by Tim Gilmore, 2/3/2023
1. Rainstorm Aesthetics
“The house has a life of its own,” Kathryn says. We’re still in the foyer, underneath the great wings that suggest the house might take flight at any moment, not yet down in the deep and expansive belly of this beast.
The house catches your eye from the street, with its cantilevered roof that slopes upward east and west from a central furrow. The rain slopes down to the center, then cascades into collection pools in front and back of the house.
The butterfly wingspan and brise soleil signify an early Robert Broward design, and we’re standing and talking in one of the Mid-Century Modern gems of Arlington, built when the Mathews Bridge which fled Downtown Jacksonville into these new neighborhoods was still called the “Bridge to Nowhere.” It was the promise of a new Golden Age, fueled by “White Flight” from the city, of convenience and affordability and, in this case, streamlined elegance and beauty.
For this is Bob Broward’s “Butterfly House,” designed as an exhibition house for the Parade of Homes for a new Arlington neighborhood called Alderman Park in 1957. In 1992, Broward wrote, “This was the beginning of my using rainstorms aesthetically in my work as well as directing water for better control.” The house had deteriorated dramatically when Kathryn Stater and Jeff Simpson breathed life back into it with contractor Richard Mead in 2016.
The foyer extends low-ceilinged and long, elongated in fact by Fred Nachman, the house’s second owner, and barely hints at what lies beyond. Jeff refers to “Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Compression and Release,’” Wright’s principle of passing people through a constricted reception before releasing them into a spacious, open area. It’s a dramatic threshold crossing, the birth of the individual into the world of the home itself.
From the foyer, you see only the greens and burnt umbers and chiaroscuros and golds of the translucent screen at the end, but before you reach the screen, the house opens out to either side and graciously admits you down into it.
2. “You Did Not Just Buy that Broward House!”
Kathryn suspects The Butterfly House was six months away from demolition. Everybody she talked to knew the house and nobody could believe she was crazy enough to buy it.
She’d lived near the golf course in Deerwood for 25 years. The photography stock company Superstock moved its New York workers to Florida in the early 1990s, then went out of business, incidentally dispersing creative transplants across conservative Jacksonville. She and her husband Mark raised their three sons at Deerwood. Then in 2014, Mark fought his last of many battles with Multiple Sclerosis. He was 53 years old.
Kathryn kept putting one foot in front of the other, day by day staying alive, going to work, coming home, going to work, coming home. A cousin back home in Connecticut told her she needed “a project,” then sent her a weblink to the real estate listing for The Butterfly House.
She didn’t know Jacksonville architecture, didn’t know who Broward was, had a vague and amorphous idea of Arlington. She wasn’t looking to move, to buy a house, but she decided to look at it, and when the realtor showed her inside, when she came to the end of the foyer and looked to either side at the living space, she said she’d take it.
When friends asked where she was moving, they gasped and shuddered when she said Arlington. The new suburbanism of the 1950s and ’60s had kept spreading and White Flight kept fleeing and Arlington was still new when it began its economic decline in the ’70s.
The vegetation around the house was overgrown. You could hardly see it from the street. The roof hadn’t been maintained properly for years and the rain that was supposed to descend the roof wings toward the center furrow, then run off the front and back center of the house, instead pooled in the ceiling, rotted interior wall structures, flooded the terrazzo floors.
“A friend asked where I was moving,” Kathryn says, “and I said Arlington, and then as I began to describe the house, they said, ‘Oh my god! You did not just buy that Broward house!’” She had.
Even 20-something friends of her sons surprised her by knowing the house. One of them used to park across the street and wonder what it looked like inside.
3. Elegant Paradox
Step down before the particolored screen at the end of the foyer and look right and the space opens up gloriously.
A floor-to-ceiling furnace, screened from each side and tapering into an iron hood, stands in the center of the room. It’s not Broward’s. An antique salesman and couturier named Fred Nachman added the centerpiece in the early 1960s.
Nachman also added the interior walls of pecky cypress. The original walls were exposed cinder block, white as the terrazzo floors. The rear walls of the house, all glass, rise up from the center toward the 14-foot-high side walls with the rise of the winged roofline.
Now several unusual design features become apparent and defy what you might expect of them. Most demonstrably, the whole front and back of the house is glass. You think of that proverb that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. You think of architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House, built from 1949 to ’95 in New Canaan, Connecticut. You think of that central concept of Mid-Century Modern and postmodern architecture of inviting the outside in, making of nature an architectural material. And you realize these glass walls make the house no less private, nor less safe.
