by Tim Gilmore, 10/31/2023
1. Sun Worship
Not long before architect Robert Broward turned 80, he broke his neck sunbathing nude on top of the house he’d designed for himself late in life.
“Daddy loved, loved, loved, I mean he worshipped the sun,” Kris Barnes says. Laughing, she says later, “That man hated clothes.” His own painting hanging in the stairwell quotes the famous Dylan Thomas poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” He didn’t. “He raged the whole way,” Kris says, alluding to the third line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
This is the house Bob Broward named Wacca Pilatka, the Seminole phrase for the cow crossing at what later became Downtown Jacksonville. We’re sitting in the second-story sun room looking over the river’s bend toward the skyline, dorsal fins of dolphins arcing into the waters before us. It was here Broward stayed in his hospital bed in his last days, after having broken his neck, his hip and his back in separate incidents.
That day in 2005, the architect laid backward on the ergonomic lounge chair on the third floor sun roof, “and,” Kris explains, “when he reach for his book, his weight shifting, somehow the chair shot him into the opposite wall.”
The blow knocked him unconscious. “When he comes to,” Kris says, “he’s laying there on the floor and he thinks, ‘God, that hurt.’ So he thought he should go down to the Y to work out.” When his wife Myrtice came home, he told her he had a headache. At the Emergency Room, physicians sent him home, but the next morning, he couldn’t stand the pain. “So Myrtice took him back,” Kris says, and the doctors said, “You’ve broken your neck! Don’t move!”
A decade later, when Bob Broward died at 89 years old, his career had spanned more than 60 years and 500 building designs. Having known Jacksonville’s most famous architect, Henry John Klutho, and studied with Frank Lloyd Wright himself, Broward became known for incorporating sunlight and rain and vistas of water as design elements in an architecture almost pagan.
My wife and Kris are seated together on a sofa in this room of windows looking over the river and I’m sitting in a chair across from Kris’s son Harrison. He’s the bearded, bespectacled savior of this house, Broward’s architectural self-portrait, who makes a living by investing, having been successful early on with Apple.
When Broward went in for neck surgery, Kris told him, “Okay, Daddy, they’re gonna give it their best to keep you alive. And you have to do your part to stay alive too. Because if you die on the table, tomorrow morning’s headline will read, ‘Prominent Architect Dies from Nude Sunbathing Accident.’”
2. Cobbler’s Children
Wacca Pilatka stands three stories at the river at the end of Mayfair Road. Harrison says anyone else would have positioned the third-floor sun deck toward the river, but tall trees surrounded the front of the house when it was new and shrouded the sun deck in semi-privacy.
The houses architects build for themselves often declare the principles most important to them. They’re like self-portraits. Broward, unquestionably one of Northeast Florida’s greatest architects, waited until he was almost 70 to design his own residence. Ostensibly, anyway.
The delay concerns Broward’s number of wives. He married four times, other than the person Kris Barnes calls “the love of his life.” Kris’s mother, Marjorie Ann Grimes Broward, was his first wife. He built that first house happenstance, piece by piece, according to what materials and time made themselves available.
That first house stood in Switzerland, Florida, just south of Jacksonville in St. Johns County. The house grew like barnacles attaching to old wood in shallow waters. It was spare. Kris says, “Mom always described it – and she was the only wife still living when he died; she was right here in this room with us – she said, ‘Your dad would say, “Yeah, that’s close enough to being done, let’s move on.”’ It’s, you know, that old saying, ‘The cobbler’s children have no shoes.’”
3. A Tale of Two Houses, Two Different Ways
The house Broward had originally planned was nothing like the one he eventually built. It was going to be an octagon surrounded entirely by a screened-in porch. It would also be surrounded by a moat, which would be crossed by three bridges, making the house itself an island. That last idea came to fruition, just not the way he’d planned it.
The second floor would center on an octagonal library encased in an art gallery that would also act as a hallway leading to three small utilitarian bedrooms. (“To me, a bedroom is only for sleeping,” he said. “I prefer not to have large suites.”) Each bedroom would have a balcony overlooking the moat and those outer parts of the art gallery corridor that didn’t end in bedrooms would themselves have such balconies. He said it would be like living in a spider web.
When he described his vision to The Florida Times-Union in 1984, it was a tale, in two different ways, of two houses: not just the house Bob Broward imagined building for himself and the house he later built, but the house he’d already built in Switzerland and the house he wanted to build.
