Bringing Mockbee Home

Sambo’s benevolent spirit guides a modest addition in Atlanta.

While the Rural Studio and other design-build classes carry on Samuel Mockbee’s educational legacy, in the Atlanta neighborhood Virginia Highland, architects Lloyd Bray and Durham Crout are taking care of another piece of his unfinished business. They are realizing a 1,200-square-foot house expansion for Lily Friedlander, a project for which Mockbee originally conceived the design.

Friedlander, a former director of the Tibetan-Buddhist Drepung Loseling Institute, bought the nineteenth-century converted dairy barn in 1998. “The first renovations started small, just making it habitable,” Friedlander says. A hose-fed shower was plumbed, for example, and linoleum-on-subflooring was switched for wide-planked pine. Even though it measured only 550 square feet at the time, she says, “I was reluctant to expand because the house was so cozy and safe for me.”

The incentive to break out of those miniscule proportions came when Friedlander heard Mockbee speak in early 2000. “This man was pouring his heart into everything he did,” Friedlander recalls. “I can’t say I did an analysis of Rural Studio architecture, but I felt like I was in the presence of someone extraordinary—someone who would value this little humble house the way I did.”

Her hunch was correct: Mockbee accepted the assignment without hesitation. “I was so moved that I went up to him, sobbing, and told him he was the only one who would und­erstand the house,” she recalls. The architect spent the remainder of the weekend taking measurements and discussing how to replicate the sleeping porch Friedlander had once enjoyed at her grandmother’s home. That spring he and a Rural Studio student delivered plans for a two-story volume that connects to the existing west elevation via a walkway and cantilevers slightly over the original roof. In exchange for design services, Mockbee asked Friedlander to purchase his students two canoes.

After the MacArthur Foundation named Mockbee one of its “genius” grant recipients that July, Friedlander unburdened him of the long-distance project. Though he was no longer involved, Mockbee’s spirit still pervaded the process. Friedlander soon recruited local luminary Bray to complete the addition, which he constructed from copper cladding and pegged cypress using traditional Japanese joinery techniques, also expanding a cellar laundry into a full basement. Like Mockbee, Bray refused payment. “I felt like I had used up all the good karma I had possibly accumulated,” Fried­lander recalls, so she decided to relieve Bray of the job too. Since February 2005 her friend Crout has focused on the interiors, outfitting the new sleeping porch and creating a focal point in the form of a blue glass-tile bathroom. “Sambo really honored the little house that was here,” Crout says, “and everyone has been concerned with respecting what he had done.”

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