“Not much is not enough.”
Long before I found myself down the Bruce Goff rabbit hole, I lived in a house built by one of his many students. The name of the architect is lost to history, since the house, like many mid-century modern gems, was bulldozed sometime in the 1980s to make way for a bloated and generic showcase luxury home. We rented the house, and the owner had made its destruction seem inevitable. According to the owner, the house was built on sand and it was slowly sliding down a hill, lacking a proper foundation to keep it anchored to the earth.
It had been dubbed the “Airplane House” at some point, even though its wings were rather modest grilles of iron that protruded from the roof. The house had to be the only one in Ranch Acres featuring painted cinder block walls, which angled out from the center like wings, accentuating the whole airplane motif. My bedroom was a loft and the living area had massive planes of glass on the east and west sides, almost like a modernist cathedral.
Next to its down-the-street neighbor, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tulsa masterpiece Westhope, the Airplane House looked like a study in futurism on the cheap. Still, for all its defects, it stood out like a beacon against South Tulsa conformity, angling itself up against all those pseudo-colonials with fake plantation shutters, announcing a future that never quite arrived.
It could be the case that the airplane house did indeed have an early expiration date, and it was simply a matter of time before it slid off its concrete slab into the ravine. Or it could have been the case that the eccentric dwelling would never get along with its boring neighbors and the shaky foundation was a developer’s pretext to scrape a piece of avant-garde architecture.
Knowing what I now know about the madness and greed of men attached to such structures, I cannot rule out the wildest of conspiracies. In any case, living there as a 12-year-old was the first time I can remember hearing the name Bruce Goff. If our house was an amateurish Goff imitation, what must the real thing be like? To me, the Goff buildings around Tulsa looked like they had been teleported from another universe. The Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, an early Goff building, didn’t so much seem like a church as it did a module for communication with alien life forms.
Oklahoma is dotted with Goff’s singular works of genius, many of them houses in small towns off the main highways. Goff designed houses that seem to speak their own language (as it turns out, Goff actually did invent—if not his own language—his own font style for each house). Nearly thirty years after Goff’s death, though, the architect’s work is starting to resemble a dying idiom, as some of his most notable buildings fade into oblivion, with no one outside a small but aging group of enthusiasts taking notice.
As something less than a household name, Bruce Goff doesn’t have the contemporary cachet of a Frank Gehry or Philip Johnson, even though both of those “starchitects” have acknowledged him as an influence. “I knew of Goff in my architectural beginnings as a shadowy mystical figure in Oklahoma who made bizarre buildings,” Gehry has written. “He was an American. Like [Frank Lloyd] Wright, he was the model iconoclast, the paradigm of America. How should we have him now—this messy creature from Middle America?”
My descent down the rabbit hole began early this summer when I saw a Goff home for sale in Tulsa. The house had two flat roofs with strange designs on the fascia that looked in the photos like indecipherable hieroglyphics. The overall effect was of a Mayan temple surrounded by Maple Ridge quaintness. I toyed with plans for scraping up the cash for a down payment, but then later ran into a website that cast a shadow of doubt on its provenance. Someone on the site PrairieMod.com seemed unconvinced that the house on South Madison was a real Goff and asked for confirmation.
Nelson Brackin, an Atlanta-based architect who worked with Goff on a number of his projects late in his life, left a comment on the site that the house was, in fact, a real Goff. Brackin is the president of the Friends of Kebyar, an organization that preserves and promotes design “outside the mainstream.” Brackin knows how to spot a Goff, having put together a special edition of the Friends of Kebyar journal dedicated to Goff in Oklahoma. Brackin said that, in the late 1950s, Goff came back to Tulsa and pointed out many of the houses he had built to a local architect, Thomas Thixton. Many of them, however, were later demolished to make way for the cross-town freeway system.
Other Goff buildings, some of them central to Tulsa’s architectural identity, have either been torn down since the 1970s, or are under threat of being demolished. One such building is the Tulsa Club, which used to be a downtown institution for the rich and powerful, only to fall into disrepair and neglect in the 1990s. In 2007, the city ruled that the 11-story building either be razed or restored to meet fire and safety codes. The building was bought by a California investor who let it deteriorate even further. Since then, the building has been the subject of years of litigation, its owner cited by the city for property code and public nuisance violations. Numerous fires have broken out and the unique zigzag details on the walls are covered in graffiti. Crushed beer cans litter the ballroom floor. The landmark was sold last year for $1.1 million.
