Off The Level
May 27, 2018 11:54AM
By David Williams
How does one approach a plot of land dominated by a sinkhole-like ravine that is only slightly less intimidating than the Great Pit of Carkoon, the lair of the wormlike, man-eating Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi?
Just ask architect Gary Bowen.
“As with every project,” the semi-retired partner at BVH Architecture explains, “I let the topography shape my thoughts. I look to these natural clues and work with the land instead of against it. I seek to disturb the scene as little as possible.”
The home’s roofline features seven different planes, a pattern that is mirrored beneath in an astonishing seven different levels wedged every which way inside the 2,600-square-foot home. There isn’t much subtlety to the violent angles of the 1.1-acre property, but moving throughout the land-hugging home’s varied levels is usually only a matter of a few gentle steps up or down to navigate from space to space.
And often small spaces at that. Rooms measuring as little as 12-by-14 feet could take on a downright claustrophobic vibe in other homes.
“A small footprint doesn’t need to mean small to the eye,” Bowen says while standing in the high-ceilinged den. “Volume—how your mind translates a space—is what really matters.”
“If you had put a regular, flat ceiling in this room like in most homes,” his wife, Beth, adds, “the space wouldn’t work. It would feel so…uptight…so uninviting.”
The couple’s previous home was equally as innovative. Bowen was one of five architects who designed the Treehouse development, the American Institute of Architects award-winning effort located at 60th and Western streets. Something of an early social experiment in urban infill when conceived in the late ’70s, five individually designed but conjoined townhomes rose on a heavily wooded piece of land around a central auto court.
Bowen is also known for such noted projects as the Gene Leahy Mall, the legendary M’s Pub (both original and rebuilt), and the Milton R. Abrahams branch of the Omaha Public Library system, which was designed around its famous starburst sculpture by Harry Bertoia, the midcentury master of both sculpture and furniture design.
The home’s furnishings reflect eclectic tastes where sleek, Bauhaus-era Marcel Breuer Wassily chairs are juxtaposed against earthy Acoma pottery of the American Southwest. The dull matte-glaze finish of Arts and Crafts-era Van Briggle pottery is contrasted against a shiny, streamlined Art Nouveau chair by Charles Mackintosh.
Handmade tiles and railings from local artisans, especially when surrounded by wide expanses of Douglas fir, further serve to ground the space in the finest traditions of time-honored, hands-on craftsmanship.
In keeping with a naturalistic sense of place, vining ground cover replaces sod across most of the property. A brilliant array of flowers bloom on the property that otherwise melts seamlessly into the golf course that was home to the 2013 U.S. Senior Open. (The U.S. Open, incidentally, is slated to return in 2021.)
“Who needs a lawn when you have this beautiful, 190-acre backyard?” Beth asks, gesturing to a panoramic vista while a group of slow-motion deer play through on the fifth hole just beyond the home’s deck.
Taking inspiration from their many countryside travels across the United Kingdom, Ireland, and France, the couple has created a charming, cottage-like home. But the word “cottage” can often evoke visions of the cloyingly cute, like the worlds imagined in the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. While the Bowen home is perhaps equally self-aware, it is a self-awareness saturated in a hyper-realness not found in the Disneyfied doings of other designers or decorators. No visitor here will ever conflate this home with the faux or the phony.
The couple’s art collection includes many of Bowen's own watercolors hung alongside works by such local favorites as Keith Jacobshagen and Judith Welk. A grandfather clock in the living room and a madcap crazy quilt in the master bedroom are family heirlooms harkening to Bowen's Welsh roots, as is the name of the home itself.
“Penwyn,” proclaims the rustic sign above the home’s front door as it greets visitors.
“It’s a British tradition to name your place,” Bowen explains, “and Penwyn was the name given to one of my ancestor’s farms in Wales.”
“And Penwyn,” Beth adds, “translates—just like our place—to ‘white house at the end of the grove.’”
Visit bvh.com to learn more about the firm where Gary Bowen is a principal architect.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of OmahaHome.