by Tim Gilmore, 12/18/2021
To walk through a building with its architect years after the design took form is a momentous and often disheartening act. With public buildings, the vision rarely survives intact. A home can be another matter. This one is. I’m walking with architect Ted Pappas and his son Mark through one of his proudest residential designs, the Journey’s End House, built in Mandarin in 1988 for James Wilk, owner of Wilk Forwarding Company.
We’re upstairs, leaving the master bedroom that looks through soaring glass toward the St. Johns River, when the nautilus perched on a shelf prompts Ted to explain how a house needs to build itself – how the architect needs to honor what the house decides – from the inside out.
Entering through a wide spacious foyer from a front porch deep, wide, welcoming, the house reaches an arm out in each direction, a turning compass. There’s motion in the shape of the house. It’s what that ancient symbol the swastika indicated, when cultures as diverse as Hindus and Navajos used it before Nazis perverted it forever. It’s a compass in a wheel. As is a nautilus.
We’ve been talking to Debbie Banks, who owns the house with her husband Garry Kitay, an orthopedic surgeon. They’re selling the place they’ve called home for 15 years because their three children are grown and they no longer feel they need 8,000 square feet. Neither of them came from money, Debbie says, and this house was a big undertaking.
When we step from the grand foyer into the high-ceiling room facing north, a prow window at one end and a fireplace at the other, Debbie mentions the acoustics. How wonderfully the piano percusses against these ceilings! How perfectly it inhabits a holiday party!
Each prow window rises between tall brick stanchions. The smaller prow facing the river looks out from the dining room. The room with the prow facing east, at the front of the house, first served as “the train room.” James Wilk filled it entirely with his collection of model trains and his library on the subject.
The central family room opens from the ground floor to the top of the house. An open tread staircase leads along two-story floor-to-ceiling windows to the second floor landing, bedrooms to the side, and the entrance to another corridor that leads to the master bedroom.
It’s quite an entrance. The threshold’s important. One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite “tricks,” Ted often notes is the compression of space just before entering an large open area. It’s the effect of a great coming-into.
On either side of the corridor slide bamboo screens for storage rooms. The walk ends in a wall that separates the corridor from the bedroom, but doesn’t reach the ceiling or the walls on either side. When you come around the wall, either to the left or the right, the floor-to-ceiling prow window, nearly 20 feet tall, thrusts your view to the river and the dock that reaches out over it.
These prows recall Ted Pappas’s 1978 design of Resurrection Catholic Church on University Boulevard in Arlington and also echo Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin. Wright referred to those muntins on the prow of the meeting house’s belfry as hands coming together in prayer. When Mark was little and his father was designing the postmodern and not quite Brutalist church, Mark called it the spaceship.
From Resurrection’s rear entrance, the roofline starts low and tilts slightly upward, then as it approaches the altar and apse, the angles dart skyward, resulting in a corner centered on a series of tiered triangles pointing straight up into the cross on top. It’s a graceful paradox: the church has the gravitas and the mass, no pun intended, of concrete, but it soars. It’s the ship on which Jesus makes “fishers of men,” but also the “anchor of the soul.”
When James Wilk first approached Ted Pappas to build a house in the mid ’80s, Wilk wanted a Southern plantation-style house. Though Ted defines the architect as a “creative interpreter,” working for a client, the architect is ever an artist. “Unlike a writer who writes or a painter who paints and the work comes out of their own soul, the architect works for the party who’s hiring him,” Ted says. “That’s an essential consideration.”
It’s an idea Wright expressed and Ted concedes the irony that Wright treated his own designs like personal canvases, growing irate when occupants altered furnishings. Ultimately Ted sold Wilk on the idea of Wright’s Prairie and Usonian style architecture and moved from Wilk’s original idea through Wright to his own vision.
“You can see,” Ted says, “how the spaces are thrust outwards to the exterior on an axis with the gable roofline. Not only is the outside brought in, but your vision is thrust to the outside.” Again he comes back to Wright and the Unitarian Meeting House. “Wright’s interior spaces were extremely dynamic. Spaces were compressed and moved outward. There were surprises everywhere. When we refer to the destruction of the box, we imagine this image and we’re looking from the exterior onto the box. But movement is from the inside out.”
Sounding on a theme that he’s practiced his entire career, he says so much of architecture “is taking big boxes and breaking them into little boxes,” the opposite of what he’s always tried to do. “It’s about squeezing and shaping voids,” he says. “It’s the art of the in.” It’s about “eliminating the boxes and setting things in motion.”