One headline said, “New Home Will Be Like Spider Web,” with the jump header on page C-2 saying, “Planned Home Has a ‘Widower’s Walk.’” The other story was headlined, “Original House Was 9 Feet Wide,” with a subheader, “It has been enlarged eight times,” followed by the jump headline, “Home of Architect Cost Only $3,500.”
Broward planned the third floor of his new home to be his studio, with a spiral staircase leading to the “fourth floor,” a screened “widower’s walk.” Said the architect, “I live alone, so I’m going to call it a widower’s walk instead of a widow’s walk. It will be screened so I can sleep out there.”
About the older house in Switzerland, Broward said, “It was going to be a weekend place and then a guest house. I was always going to build a house right on the river. Now here it is, 30 years later, and I’m still here. But this is the last year. I’m going to demolish it – perhaps I’ll figure out some way to save it, or at least the materials – and build another house.” A parenthetical statement said, “See accompanying story.”
The story described Broward as “of medium height and a good build who jogs daily through the woods, fancies blue chambray shirts and denim or corduroy pants. He has craggy features, a bushy mustache and long, curly black hair with a touch of gray. He is a successful architect, currently designing huge projects in South Florida, but drives a Volvo station wagon with 160,000 miles on the odometer.”
He bought the long narrow property in 1950, when he was still studying with Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, and bought additional attached acreage in later years. He’d come back home, to Jacksonville, but the state of his hometown’s culture plunged him into “a state of depression.” So, he said, “I decided to be as far away from the city as possible.” He said he loved Jax, thought it was “the only large city in Florida with any possibilities,” but found the marshes alongside the river far south of town a “Garden of Eden.”
The Switzerland house went through eight stages of enlarging, of growth, of accretion. At times Broward built the house at night, working until three a.m., then getting a couple hours of sleep before heading into the office. Even after he’d added the second floor, his electric bill never rose above $18 a month, since the house had no air-conditioning or artificial heating. It was livable nine months a year, he said, though one Christmas the temperature inside dropped to 22 degrees. That was the year Kris remembers tadpoles frozen solid in the pond.
4. Openings Out-Into
“My parents would tie bells on my shoes so they could find me,” Kris says. “I would just wander into the orchard. When Daddy was dying, I asked him, ‘Didn’t you ever worry I would fall in the pond or the river?’ He’d go fishing every morning and I would be in an innertube connected to a rope tied around his waist, so I’d be far enough back he wouldn’t hook me. I asked him, ‘Weren’t you ever worried I would get bitten by a water moccasin?’ And he said,” Kris laughs, imitating Broward nodding his head, “‘Good point.’”
There’s no complaint here, just laughter. Kris knew kids in Colorado whose parents let them climb up the mountain and camp by themselves before they were 10. “Parents didn’t ‘hover,’” she says. “There was no ‘helicoptering.’”
Though Wacca Pilatka, which an earlier rendering dubs “Cowford” instead, differs much from the plans Bob Broward described in 1984, both Harrison and Kris say it differs little from the philosophy of his earlier designs.
“He always built for the site,” Harrison says. He remembers the Switzerland house from his first six years, calling it “a lower house very much situated in the forest,” he says, recalling seeing actual “Easter bunnies” there at Easter, whereas “this house was built to take advantage of the views and really doesn’t start until the second story.”
Though Wacca Pilatka might seem quite different from another of Broward’s best-known houses, the Butterfly House, these two residences built 36 years apart share many of the same principles.
In the Butterfly House, space begins constrained from the front door, moving you through a long tight corridor, bedrooms minimal to one side and the master bedroom built with a sitting room to the other. The initial spine hits a colored screen, then steps down to both sides and opens into livingness, living rooms as downward central dens, caverns, wombs.
In Wacca Pilatka, the front foyer constricts you up the stairs, narrow, quickly turning, 90 degrees, the bottom floor relegated to utilities and screened porches facing the river, the stairs birthing into wide open spaces, the living of the house, kitchen open to dining to living room and entertainment space. Toward the river, the living room opens to a sun room enclosed, screened balconies on either side, all wide-eyed to the river and sky, to new skyline construction, rock concerts and football games, dolphins and bald eagles and night herons and wood storks and cranes.
5. Beethoven — Glucose — Manatee
When the house was new, manatee came close to feed on sea grasses. Anybody but Bob Broward would’ve built a seawall. For seven years, having left Switzerland behind and living in an old house nearby, Broward worked on securing the land, permitting and readying the site before building much of the house by hand. In 1995, he and Myrtice moved in.
