoudy, a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, was commissioned to build eight houses in Columbia. Unique qualities in design and functionality have brought joy to the owners of the homes for more than 50 years.

Hill, an institutional planner at Lincoln University, has always had an interest in architecture. When he heard a Bernoudy home was for sale in the East Campus neighborhood, he talked to the owner one day, saw the house the second day and looked at it again on the third day. On the fourth day, he bought it.  

“I know what I like, and I liked this,” Hill said. “It was a quick decision.”  

That was four years ago. Hill used to photograph historic buildings and said he found the home on Cliff Drive to be visually interesting and rare.

“It’s unique by nature I think. No square corners. For someone who has built furniture, I find it very relaxing to be in a house built by craftsmen,” Hill said. “I like the mix of the old and new. It was very easy to modernize because of the sound principles it was built on.”

Those principles stem from Wright’s teaching and his ideas about architecture. Bernoudy learned from Wright about respecting the landscape and incorporating nature into a home’s design. His designs emphasize open floor plans so that space can flow easily from one part of the home to another.

Bernoudy houses are known for their floor-to-ceiling windows, roofs with large overhangs and unique light fixtures. Bernoudy also worked with triangular modules and motifs. His trademark is triangular windows, a feature included in the homes he designed in Columbia.  

Hill’s house was commissioned by Helen and David Pinkney in 1952. It’s unique because it is on a fairly flat plot of land, whereas many Bernoudy houses are on hills or more uneven surfaces. It is two stories high with the bedrooms on the second floor and an indoor balcony facing the large glass windows overlooking a large front yard filled with trees.

After the Pinkneys moved out, Stephens College professor Kate Rogers moved in. Rogers wanted more living space and brought in local architect Ponn Chin to build an annex that conformed with Bernoudy’s original concept. The annex has a small TV room and a large, modern bathroom.

“I’m there to take care of it and preserve it. I don’t want to change it,” Hill said in terms of making more adjustments to the house. “I want to leave it better than I found it.”

Hill’s Bernoudy home isn’t the only one in Columbia that has undergone changes. Jane Youman has owned a Bernoudy home off Rock Quarry Road for 10 years. When she moved in, she wanted to make some parts of the house more functional. Most of the walls, for example, are windows, which gives her little space to hang artwork.

Youman also lacked storage space, so she came up with some creative ways to address that problem, such as using baskets placed on high shelves to hold tea and other kitchen items. To get the baskets down, she fashioned a pole with a hook on the end that allows her to reach them.

The adjustments Youman made were small. She stained some of the wood, removed narrow French doors from the bathroom that were difficult to open, took out built-in shelves in the master bedroom to make it bigger and create wall space and added a ceramics room in her basement.

“I have done a lot, but we’ve tried to have it be in keeping with the style,” Youman said. “I feel like I’m tampering with the masters.”

Youman has grown to love many things about her home. Her favorite thing is the view, especially in winter.

A few steps from the back of the house is a steep drop through brush and trees that leads to Hinkson Creek. The sound of the running stream creates a calming effect. The view from the second-floor balcony that wraps around the back half of the house is best after a snowfall, Youman said. It creates a bright white canvas over the entire creek.

“This is one of the most wonderful views around here,” she said. She and her husband, Fred Young, enjoy it so much they were married just outside their back door.  

Clyde and Cecile Bentley own one of the other Bernoudy homes in East Campus. They bought it in 2005.

“When you see it on the street, it doesn’t look like much, but it isn’t until you enter that you see the windows,” said Clyde Bentley, an MU journalism professor.

In 1950, Mary Coleman commissioned the home where the Bentleys now live. At the time, it was one of the smallest houses Bernoudy had ever done. Clyde Bentley said he loves the enormous windows, which measure about 4-by-9 feet. That allows him to see out to Hinkson Creek. Bentley enjoys the setting and likes to talk about the foxes and deer that inhabit the forest of towering trees. The only way the Bentleys could be closer to nature would be to live outside.

MU architecture professor emeritus Osmund Overby took special interest in Bernoudy. In 1999, Overby wrote a book about Bernoudy — "William Adair Bernoudy, Architect: Bringing the Legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright to St. Louis" — that explored not only his architectural style but also his life.

Overby said Bernoudy’s designs were ahead of their time in terms of being “green.” The vast windows allow for a more natural heating and cooling system.

“The windows are directly north, and they have a huge overhang, but it’s measured to a point where in the winter, sun comes in, but in the summertime, there isn’t much sun at all,” Clyde Bentley said.

The form-meets-function idea behind Bernoudy’s work has remained timeless for over half a century. It’s as if he could sense the features of architecture that people would continue to appreciate even decades later.

It’s clear from the design that Bernoudy thought meticulously about every detail of his homes and took pains to ensure they were perfectly constructed. At Hill’s home, custom-built desks fit precisely with the corners of the walls. Even the light fixtures are crafted from wood. Hill finds this one of the most astounding things about his house.

“This is a woodworkers dream; it’s handmade,” he said. “Everything is hand-cut and fitted together. It’s rare that someone would do that today.”


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