Ortega: George Varn House

by Tim Gilmore, 3/15/2022

1. Strange Stipulations

Strange hitch in the inheritance. Because who said you can’t take it with you when you die? Client of the artist, just shy of 101 years old, bequeaths the art to his children with the requirement that they destroy it. George Varn exerts his will from the grave. One of the earliest houses designed by one of Florida’s greatest architects will be demolished within the month.

Lion of lumber, captain of industry, George Varn hired the young architect Taylor Hardwick in 1953 to design the house in which he and Betty would raise their children. Hardwick was in his late 20s, just four years out of architecture school, had started his own firm with W. Mayberry Lee the year before. He was on his way to becoming one of the city’s most famous architects, Hardwick and Lee designing the iconic Skinner Dairy Stores with their butterfly roofs in 1958, both the Haydon Burns Library and Friendship Park in 1965.

Friendship Park, 1965, courtesy Hardwick & Hardwick’s book Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, 2014

Varn graduated from The Bolles School and then Harvard with a degree in economics in 1942, served in Naval intelligence during World War II, then joined the family business in ’45. When his grandfather, also named George Varn, died in Valdosta, Georgia two years later, The Atlanta Constitution said he “held controlling interest in a naval stores processing plant at Palatka, Fla., and with his brother, K.S. Varn, operated a 37,000-acre turpentine plantation at Hoboken, Ga.”

from The Atlanta Constitution, October 13, 1947

As the naval stores industry, supplying wooden ships and specializing in pine products like resin and turpentine, declined in the 1960s, George reinvented the family business, building a sawmill at the Hoboken, Georgia site and incorporating Varn Wood Products.

“We were a naval stores family,” Varn told Timber Processing Magazine in November 2019. “My grandfather and my great uncle were turpentine people, not sawmillers. Granddaddy was dead by then, but my great uncle got on to me. He said you didn’t cut trees down, you used them to make turpentine and rosin. If they fell down, then you could send them to a sawmill, but only then.”

George Varn, from the cover of Timber Processing Magazine, November 2019

Confusingly, the George Varn who died in 1947 was known as George Varn, Sr., while his grandson, son of Lester Varn, was first called George Varn II. At some point, George Varn II, whose brother was also named Lester, became George Varn, Sr. and named his son George Varn, Jr. It’s the new George, Jr. and his siblings Ellen and Merrill (Mary Elizabeth, Jr.), now in their 70s, who’ve inherited the house Taylor Hardwick designed and whose father’s will stipulates they tear it down.

Merrill Varn, nevertheless, says her father was more “the environmentalist” than her mother. Ironically, when the Varns were having the house built, George wanted to avoid cutting down trees on the site. “My father didn’t want any trees removed unless absolutely necessary,” she says. His resistance led to a dilemma; the solution helped make the “living room / dining room area one of the best places to grow up in the whole world.”

Referring to Hardwick by his nickname, Merrill says, “When Cinder completed the rough sketch, he and my parents visited the lot and couldn’t figure out how to make the house fit, given the location of the trees. It was my mother who suggested they flip the design 180 degrees and put the garage on one side of the live oak and the kitchen on the other.”

George didn’t like the old men who’d helmed the family fortune telling him he shouldn’t cut down trees and he didn’t like the idea of anyone else living in the house Hardwick had built for him. He’d cut trees down if and when he wanted to cut them down. His children would tear the house down when he wanted them to tear it down. Even if he was already dead.

2. The Lonely Waiting

The piano waits by the glass at the back of the house. From the rear wall of glass, you can see straight through the living room, through the front windows, to the cedars and oaks toward Ortega Boulevard. Likewise, you can see the river behind the house from the front door.

The house settles, abandoned, alone after torrential rains. Now the gusts blow the screens that span the riverward face of the house, spawning tornados in the distance. When the sun drops, so will the temperature, a 70 degree afternoon giving way to a light freeze after midnight, just before the Ides of March.

In the back family room, a sofa, an armchair and a floor lamp sit together like strangers in a waiting room, together but alone, wondering at the coming prognosis. Dim sunlight shines off the slate floors, fleeting impressions of the history of the house.

3. Storm in Stillness

Everything came new beneath the old tree canopy on the ancient bluff in the spring rain. The times gave themselves to new vision, a young architect, confident and clear-sighted, to fashion a new simplicity.

image from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design

“Simplicity,” Taylor Hardwick had recently written, while still an architectural student at the University of Pennsylvania, “is the utmost expression of truth and is obtained through complete solidity and few planes.”

The bluff stands high up from the river. The rooflines pitch one into the other across the riverward façade of glass and screens like waves the second before they crash into waves.

Movement adheres in forms presenting themselves as still. Lines and planes fit together like De Stijl, like the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow.

The animating element is the genius, in the ancient Roman sense of the attendant spirit of place, the ghost, the god in the geometry. Geometry: genius/ghost/god.

For when the rain comes down on the house at three a.m., even the storm is composition: the lines, the planes, the voids. So too the drama of the tree reaching skyward in all its branchings as it pulls deeper earthbound through the forking paths of roots. So too the wutherings and whisperings in the leaves, the tides cut through the surface of the river, the pleadings and jubilance in birdsong. As Hardwick had written in 1949, the artist achieves simplicity “through a fundamental understanding of the nature and the implications of shapes, form and mass silhouettes.”

photograph by Jonathan Lux, 2004

Always, movement lies latent, frozen in form. Ratios flow behind lines and planes. What’s beautiful and true, says the Tao Te Ching paradoxically, “stands alone and unchanging, ever present and in motion.” Or, as Heraclitus wrote 2500 years ago, at the marrow of all things, still and seemingly at rest, burns fire.