If he’d sought to build here decades earlier, when return to his native town so depressed him and he’d bought a strange little tract of land and outbuilding south of town in Switzerland, this architect most well-known for his environmental concerns would have found a “biologically dead” urban expanse of the St. Johns River. International newswires reported in September 1970 that in addition to the tonnage of raw sewage and paper mill byproducts dumped directly into the river here, 28 oil spills had occurred near Jacksonville in the previous 16 months.
A quarter century later, when Wacca Pilatka stood new, the front water feature fell into a planted pond, with lotuses and lilies, tall bamboo, turtles and snakes, the latter at least once, Harrison recalls, eye-level, bending the stalks in which they hung.
When twin hurricanes ransacked Northeast Florida in 2016 without hitting it directly, no hurricane having hit Jax head-on since Dora in 1964, storms flushing, from downstate, the normally slow and gentle north-flowing St. Johns up into high tides toward the ocean, Wacca Pilatka became an island.
If the house Broward envisioned building at Switzerland, as he described it in ’84, included three bridges crossing the moat, one from parking to the house, one leading to the dock, “and a third leading to an island in the center of the moat (Broward prefers to call it a ‘pond’),” the house he eventually built on the river near Downtown became an island itself.
Not only did he design this house for a changing river and a cleaner environment, though with what foresight he could have expected additional river dredging and climate change is moot, but Bob Broward also built Wacca Pilatka as the house where he’d live the rest of his life.
As he got older, the “tells” he’d relied on when he was younger, to alert him to an oncoming diabetic reaction, subsided. Increasingly friends and family members would notice, in the midst of discussion, Bob’s speech starting to slur. He’d moved from Switzerland for precisely this reason.
In 1965, Broward had just received the commission to design the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville. One night, driving into town from the Switzerland house, Kris says, “he had a diabetic reaction and his car hit one bridge and didn’t stop until he hit another bridge.”
In his last years, here at Wacca Pilatka, Kris says, “the rescue people” got to know him. “They ended up having to come out frequently and give him glucose and 99 times out of a hundred, he’d be naked.” Once, after she’d called and her father wouldn’t answer, she’d come out and found him lying naked and unconscious near the TV – on which he only ever watched PBS NewsHour, maintaining his position that TV heralded the dumbing-down of America. When she called 9-1-1 and the Emergency Medical Techs arrived, she warned them he was naked. “What’s the big deal?” one of them said, “He’s always naked!”
Another time, after breaking his neck, Broward fell in the kitchen and broke his hip. “Rescue gets here,” Kris says, “they say, ‘Where are the back stairs?’ I say, ‘There are no back stairs.’ They say, ‘Well how are we gonna get him out of here?’ I say, ‘Y’all have been here enough times already.’ They say, ‘What kind of an architect designs a house with just this little 90-degree-turn staircase?’ He’s screaming, they’ve given him morphine, but that didn’t shut him up. Then they get him stuck in the stairwell, he’s on the board, and I say, ‘You need me to call 9-1-1 to get you guys out?’” If the scene weren’t so tragic, it would have been hilarious.
As we wander the house, lingering on Bob Broward’s personal architecture library, the “lamelliforms” by fellow architect and sculptor David Engdahl, and the contorted piece of old-fence driftwood shaped by Jax-based sculptor Enzo Torcoletti, his name itself redolent of just such torsion, Kris talks of how she and her half-sister were planning to sell the house until Harrison talked them out of it.
“Once that house is gone, he told us, it’s gone, and you’ll never be able to afford another property on the water. And if you could, ‘It won’t be something,’ he told us, “that my grandfather designed.’”
Near the end, Harrison says, he took a call from his grandmother, who said, “Grandpa isn’t picking up the phone.” He jokes about being on “grandfather duty,” since the wild but gentle nature’s-child Bob Broward had been when he first developed his artistic persona had become the old man, the brilliant architect, who liked to sunbathe naked on top of his house but frequently lapsed into diabetic shock.
“So I get here and you can hear Beethoven blasting out of the house, all the way from the street. And I’m ringing the doorbell repeatedly, nobody’s coming, so I’m wondering, ‘Should I break the glass? Should I call 9-1-1?’ and after about 15 minutes, he finally comes downstairs. He’s wondering what all the fuss is about. He was just listening to his Beethoven, max volume,” here at home, at the top of Wacca Pilatka, at this bend of the St. Johns River.