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April 20th, 2010 - Jamie Birdwell

Once vacant for a decade, Norman's eccentric Bavinger House is open again

Designed by an abstract artist and a brilliant architect, the Bavinger house in Norman is a one-of-a-kind building admired the world over.

bavingerSCThe Bavinger House from the outside. Photo/Shannon Cornman
During the 1950s, many Americans yearned for a ranch-style home with black-and-white kitchen tile. For the Bavingers, it was a sandstone house with inset, aqua-green glass cullets and a goldfish pool.

 In 1950, Eugene and Nancy Bavinger began construction on their one-of-a-kind abode at 730 60th Ave NE in Norman after tiring of their plain-Jane house on Dale Street. Eugene Bavinger was an art professor at the University of Oklahoma who specialized in the abstract. His colleague, architecture school chair Bruce Goff, had designed the house specifically for the couple at a site that was nestled in nature, says Boz Bavinger, grandson and head of The Bavinger House Conservancy.

"The site was chosen specifically for the plans of the house. Grandfather liked the nature setting. It was a seamless bounding between the indoors and outdoors," Bavinger says.

Completed in 1955 with the help of university students, local businesses and volunteers, the house is made of natural, local materials - something that is popular today, but was far ahead of its time in the 1950s, Bavinger says. The home features stone that was discovered after using dynamite on nearby farm land that the Bavingers purchased, while the cullets amid the tan stones of the exterior were pieces of glass waste from Ball Glass Company in Henrietta.

Construction of the stone house made for a tedious task, requiring builders to place stones one by one to fit its peculiar, curving-tower shape.
 "The actual design of the house is unlike any other structure I've ever seen," says Susan Atkinson, historic preservation officer for the city of Norman. "I've seen a lot of buildings in my life. I've never seen another building that even approaches this."

The Bavinger house is comprised of several platforms, or living pods, which are easily accessed by the circular staircase, which is made of hand-rubbed walnut treads. The platforms serve as a living room, master bedroom and children's bedrooms with a play area, according to the structure's National Register of Historic Places registration form. Fishnet and sheer curtains adorn the walls for privacy. The home comes complete with central heat and air and three fireplaces. It is very comfortable, despite the appearance of seamless boundaries between nature and design.

"The house was always warm in the winter and cool in the summer when I came to visit," Bavinger says.
Although the house is used purely for tours today, the unconventional structure was once home to Eugene and Nancy Bavinger and their two sons.

"Two boys were raised here with 50 feet of soaring space and ponds inside. Most people didn't grow up like that,"
Atkinson says.

The home is recognized as the most significant work of Goff.

"It's been the focus of many architectural studies, birthplace of the sustainable movement and is often studied in the architecture major," Bavinger says.

 But Goff's masterpiece is often underappreciated and relatively unknown in Oklahoma, Atkinson says. Although Goff, who died in 1992, enjoys a loyal following of fans in the state, it is nothing in comparison to his followers worldwide.

The period Goff resided in Oklahoma is often considered as his most productive. In addition to being head of OU's architecture department from 1947 to 1955, he designed a few other distinctive dwellings in Norman, such as the Ledbetter house on 701 W Brooks. He also put his talents to Tulsa's Boston Avenue Methodist Church, which remains a treasured piece of Art Deco architecture, Atkinson says.

"(Goff was) very flamboyant, very much a rule-breaker. He was an iconoclastic professor," she says. "We didn't know what to do with him in the '40s and '50s when he was working here. He didn't fit any mold."

The combination of Goff's quirky architecture and Eugene Bavinger's flair for abstract art make the Bavinger house a truly unique spectacle. The relationship between the two creative minds is expressed in their collaboration, Atkinson says, as the architect and the artist combined their crafts to push the boundaries of living spaces.

"They were probably fairly square pegs in the round hole of university professors at that time," she says.

The Bavinger family lived in the home until 1997. Before Nancy died in 2007, she made Boz promise to show the house to visitors in its natural form. The house reopened for onlookers in December 2008. The most surprising thing to visitors, Bavinger says, is that the place even existed.

In 1988, the American Institute of Architects awarded the house its 25-Year Award for standing the test of time, and in 2001, it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Before being nominated, the house was surveyed to ensure it was in close-to-original condition, Atkinson says. It is one of the few buildings in Oklahoma on the register and is a source of pride for many Normanites.

"I've been lucky enough to tour the house. It's an amazing resource here in Norman. It's the only building like it in the entire world," she says. "The combination of Bruce Goff's personal history of the very idiosyncratic nature of the architecture and the Bavingers' artistic creativity make the Bavinger house irresistible."

The family's descendants continue to care for and show off their spectacle to curious visitors who venture to Norman. Tours are held daily for $10 per person.

"Most people are fascinated with how unique and incredible the house itself is," Bavinger says. "The house is an alternative way to look at life in a structure."

For more information, visit www.thebavingerhouse.com.
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