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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

The Averett-Yarbrough Garden and House: James Rose in Columbus

James C. Rose (1913–1991) was a high school dropout, but this didn't stop him from being accepted into Cornell University as an architecture student. Later he transferred to Harvard University as a landscape architecture major. In 1937, he was expelled because his design style didn't fit into Harvard's program.

 

In 1941, Rose worked for Tuttle, Seelye, Place and Raymond in New York.  One of Rose's first major works while employed there was to design a staging area to house 30,000 men at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. After this experience, Rose turned his focus to working on private gardens that created an intimate relationship between human beings, nature, and architecture. His designs also created a fusion of indoor and outdoor space.

 

Before his death he was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of establishing a design study and landscape research center, the James Rose Center. James C. Rose was one of the pioneers of modernism in landscape architecture.


SOURCE: James Rose: A Voice Offstage by Dean Cardasis, 2017. 1962 photos taken by William Barksdale and courtesy of Sidney and Rebeca Yarbrough.

 


In 1958, Mary Keith Averett and her husband, Clifford, purchased and subdivided some wooded land in Columbus, Georgia, selecting for themselves the choicest hilltop lot, characterized by moderate to steep slopes and longleaf and loblolly pine, as well as water oak, southern red oak, and sweetgum. They hired Rozier Dedwylder, a local architect and family friend, to design their house. Dedwylder in turn provided Mary Keith with several books on landscape design, including Rose's recently published Creative Gardens. As Mrs. Averett recalled, "The architect gave me several landscape books to look over, and I just stayed awake all night looking at Jim's first book. I called to see if he would recommend anyone in the area and he said he would come himself."



When Rose arrived in Georgia (as the tale goes, wearing different colored socks), a symmetrical, two-story colonial house had already been designed. Meeting with Mrs. Averett at the site, he proceeded to cut up the architectural plans with scissors, reorienting and reorganizing the interior spaces to respond to the site's topography, vegetation, and views. When he was done, the two-story house was reconceived as a single-story dwelling divided into a series of three interior levels (terraces) based on the site's topography. These levels flowed through walls of glass onto more levels (terraces) outside, thus enabling a sense of continuity between the house, the garden, and the wooded landscape and setting the stage for the detailed design of an integral modern house and garden that could embrace the character of the place, incorporating existing site features such as the mature trees that were present on the lot. As Mrs. Averett recalled, "I had been told a steep lot such as mine could produce an outstanding house but didn't have a clue how that would happen until Jim."

Well after construction was complete, Rose summarized the design:

Inner spaces communicate with outer. The link is the levels, handled rhythmically, and fluidly, with no separation. Seen from the house the levels flow into a pool platform in the woods. From the pool, the inner recesses of the house communicate in a different way through the same handling of levels. Outside, a series of levels brings the viewer into a network of spaces-architectural, natural, divided, and connected varying in size, proportion, direction, purpose, and materials, but always a thing of which the viewer is inevitably a part."



The highest level of the site supported entering and parking, incorporating existing trees on its edges. To the northeast, visitors' parking was partly defined by a raised concrete sidewalk that was embedded with locally sourced brownish pebble aggregate. (These pebbles were used throughout the site, including on paths and the roof of the house.) Behind the gridded sidewalk, an irregular, sitting-height retaining wall of native fieldstone, similar in color to the pebbles and matching the fieldstone veneer of the adjacent garage and house, further defined the space and maintained the grades around existing mature trees: its angled form led the eye toward the entrance to the house. From here one descended over two long, shallow steps that extended the length of a perfectly square, sunken entry court designed around an existing mature loblolly pine and edged on the other three sides by the house and garage. Along these L-shaped steps, Rose added a veil of five loquat trees, closely planted on a grid.