4. Subtext

Volumes of art criticism lay stacked on shelves by the door. The place reeks of the lambent ever-creeping growth of wet Florida, plant and fungus, bacterium and animalcule, the ancient primordial viscous earth always subtext.

How different this room looked just a few years ago! Large built-in planters, the burnt umber of earth and wood, hosting green. The dinette set by the front window; at the rear window, the piano. The sleek bright teak cabinetry built in behind them. The cabinet wall that separated the dining room and kitchen originally incorporated the stereo system and storage.

photograph by Jonathan Lux, 2004

That cabinetry had been as integral and elemental as the neoplasticist planes and angles of stained wood siding and sliding glass doors. Likewise the wall of books that hung in the wide open room in the sunlight.

photograph by Jonathan Lux, 2004

The artist Jonathan Lux – whose painting of all Hardwick’s Skinner Stores, like a pop-art silkscreen of Marilyn Monroes, greeted me regularly in the University of North Florida’s special collections library a decade ago as I researched my book about Eartha White – took these older photos here in 2004.

The Varns had lived here for just more than half a century. Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Van Dyke Varn would die in 2011, after 65 years of marriage, but the house in these photos is still the family home. It’s simple, as Taylor Hardwick designed it to be, but not simplistic. It had no idea its days were numbered.

5. Perverse-Inverse Theory of Valuing Art; The Varn Effect

What is the value of a work of art? Not merely market value per se, but cultural value? Scarcity, of course, increases value economically. But art has another kind of value, quasi-religious, partly a trace from its medieval functions, mysterious.

In his 1935 book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin differentiated art by “cult value” and “exhibition value.” The latter is what it says it is, value derived from exhibition. The former relates to an inherent religious significance, as with “Madonnas [that] remain covered nearly all year round [and] sculptures on medieval cathedrals [that] are invisible to the spectator on ground level.” The reproduction of a work of art diminishes, or even obliterates, its “cult value,” a phenomenon new to industrialization, the photograph as prime example.

After art divorced itself from religion, the 19th century gave us art critic John Ruskin’s “art for the sake of art.” In the 1920s, the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made the Latin phrase Ars Gratia Artis its motto. The 20th century developed art into its own secular quasi-religion, with the general public dismissing various -isms as cryptic or esoteric. Mid-Century Modern architecture evolved its own divisions between cult and exhibition values. You can trace the line between Hardwick’s Skinner Dairies and the George Varn House.

In the late 1950s, the butterfly-winged Skinner Dairy Stores mushroomed across the North Florida landscape. People knew them. People loved them. They were reproducible. They were the photograph in Walter Benjamin’s example, as opposed to the cloaked Madonna. A form of public art, though privately owned, in effect, the Skinner Dairies belonged to the city and those who adored them.

A private residence, meanwhile, belonged to the client who commissioned it. Its uniqueness and privacy made it more akin to the cloaked Madonna, but its value still had to be considered in its relationship to the client, as customer, and what that customer desired.

What then is the value of a privately commissioned piece of art that must be destroyed when its client dies? Call it the Varn Effect. Scarcity and “cult value,” privately commissioned, conflate so that the closer approaches its date of destruction, the more valuable, in this perverse way, the doomed object becomes. The inverse has become the perverse.

To follow this line of thinking to its illogical tragic end, the work of art achieves its greatest artistic value by no longer existing. By having existed. Like the sculpture on the cathedral invisible to the spectator, but further. The objet d’art entirely inaccessible, even unto itself: not just non-existent, but having once existed. And having been destroyed.

6. State of the Sunset

Merrill Varn has turned down buyers who want to restore the house. Her father’s will was clear. The uglier interpretation: if he couldn’t have it, neither would anyone else. The more gracious: the house served its purpose as artistic commission. Its job is done.

This winter, preservationists and lovers of architecture received the news of the impending demolition with dismay. “Well,” a friend told me, “This is a first. I guess you can take it with you. Who knew? It’s a terrible state of affairs.”

The hokey old saying that you shouldn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth surely never included the codicil that you should shoot said gift-horse on sight.

photograph by Jonathan Lux, 2004

“Mary Elizabeth Varn,” the rather wordy obituary began, “passed away at her home on November 23, 2011 on the heels of her favorite kind of sunset. The only child of Mr. & Mrs. Edward B. Van Dyke, she was born March 7, 1918 at home in West Hartford, Connecticut during a late winter blizzard.” She’d worked as a journalist and a public relations manager for World War II-era Big Band musicians. Born at home, died at home. George lived two months shy of another ten years.

photograph by Jonathan Lux, 2004

Merrill, whose name is actually a portmanteau for “Mary Elizabeth, Jr.”,  says the stipulation that the house be demolished is merely a matter of privacy. “It was their house,” she says, “and they didn’t want anyone else living there. We have given the house plans to the Jacksonville Historical Society so anyone can build a replica if they wish.”

from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design, 2014