I later asked Brackin why Goff’s work could be so esteemed by top architects and so neglected by Oklahomans. A lot of Goff’s buildings, he said, date from the middle of the 20th century. “Mid-century is seen as disposable. Goff was so singular, so unique, his architecture stood out. It didn’t conform, it didn’t fit in, it wasn’t a rebirth of some past style or belief.”
The most singular, unique, and non-conformist Goff house of them all is the Bavinger House in Norman, and, in a bizarre coincidence, while I was scheming various plans to buy the Goff house on South Madison, a tragic event began unfolding on its premises.
At first, it appeared that a microburst of severe weather in late June had damaged the one part of the house visible from the street, a winding, logarithmic spire held in place by a tall mast. Someone snapped a photo of the spire at a 45-degree angle from where it should be, and the Oklahoma City media reported “storm damage” as the cause. The next day, a story in The Oklahoman cast some doubt on the original reporting, claiming that “the architectural oddity in east Norman either fell to a recent microburst of high winds—or at the hand of the owner, Bob Bavinger.”
Soon afterwards, rumors of the house’s demise started to circulate around the internet. The website for the house had a vaguely worded statement that the Bavinger House would no longer be able to be open to the public (the website has since disappeared into the ether). speculation about the house’s destruction began to center on Bavinger, the son of the original owners, the artists Eugene and Nancy Bavinger. As it turned out, Bob Bavinger had made repeated threats to destroy the house to people connected to the School of Architecture at OU. A news crew from Oklahoma City went out to investigate, but, as they came on the premises, a shot rang out and they retreated.
Phone calls and emails—including some from me—have not been answered, leading many to believe that Bob Bavinger, along with his son Boz, are, indeed, dismantling the house rock by rock. To understand how this situation came about, it’s worth going back to Goff’s arrival in Norman in 1947, and looking back at his vexed relationship with the University of Oklahoma.
Goff arrived in Norman with no academic training, but he already had three decades of experience designing houses. He received his first commission at the age of 12 in Tulsa and his sketches reveal a brilliant but quirky talent. After a prolific period in Tulsa, he worked in Chicago, Ohio, and California, incorporating elements of Bauhaus, Prairie School, and the International Style into his buildings. It was in Norman, though, that Goff finally experienced the “liberation of genius”—in the words of Goff scholar David De Long. In the 1930s, in Chicago, he had started to write about architecture as a design of “the continuous present,” following Gertrude Stein’s idea that composition never really begins or ends, but flows through time. In Norman, he explored the entire more fully, creating the spiral of the Bavinger House.
“What I would like to see is the clock striking thirteen around here,” he told an audience at OU in 1953. “I would like to see something strange, and new, and different … not to be strange, just as a name, because that will never work. What you do if you do something that we are talking about here—having an idea of your own—will naturally seem strange.”
Students from around the country flocked to OU to study with Goff. Herb Greene, who would later become an important architect in his own right, transferred to Norman from Syracuse and did some of the first drawings for the Bavinger House. “Goff sat every student down for an hour and half and just talked to them,” he told me. “He was a great educator.”
They didn’t just talk about buildings, but philosophy, literature, and music. Goff introduced Greene to the Russian Constructivists and phenomenology. Although Goff cultivated a taste for the odd, eccentric, and outlandish, Greene characterizes him as “the kindest man I’ve ever known.”
Summarizing what Goff did in Norman is nearly impossible, since each building is like a new school unto itself. His first house, the Ledbetter House, attracted so much attention that it was featured in a photo spread in Life magazine. The carport and patio feature suspended, round roofs that come off looking like flying saucers. “It was the age of Sputnik, Roswell, and the space race,” says Nelson Brackin. “We were thrown skyward, and the Ledbetter House reflects that.”
According to Brackin, Mrs. Ledbetter loved cut glass but couldn’t afford it, so Goff went to a dime store and bought heavy glass ashtrays, which are built into the house. Goff found it amusing that, after the Ledbetter house made its debut, a rash of buildings appeared around Norman with things suspended from cables. He thought of the house as “rather conventional” and moved on to a bigger challenge: designing a house for Eugene and Nancy Bavinger for a budget of around $2,000.
According to Goff, Eugene Bavinger looked like “more of a truck driver” than an art professor. One of his main hobbies was growing indoor plants, and “he liked to get out and dig and move large rocks and that sort of thing.” Realizing that a bank loan for the house would be impossible, Bavinger said he would be willing to do a lot of the construction himself, recycling old materials like salvaged rope, World War I airplane parts, and Coca-Cola glass cullets.
