A Modernist House in Norman, Oklahoma, Connects to the Surrounding Landscape
From our interview with Don and Kay Holladay
Kay: Don and I live in Norman, Oklahoma, the home of the University of Oklahoma. I am a retired public health administrator, and Don is a retired lawyer and adjunct professor at the law school. We were living in a two-story redbrick Federal-style house over by the campus and raised our family there.
When the oldest of our three children went to college at the California Institute of the Arts, we visited him frequently during his four years there. Once, we were invited to the home of the university president, and his house was the coolest thing. We learned that it was an example of Desert Modernism. It had plate-glass windows and open spaces, and we just loved it.
Don: We had in mind that for the next phase of our lives, without any children in the house, we would try something radically different. We told a real estate agent friend that we were very interested in an open-space house of some type. She said that she knew of a house that might be for sale.
I’m also an artist and have done art for as long as I have practiced law. I was very interested in paintings by Eugene Bavinger, a University of Oklahoma professor. I believe in serendipity. When we walked into the house, the first thing we saw was a huge painting by Bavinger, whose work I was just in love with at the time. The couple who owned the house, Leonard and Dianne Bernstein, had decided they wanted a change of scenery and were moving to Dallas. It all just happened.
Kay: Walking up to the house, it is fairly underwhelming. You think, “Well, that’s kind of an interesting house,” but you only see maybe one quarter of it from the front. You don’t know about the huge acreage behind and how far back the house goes. I remember being let in, and I could hardly contain my excitement about seeing this kind of house in Norman, Oklahoma. Walking around and looking at the angles of the wood and the windows—I couldn’t even look at Don because I didn’t want to give away my feelings.
But after we left and were out of earshot, I screamed, “Oh my God, I need that house!” It was clear to me that the house also needed me because the rugged beauty of the outside needed to be seen from the inside, and it was going to take a lot of work to get the grounds in shape. I’m an outside person who likes to spend my days working in the garden and enjoying nature.
Don: We purchased the house in 2000. We knew it had been completed in 1967, but at the beginning, we were not that tuned in to the architectural history. Intuition told us not to mess with the interior and to concentrate on the outside.
At some point in time, architects we knew started telling us about the Organic Architecture movement. Leonard Bernstein had hired a professor at the University of Oklahoma, Dean Bryant Vollendorf, to design the house. Vollendorf was one of a group of area architects in the movement, the local leader of which was Bruce Goff. Frank Lloyd Wright was their guru. They used organic materials and shapes that you find in the [natural] world instead of shapes in traditional building, and they incorporated the landscape into each room. That’s what attracted us to this house. There is not a single room in the house—other than the bathrooms and the washroom—where you are not looking out. Whatever’s outside becomes part of the house.
Incredibly, Vollendorf came to visit us right before he died. He was a wild and engaging character. We had this fun three-hour conversation that was like a Socratic discussion. “What do you think about that right there—why did I design that?” he would ask. And I would have to give him an answer!
Kay: There are things that I would have designed differently. The kitchen is a semicircle, which really restricts what you can do with cabinet doors and updating appliances. In our last refreshing of the kitchen, I would have liked a double oven, but even with an architect who was familiar with this type of house, we could not figure out how to fit in today’s wider appliances without changing half the kitchen. So we didn’t do it. We’ve refinished cabinet surfaces and replaced Formica with an identical Formica.
Don: We haven’t changed anything in the house, except to add a bookcase, and it was done by one of Vollendorf’s students. And no one can tell it’s not original. It’s kind of a warm feeling to think that the house hasn’t changed in more than 50 years.
Another student of Vollendorf’s told us that he used to stand in front of the class and say, “A design’s not worth a hill of beans unless there’s a leak.” The house has a totally flat roof, so if there’s the right amount of water and the wind blows, it’s going to find a way to get in. It’s not a big deal. I just call a man that we know and say, “David, I’ve found another leak.”
Kay: We’re both activists for LGBTQ+ rights and other progressive causes and have had many committee meetings here to plan really good troublesome stuff, as Rep. John Lewis would have said. Our largest gathering was about 90 people, and it was a little cramped, but 10 to 20 people is a pretty typical size. The house tends to lend itself towards gathering and community and doing.
Don: Around 2015, we were at a meeting at the United Ministry Center, and it lost its power. I said, “Well, we live five minutes away and we’ve got a big living room—everyone can come to our house.” One of the members at the meeting was preservation architect Catherine Montgomery, who passed away in February of 2022. She had devoted her whole life to preserving buildings and championed many architecturally significant buildings in the state. She asked us if she could put the house on the National Register [of Historic Places] when it reached the 50-year mark, and she did. Under her tutelage, we became more and more interested in the architecture.
Kay: Every single day when I walk through the house and look outside, I fall in love with it all over again.
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