Roger Brown Study Collection: Final Projects
In July, 1996, Roger Brown worked on plans for an adobe home for property he purchased in Lompoc, California, north of Santa Barbara. He studied adobe homes in New Mexico and made several drawings of elevations, plan views, and details (figs. 1–3) (titled "Lompoc Cebeda Canyon Adobe") of a traditional adobe home and garden. (See Nick Lowe's model of the house here.)
In August 1996, Brown began work on a visionary architectural and horticultural landscape designed specifically for land adjacent to his childhood home—where his parents still resided—at 1224 Glenn Street, Opelika, Alabama. The design is a bird's-eye view of the United States, with plants and landscape features representing the various regions. He planned to move a house into this garden, located approximately where Opelika, Alabama would be, on the US map. In a preliminary drawing, he noted that the house would be a "Typical primitive country house, South Alabama, interior remodeled." We don't know if he had found such a house and could purchase and move it to the property. In the second drawing the primitive house was replaced with a 1850s Greek Revival house with a 1920s addition. This house was located in Opelika and apparently Brown intended to buy and move it.
Beginning on the east coast, Brown's drawing includes a Nantucket shed, and topiary in the shapes of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the World Trade Center. A raised rock garden further south may represent the Appalachian Mountains. Brown drew sand and dune grasses along the east coastline, and further south are Virginia Live Oak, Redbud, and an avenue of Palmettos. Top and center, the Midwest features "Great Lakes" ponds, prairie grasses, wild flowers, and a birch and woods to the east. A sinuous stream meanders throughout the entire drawing, all branches meeting in the center just west of the house. The central branch—the Mississippi—widens at the Gulf, with Bald Cypress and other southern trees, with a large pecan and patch of cotton just west of the river. Brown placed a fig tree in front of the house, and "Dad's tomatoes" and a vegetable garden out back. A rock garden—no doubt, the Rockies—divides west from Midwest, with a ravine that must represent the Grand Canyon. Plantings in the Southwest include succulents and cacti, Palo Verde, Smoke, and Pepper trees. Along the west coast—from north to south—Brown drew a Monkey Puzzle tree, a cathedral-like painting storage building, California rose beds, and a Sequoia. He drew a Greenhouse to the south, with a Eucalyptus and Magnolia nearby. Further east in Arizona territory are desert plants (figs. 4-6)
Brown drew a fence along the western border that delineates this property from his family's home and garden. We know Brown wanted to have an Alabama home and studio to complete his path of creating homes, studios, and gardens in the last chapter of his life. The drawings incorporate an elaborate, elastic scale shift: the entire United States fits into his parents' back yard, in a garden scheme representing the country through symbolic land features and plants native to each region. The drawings also appear to reference the powerful aesthetic and philosophical influence of two artists whom he greatly admired; he collected and lived with many works by both artists. The landscape, with its clumped, stylized features and the sinuous pathways brings to mind the drawings of Joseph Yoakum. The painting storage building, with its "Rose Window" resembles the birdhouse cathedrals of Aldo Piacenza (figs. 7–9).
The 1224 Glenn Street project was realized on paper only, and Brown turned his attention to the Rock House, an 1870s stone building in Beulah, Alabama, about 15 miles from his parents' home. This building featured in Brown's life and imagination since childhood. He may have noticed it first when the family passed it on their way to enjoy chicken dinners at a nearby restaurant. In his youth Brown made super-8 films of the Rock House. In 1996 he began plans to rehab it into his final home and studio. Although it was not for sale, Brown nonetheless drew plans for the renovation and began collecting furnishings: ceramic vessels, quilts, and rugs. He planned for two of his major works to live there as well: the painting Kissin' Cousins, and one of his Galvanized Temple sculptures. The owner eventually agreed to sell the building and Brown purchased nearly everything necessary to move in: washer and dryer, dishwasher, hardware, and sundry supplies, shipping these all to his brother Greg to store.
Roger Brown died on November 22, 1997, a few days before the Rock House real estate closing was scheduled. His parents and brother purchased the home and lovingly renovated the building, mostly according to his plans (figs. 10–11). It was dedicated two years later on Brown's birthday (December 10, 1999) (fig. 13). Brown knew that his death would devastate his family. Planning ahead, he gave them a gift—a project that would guide them through the mourning process and result in a home and museum in which to celebrate his memory and his family's history. Mr. Brown used the original windows (which had been replaced) to create display cases for the extensive trove of archival materials Mrs. Brown saved from Roger and Greg's childhoods (figs. 16–19). The Rock house was used for holiday celebrations and as a country getaway place, and Mr. and Mrs. Brown celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary there. Roger's parents have since passed away. Greg and Benedicte Brown continue to use and enjoy the Rock House, and open it for visitors. The Leland Cypress trees they planted over the years since 1998 have matured, surrounding the Rock House in Roger's beloved conifer trees (fig. 15).
Neither project (Lompoc Cebeda Canyon Adobe nor 1224 Glenn Street Adjacent) was realized, but his research and drawings express an irrepressible desire to envision and work toward creating ambitious homes, gardens, and studios for a future he knew he would not inhabit for long.