Goff came up with a design of a spiral-shaped house that inverted the outside and inside, turning the interior into a walled garden. The house’s now-defunct website described the finished product as “a single rock wall that takes the form of a logarithmic spiral building upward toward the sky. The interior stairs, living area bowls, and closets are suspended and supported from a drill stem pipe that runs through the center of the house. A bridge on the east side of the house is used as a counter-weight for the roof to keep the drill stem pipe from bending. A buttress at the lower end of the roof keeps the roof from running away.”
Like the Ledbetter House, the Bavinger House became a national sensation and the artist raised money for the construction by selling tickets at a dollar a head. By the time they had finished, the Bavingers had raised close to $4,000. Goff’s students, including Herb Greene, came out to the property to help in the construction. During a lecture later in his life, Goff said that many well-known architects resented the house, thinking it was an abomination to make his clients live in a spiral with suspended pods instead of rooms.
Eugene Bavinger, however, always rose to Goff’s defense. Goff recalled Bavinger telling off one architect in person: “It’s true we never dreamed we’d live in a spiral, never thought of it. We told him what we wanted, what we liked, what we didn’t like, and it ended up with a spiral, and we are damned glad it did. I really don’t think it’s anybody else’s business.”
Bavinger came to begrudge the curiosity seekers and posted trespassing signs around the property. Goff told the story of a rich man who brought his trophy wife up from Dallas to see the house years after it was built. Bavinger told the man to go away but the man replied, “When you have a work of art you must share it with people—you shouldn’t keep it all to yourself.” Bavinger reportedly ogled the man’s beautiful wife and asked him if he really believed that great works of art should be shared. “He never got to see the house,” Goff said.
Maybe the story’s apocryphal, but it gets at Bavinger’s sense of ownership. A person close to the Bavingers says that Eugene always kept a gun close by. Some visitors recall seeing his “no trespassing” signs shot full of buckshot to let people know he was serious about privacy. When another Goff landmark, the Joe Price House in Bartlesville, fell victim to a mysterious case of arson in 1996, the Bavingers became convinced that their house would be next.
* * *
At this point, the relationship between Goff, his clients, and the University of Oklahoma becomes very weird and even more complicated. The Price House, perhaps Goff’s second most famous building, had been deeded to OU in 1985 when Joe Price decided to move his family and his unique collection of Japanese art from Bartlesville to Los Angeles. By this time, Goff had died and his immense collection of letters, art, records and sketches were spread out among different collections in Norman, Chicago, and Bartlesville.
OU had endowed a Bruce Goff Chair in Creative Architecture, but its direction was proving to be a big disappointment in the opinion of Goff’s old students. OU’s handling of the Price House was also causing concern for them. It was rented out for special events, but its unique design—which included, among other things, goose feathers, turkey insemination rods, and blood-stained glass mosaics—was not being maintained or even insured. The Price House got so run down that OU decided to sell it off, and the Friends of Shin’en Kan (the name comes from the Price House’s Japanese moniker, which means “The House of the Faraway Heart”) were trying to raise the money to buy it back and restore it. Goff’s friends and colleagues were shocked to see the state of the house, and negotiations to restore it often ended in shouting matches with representatives from OU.
The house was sold to the highest bidder: two Bartlesville residents who outbid the Friends of Shin’en Kan, but agreed to lease it to them for $1. Under the agreement, the buyers would then give the title to the house to the Friends within thirteen months. Shortly after the house was sold, though, it was torched in the middle of the night. According to the investigation, diesel fuel was used to set the fire. The walls, which were made of coal in places, easily caught fire. One witness, Carolyn Price, saw two figures running back and forth, dousing the sprawling complex with gas until the entire building was aflame. The house was burned to the ground, but some artifacts remained, including some brilliant blue-green glass cullets, which were also part of the walls.
Brackin says that, over the years, many people have gone to Bartlesville to pilfer remnants from the fire and that there may still be some glass cullets on the property. He has seen some items from Shin’en Kan on eBay. For years, the Friends of Shin’en Kan had planned some sort of memorial to Goff on the site, but ownership was stuck in legal limbo until 2000, when the Oklahoma Supreme Court finally ruled that the Friends, and not the Bartlesville residents who bought the property at auction, owned the land. By that time, however, funds to rebuild had dried up. A recent photo from the area shows a boxy new house with vinyl siding abutting the burnt foundation of Price’s old home.
At some point, one of Goff’s students, Grant Gustafson, rescued a piece of glass and incorporated it into Goff’s headstone at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, where his ashes are interred with some of the most notable architects in history. Goff’s old friend, Joe Price, funded the memorial site and Nancy Bavinger sent some earth from her house in Norman. An investigation was begun, but no one was ever charged with arson. According to Captain Jay Harness, the crime is still classified as unsolved.