One entered the house at its highest level, through a wooden door in the otherwise transparent northeastern wall. A long interior hallway ran beside the tree-veiled outdoor court and overlooked the main living room below, connected to it physically by four protracted stairs. At one end of the hall, the kitchen and dining rooms looked out through floor-to-ceiling glass over the wooded landscape to the northeast, while the den, a guest room, and a suite of bedrooms were at the hall's other end. These latter rooms opened visually and physically to Rose's elongated, irregular railroad tie and asphalt terrace steps, which were punctuated by existing trees, and which descended to the "pool platform" within the surrounding woods.



The second interior level was occupied by the main living room, a large space (thirty by twenty feet) with an eight-teen-foot-high gabled ceiling. It was perforated on three sides with glass walls connecting to the outdoors and had a stone fireplace wall on its fourth side. Above the long stairs to the southwest was the entry court. On the opposite side of the living room was an almost on-grade outdoor terrace in the woods. In between, the space opened through a glass door within a pentagon of floor-to-ceiling glazing to a small lanai, defined by extensions of the indoor living room's gabled ceiling and floor planes as well as by the fieldstone-clad exterior wall folding inward through the glass to edge the living room, as it did the lanai. Looking through the glass pentagon, immediately at the far edge of the lanai, one could see a great longleaf pine against the forest background, the tree's beautifully textured vertical trunk wrapped in a low, irregular, horizontal fieldstone retaining wall that began to lead one's eye (to be followed by one's feet) outward, along the jagged railroad ties, over the rough asphalt terrace steps, under the canopy of retained trees, and toward the designed oasis that Rose surgically cut and filled into the forest below.



This oasis was the heart of the Averett residence's landscape design. Flowing from the interior living spaces, edged by Rose's irregular, elongated, tree-containing steps and the gabled, stone-clad house to the northwest, the garden projected asymmetrically into the forest on its other three sides, which were defined by a broad, angled bench; a secondary entrance spilled in from the parking area above.

Twisted within the space, an obtuse-angled swimming pool was interlocked with a gridded, exposed aggregate concrete ground plane, recalling the front entry, and forming a kind of yin/ yang relationship between land and water, a single, somewhat picturesque cotoneaster punctuating their nexus.

The space was bathed with dappled light along its edges as the sun wheeled around, and it had the feeling of a woodland glade, even though it was made, in large measure, of recycled railroad ties, asphalt, and concrete, reminding us of Rose's admonition that, as a spatial experience, a garden can be made of anything.



The third and lowest level within the house connected the inside living room with the master suite to its northeast via several steps descending through a narrow passage. Like other interior spaces, the master bedroom flowed through floor-to-ceiling glass to a private outdoor terrace that, like all the outdoor spaces, was interconnected with the rest of the garden levels through paths around the house. Whether inside or out, one moved within this landscape as Rose had intended, experiencing from a shifting, kaleidoscopic viewpoint this "thing of which the viewer is inevitably a part" and sensing one's connection with the infinite through the natural features of the site."



In 1974 the Averetts sold their home to Sidney and Rebecca Yarbrough, but Mary Keith Averett clearly appreciated the creative force at work in her environment while she lived there. As she reflected on revisiting it in 2005, "It's a work of art that I'm proud to have been associated with…It was truly an embellishment of a wonderful natural site." For over forty years, the Yarbroughs have been the home's stewards, and they remain inspired by the groundwork laid by Rose, Mary Keith Averett, and Dedwylder. As Rebecca Yarbrough has remarked, "Every room you walk into brings nature into you and you feel a part of the whole picture.... To me, this home has a spirit that lives and is here for you to partake of." Making only minor changes over the years, the Yarbroughs have faithfully replaced and rebuilt much of the landscape and architectural design as it has aged during their occupancy. Sidney Yarbrough will authoritatively tell you how many railroad ties can be cut before resharpening your chainsaw blade. Notwithstanding some settlement of concrete, a few minor alterations, and the loss of some plants, the Averett design remains in fine condition today, thanks in large measure to the Yarbrough’s exceptional sensitivity and care.



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