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Sam and Ruth Van Sickle Ford House
A trio of domes constructed of salvaged Quonset hut ribs, coal, and half-formed chunks of glass, the Ford House is among architect Bruce Goff’s most inspired and fully realized creations. In 1947, Ruth Van Sickle Ford, a watercolorist and director of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, hired Goff, a former Academy colleague, to design her new residence in a suburban town west of Chicago. Goff designed the house, and his former apprentice, Don Tosi, built the idiosyncratic structure.
Located just west of downtown Aurora, the Ford House is set on a broad suburban site. An undulating wall, punctuated by portholes and constructed of rough pieces of cannel coal, lines the road. A curving driveway leads through the wood-sided carport. The house itself consists of a large domed structure, with two domed extensions, one to the northeast and a second to the south. At the main central mass, low curving walls, built from large pieces of dressed cannel coal and rough chunks of blue-green cullet glass (an industrial glass product), rise about four feet, topped by a wood shingled dome that culminates in a conical glazed skylight. Navy-surplus Quonset hut ribs form the dome, and the bowing ribs, painted orange, slip below the shingles and bear upon the ground, freestanding from the ashlar coal wall behind. When approached from the west, the carport obscures the entry. The coal walls and shingled, domed roof appear as a windowless mass, but in fact, the central dome is enclosed for only two-thirds of its area, and the eastern one-third is an outdoor space, defined by the cage of the ribs, with plate glass walls, a ground-floor patio, and a smaller second-floor porch. The shingles at the flanking hemicyclic domes, both smaller than the central dome, come much closer to the ground, with lower coal walls at grade. Both these masses also appear as unfenestrated solids from the road, but they are sliced on the east, with plate glass windows opening onto the rear yard.
The main door, at the carport, leads through a low vestibule, into the soaring central dome. The stone floor, low coal walls, and herringbone wood-clad ceiling rise to a complex umbrella of orange trusses, lit from above by the conical skylight. At the center of the main room, the floor is set about three feet below entry level, with seating lining the edges of the space. A second-floor studio occupies the area atop the open podium at the center of the room, all centered on a copper-clad fireplace rising through the center of the space. The smaller domes, to the right of the main entry, and at the far end of the main living space, each contain a bedroom and bathroom, with wood-paneled walls, and coiled rope decorating the ceilings.
Born in Kansas in 1904 and apprenticed to a Tulsa, Oklahoma, architecture firm at the age of twelve, Goff initially proved adept at working creatively within the Art Deco and burgeoning International Style, but held a particular reverence for the individualism of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. In the years leading up to World War II, his residential commissions evidenced an interesting but conventional expression and manipulation of pure geometric forms. Assigned to the Aleutian Islands and the San Francisco Bay area during the war, Goff experienced regions vastly different from the Great Plains and Midwest of his youth. Perhaps it was this exposure, or a period of dislocation and the sense of optimism that accompanied the end of the war in the United States, that Goff’s designs took a dramatic turn in the postwar years.
His interesting geometric experiments, coupled with a passion for unusual materials, came together in powerfully individualistic new designs that deconstructed and reimagined the American home. This helps explain why Ford was so happy to see her house published widely after its completion, viewing it as an example of advanced modern architecture as much as a statement of the artistic principles of her Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Appearing in both Life and Popular Mechanics, as well as the architectural press, the house attracted sufficient attention that Ford and her husband sold it in the 1960s. The house remains in private hands and is well maintained.
Cook, Jeffery. The Architecture of Bruce Goff. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
De Long, David. The Architecture of Bruce Goff, Buildings and Projects 1916-1974. New York: Garland Press, 1977.
De Long, David. Bruce Goff – Toward Absolute Architecture.Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988.
Robinson, Sidney. “The Postwar Modern House in Chicago.” In Chicago Architecture and Design, 1923-1993, edited by John Zukowsky. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1993.
Saliga, Pauline, and Mary Woolever, eds. The Architecture of Bruce Goff, 1904-1982: Design for the Continuous Present. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1995.
Waters, John H., “Sam and Ruth Van Sickle Ford House,” Kane County, Illinois. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 2016. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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