Originally, the houses along Wildwood Road backed onto a nature preserve municipalities promised (falsely, of course) would never be developed. The back of the house leads to a cinderblock wall, while front windows look, from inside, onto courtyards fronted by the brise soleil.
Then there’s the other strange feature. The three bedrooms span the front of the house, not the back. Though the foyer compresses and releases you into the bear’s den of the dual living rooms, with the galley kitchen in between them, the bedrooms front a hallway off the foyer.
In elegant paradox, the house is both open to the outside and protected by external walls like a medieval fortress. It’s fortified from the outside, but panoptic from inside. You can fall asleep here with a clear view of the stars.
In the early 1960s, Penni Nachman Wexler spent her summers at the Butterfly House. Her father, Fred Nachman, and his second wife Ann bought the house in 1961 or ’62. When Penni’s parents divorced, she moved with her mother and brothers to Houston, her mom’s hometown. “Despite my not having spent much time in the home, it has left a mark on my heart and soul,” she told Kathryn Stater in 2017. “I think Daddy transferred his love of his home and his beautification of it to me, and I have kept that alive for him.”
Fred Nachman helped his father, a Romanian immigrant, run Harry’s Men’s Shop downtown and in several other Jax locations. In 1963, Fred remodeled a downtown store called The Gates. “Like his home,” Penni recalled, “the three-story building was wall-to-wall antiques, which were for sale, as was men’s and women’s couture clothing displayed on the antique furnishings.” Her father, Penni said, made home deliveries in his Rolls Royce.
No city directories from the early ’60s list any downtown address for The Gates. The 1962 directory lists Ann as president of Ann Nachman Galleries, antiques, 3106 Beach Boulevard, and Fred as vice president for Ann Nachman Galleries and secretary-treasurer for Harry’s, the Store for Men. Directories from 1964 list Ann as president for Gates Men’s Shop and Fred as v.p., but searching the residential “white pages,” the commercial “yellow pages” and the reverse index yields no address for Gates Men’s Shop. Its location remains a mystery.
“As creative and forward thinking as my father was,” Penni said, “The Gates was definitely a case of wrong time and place and wasn’t a success in Jax.” After The Gates failed, “My daddy’s final business venture was exporting seafood from San Pedro Sula, Honduras.”
Meanwhile, Fred Nachman kept remodeling the Butterfly House. He gutted it and added his walls of pecky cypress. Penni remembered her father saying the wrought-iron gates he’d placed on the front of the house came from a Florida prison. He added antique armoires, stained glass, tile, and that enormous floor-to-ceiling furnace.
Returning home after midnight from a business trip to Miami on September 9, 1965, the Nachmans’ Chevrolet Corvair rammed a concrete bridge abutment off the side of State Road 11 in Flagler County and burst into flame. Passing motorists reported the burning car at 2:30 a.m. Officials guessed that Fred Nachman had fallen asleep at the wheel. The Nachmans both died in the crash. Fred was 45 years old; Ann was 40.
5. Beauty Democratized
“Ugly wrot-iron [sic] fence and posts have been placed under cantilevered portion of the roof, for looks, evidently…Christ!” So wrote Broward, disheartened, in 1992. He despised most of Nachman’s changes.
Rarely do architects see their vision sustained in the maintenance of their buildings. It’s the strangest balance. Their designs are works of art, no less than a Picasso or a novel by Faulkner, yet people don’t live inside Picassos and Faulkners, cooking and raising children and acting out their sorrows and jubilations. Residential architecture is both art and home and people tend to customize their abodes.
As Jacksonville architectural historian Wayne Wood says, architecture is, ironically, the most fragile of the arts. A good poem has a greater life expectancy than a good building.
Beneath a rendering of the Butterfly House in a 1957 brochure called “Contemporary Architecture: What Does the Public Know About It?” Broward wrote, “The question is posed here instead of a more detailed description of this house because both the architect and the builder believe that a parade of homes should serve as a proving ground for the public.”
Broward, wild scion of generational Florida wealth, studied at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona. He championed and wrote a book about Prairie School architect Henry John Klutho, lost champion of Wright’s style in Florida. He synthesized the two men’s Wrightean notions of structure wed to horizon in newly developing Florida flatlands.
Broward wanted the public to know that, though “Today’s house is becoming more and more a controlled product,” nevertheless, “Contemporary architecture is a growing progressive idea that solves the problem of today’s changing society and family life.” The design of the Butterfly House was as much about “progress in Jacksonville” as aesthetics.
Several zeitgeists later, it might be difficult, after decades of post-World War II suburbia slumming out and becoming, too quickly, old growth rings, to realize what architects were imagining for the world when Broward was 30 years old.