* * *
A few sources who do not wish to be named in this story put part of the blame for the tragic end of Shin’en Kan and the Bavinger House in the hands of OU. It’s not hard to understand why. Although OU had given Goff the opportunity to run the School of Architecture in 1947, he had repeatedly butted heads with the institution, which was not willing to go along with some of Goff’s more radical plans.
Goff had submitted designs for the non-denominational Crystal Chapel on campus in 1949, but influential donors balked. The structure would have been based on repeating diamond-shaped patterns, rose-colored glass and a series of reflecting pools. It was, in the words of Goff scholar David De Long, “utopian.” Architectural Forum glowed: “here at last is a rocket-flight use of techniques and materials never before available to realize a form of beauty and religious experience never before possible.”
Finally, Fred Jones Jr.—the car dealership magnate—stepped in with the money for the chapel, on the condition that the building conform to a “conventional design.” Goff was silently pushed aside, provoking the indignation of some of the most noted architects in the world, including Walter Gropius, Alfonso Ianelli, and Wright, who wrote letters supporting Goff.
Later, on a commission to develop a new Norman subdivision, developers took issue with Goff’s plans and set him up to hurt him in the area of his life where he was most vulnerable—his sexuality. Here, too, it’s hard to know exactly what went down because the episode was quickly hushed up, but it appears that the builders of the subdivision got a teenage boy to lure Goff into a sexually charged situation. Although there was no proof that anything physical actually took place, Goff was arrested on charges of corrupting a minor. rumors started to circulate about Goff’s relationships, some of them with male students. Herb Greene says that Goff could be careless about his relationships, especially given the time period. “It was the 1950s, and being gay was not something you talked about out in the open.”
Despite the mounting pressure on Goff to resign, OU’s president, George Lynn Cross, tried to convince Goff to stay and fight the charges. Goff, however, was badly hurt by the episode and resigned for “health reasons,” even though he was in perfect physical condition. It was then that his work with the Price family in Bartlesville led to some of the most striking mid-century architecture on the plains of Northeast Oklahoma, while the School of Architecture at OU slid into mediocrity. Perhaps in a gesture to rekindle the excitement that Goff brought to OU in the 1950s, he was invited back in 1981 to become a visiting professor in the School of Architecture, but, in an ironic twist, this time Goff actually was in poor health and died a couple of months after the academic term ended.
* * *
After the fire at the Price House in 1996, an aging Eugene Bavinger became increasingly worried about the fate of his own home. Witnessing OU’s treatment of his old friend Bruce Goff, as well as the school’s botched attempt at managing Shin’en Kan, made him worry that the university would eventually lead his family’s house to ruin. His son, Bob Bavinger, had grown up around this vexed relationship with OU and when his father died in 1997, started to believe that the school was actually trying to take the house away from him.
I was never able to make contact with Bavinger in person, but someone who knew him directed me to the house’s Wikipedia page, which had been extensively edited in August and September by someone with an axe to grind against the university. It now reads: “The University of Oklahoma had undermined the efforts to gain funding to restore the family home.”
A source with some familiarity of this situation said that OU had, indeed, attempted to bully Bob Bavinger into letting them run the house, but that he had also developed some rather wild conspiracy theories about OU, the mafia, and the FBI. By the time the News 9 crew made it onto the property after the collapse of the spire, Bavinger had built an armed bunker and installed Security Info cameras around the premises.
After the shot was fired, police made contact with Bavinger but didn’t charge him with a crime, since it was his property and no one had been injured. Days after the spire had gone down, Bavinger granted a rare interview to the Norman Transcript and said that he and his son, Boz, “were backed into a corner.” Recalling the old line from the Vietnam War—“we had to destroy the village in order to save it”—Bavinger said that OU was undermining his efforts at restoration and the only option left was to “remove the target.”
Equipped with an old dump truck and jackhammer, hidden just out of view in east Norman, Bob and Boz work at dismantling a building the art critic Hilton Kramer has called “one of the building marvels of our own postwar period.”
Genius, madness, greed, arson: Goff ’s greatest accomplishments have been marred by the extremes of the human condition. Coming out of the rabbit hole, I see that the Goff house on South Madison in Tulsa has recently had its price reduced. While I still daydream about living in a Goff myself, I have to wonder about the toll it might take on my psyche. I own a nice little boxy postwar bungalow on the Canadian prairies.
It’s not much, but it’s enough for now.