Virtruvian House: 2000 Years In The Making

By+Kathe Brunton

More than 2,000 years ago, a man set wheels in motion that in the late 20th century inspired Thomas Gordon Smith to build a house.

The man of old was a Roman architect by the name of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who conveyed his entire store of architectural knowledge onto 10 scrolls. The total document, written around 20 B.C., was a synthesis of Greek architectural ideals from the fourth through second century B.C. and Vitruvius’ own experience. Today, those 10 scrolls are considered the most comprehensive architectural text written in antiquity and also the only such text to survive.

A professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, Smith is passionate about Vitruvius’ 2,000-year-old work. But more than just teach the principles, Smith has set them in stone – well, concrete and brick, to be specific.

Not far from the university, you’ll find a house that captures the eye and engages the imagination. Approaching it, you see a tall, temple-like structure in yellow brick flanked by one-story, red concrete-block wings. Two Ionic columns made of Indiana limestone grace the portico and beckon the visitor to the front door.

Once inside the foyer, the view into the main room is astounding. Against the far northern wall is a Rumford fireplace surrounded by faux-Delft tiles with representations of Indiana birds. A 22-foot vaulted ceiling rises majestically over the 24-foot square room. The ceiling is called a groin vault and its shape is reminiscent of a barrel cut lengthwise, with the two halves then intersected and hung open side down. In the corners, four columns – whose proportions are copied from Vitruvius’ recommendations – create alcove-like spaces. Huge windows reminiscent of those from Roman baths are stretched along the east and west walls and let in an incredible amount of light. This feature does more than chase the gloom of a gray day away. It is reflective of the time before electricity.

“Most people throughout history lived without mechanical engineering,” said Smith, who noted that homes of old were built to take advantage of the position of the sun and the prevailing winds. “People are coming back to that concept today because of the energy crisis,” he added.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this room – which is called an “oecus,” Greek for principal room – are the frescoes of architects and their patrons along the vault.

As important as the architects were, Smith noted, “We cannot forget their patrons. They could not do it without them. There was not only a financial relationship between the two, but close personal ties as well. The patrons were very much a part of the process.” Along the east-west axis of the vault are the Greek and Roman architects. Renaissance-period figures adorn the north-south line.

Holding a place of honor above the fireplace is Architecttura, the goddess of architecture, flanked by Vitruvius himself and Deinocrates, another ancient practitioner. Together, the two represent the polar tendencies of rule and invention in architecture.

Smith himself created all the frescoes, a style in which a painting is made while the plaster of a surface is still wet. “It’s important to decorate a house with meaningful symbols,” he said. “This is an attribute of classical architecture, to tell a story (of the owners through what is placed in the house).”

The heavy, ornate furniture in the room is also classical and based on designs from the Greek revival period of the 1830s to 1850s.

“The furniture and the architecture reinforce each other,” Smith said.

Back in the foyer, facing the oecus, a hallway on the right leads to the east wing, where the children’s bedrooms are located. Smith and his wife Marika built the house in 1990 when their oldest child was a freshman in high school and the youngest of six was a baby. The short hallway ends in a niche with a statue of Antigone, then bears right.

Originally, the hallway continued straight on to the children’s rooms, but there were two issues with that. One, it afforded the visitor a clear view of the clutter that naturally collects when children are about, and two, it didn’t announce that this area was intended to be private. So they diverted the hallway with the niche to halt the “natural flow” from the foyer into that part of the house.

There is, however, a natural flow forward into the oecus and down a hallway to the left, which leads to the dining room, and beyond that, the kitchen.

The dining room, too, is a work of art – literally. The entire far wall of this oval room features a mural by Ruth Stroik, a friend of the Smiths. She recreated a cityscape view of Rome from a photo Smith had taken on a trip to Italy. Interestingly, the view in the photo faces west, as does the viewer when gazing upon the mural.

A fabric velarium hangs across the ceiling and while beautifully decorative, it actually was placed there to help with the acoustics in the tall room. Opposite the mural, the east wall features a niche on one side of the hallway entrance and an almost-hidden stairway on the other that leads to the master suite above the foyer. A door beside the niche allows entry to a laundry/mud room, which also contains a second door to the portico. Windows at the narrow ends of the oval extend from the floor high up the wall and bathe the room in natural light.

To the left of the mural is the entrance into the kitchen, a room that feels much larger than its actual size. Cabinet space has been sacrificed for windows, which stretch across three of the walls. Pale yellow paint complements the incoming light and, even on a gray day, makes the room warm and inviting. The cabinetry is Amish-crafted light maple and reflects the design of 1830s-inspired bedroom dressers.

The Smiths’ Vitruvian house is both a monument to an architectural icon and a home well lived in. Combining these two attributes was not easy, but Thomas and Marika succeeded in doing so. Vitruvius would be proud.