For context, the Butterfly House appeared when Brazil built its new capital Brasilia from scratch in just five years, laid out by urban planner and architect Lúcio Costa, with grand municipal structures by Oscar Niemeyer and landscapes by Roberto Burle Marx. It was an unparalleled architectural experiment. Architects knew the built environment affected the happiness, the psychology, the behavior of its citizens. Even a century prior, Orson Squire Fowler, who popularized phrenology and published the second edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, promised his Octagon House would better the mental and physical health of its residents through lighting, ventilation, openness and lack of sharp corners.
There’s an ironic tradeoff here. The suburbanism in which Broward’s Butterfly House arose lost earlier neighborhoods’ walkability, the human (as opposed to the automobile) scale, and the basic plan of houses surrounding dense hubs of shops, restaurants and churches. Thus did “New Urbanism,” amidst the decline of the suburbs, rise to recapture pre-World War Two urban planning ideals in the 1990s.
Yet what’s now celebrated as “Mid-Century Modern” in these vast postwar suburbs is partly the fact that architects were building great house designs for middle- and working-class citizens. Unlike much of the residential architecture in any city’s faltering inner neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s, contemporary architects like Broward were building for the average working family, not just the wellborn and robber baron.
Broward’s Butterfly House is gorgeous, in and of itself, but it also illustrates a principle: beauty democratized, idealism for everyone.
So Broward wrote, in 1957, “Every good product must first be designed to do its job, as well as to delight the eye. Then it must be properly manufactured for the public. Today’s house is becoming more and more a controlled product. If our homes are to mean anything to us at all, something must be done to improve their design.”
In a culture so dominated by advertising all these decades later, it’s hard to hear the radicalism beneath what corporate doublespeak has co-opted, normalized and sapped the juice from since. It must have sounded strange, in the ’50s, “if our homes are to mean anything to us at all,” but the following decades saw Americans ditch whole suburban neighborhoods as soon as they were no longer new for new further-from-Downtown suburban neighborhoods, then ditch those on the same principle just as quickly.
So strange then that the Butterfly House, buried in verdure in an older Arlington suburb, should show its original potential to a Deerwood Country Club refugee as late as 2016! Then again, beneath its years of misuse, the diamond still shone, and the right people acted on their realization.
Kathryn and Jeff love the furnace and pecky cypress, but removed Nachman’s exoskeleton of iron. In its worst aspects, Nachman’s changes coated a Mid-Century Modern design in misplaced Gothic.
Contractor Richard Mead helped restore colors to late-’50s originals, aqua and lemon yellow, and used original floorplans. At one point, Jeff and Richard unknowingly bid against each other on ebay for a vintage stovetop. Backlit across the kitchen glow 1950s General Electric lighted cabinets.
The zebra-print sofa, made by Castro Convertibles in the 1970s, perfectly occupies the space between the bar and the dinette set. It’s a piece of gorgeous gravitas, must weigh a ton. I don’t realize, at first, what Kathryn sees in mocking it, lovingly tongue-in-cheek, as the perfect ’70s seduction machine. On one side of the sofa, an end table rolls out into a turntable, on the other side, a small square liquor cabinet. The sofa itself unfolds into a bed.
Kathryn and Jeff have enjoyed buying retro furnishings for the house much more than trimming overgrowth, replacing Nachman’s iron caging and repairing water damage. Previous owners called chairs and light fixtures Kathryn and Jeff love “monstrosities.” What one family associates with their parents’ taste, once new and now shockingly out of style, the next sees as aesthetically fresh, the blasé become retro, the old become historic.
A textile piece, an upside-down triangle with red glaring and hungry eye, bears the stitched signature of Memphis Wood. Like almost everyone who lived in Jacksonville in the first half of the 20th century, Wood was born in Georgia. She came down to Jax in 1929, one of only three art teachers in the county, and retired in 1962, working and residing in a San Marco garage apartment until she moved to Atlanta, where she died in 1989. Another textile piece, by Alison Watson, a study in purple and dark reds with variations of cell patterns arranged on a tic-tac-toe grid, hangs on the pecky cypress of the far west wall.
Kathryn says she loves the house, but could leave it. Jeff’s much more attached to this place. His eyes smolder kindly while he tosses another piece of kindling on the fire. He seems always to have been here, from Broward to Nachman to the present, a bearded spirit of the hearth.
Of what, anyway, is art made? Broward made architecture of rainstorms and sunshine, the directions of sunlight in various seasons. Motion became material and voids turned solid space. And a house grows, just as we hope through our own lives to keep evolving. The Butterfly House is a Broward masterpiece, but through all its changes, it’s more itself now than it ever was before.