Architect, Dan Scully, earned his Master of Architecture degree from Yale University in 1970 and has taught and practiced architecture ever since, mainly in the New England region. He also has worked with some of the most influential American architects of the second half of the twentieth century: Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and Robert Venturi. His own design work, however, carries the seeds of an influence quite separate from these three major figures, although it can be argued that Scully’s embrace of a particular non-architectural vernacular certainly shares a conceptual kinship to the work and thinking of Robert Venturi.
In referring to a “conceptual kinship” with Robert Venturi, I omitted two equally important contributors: Venturi’s wife, Denise Scott Brown and their partner, Steven Izenour. Their 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, challenged the highbrow pretensions of most practicing architects and argued for a meaningful architecture, the forms of which could be more ordinary and inspired by more everyday encounters; in particular, they referenced the vernacular buildings that appeared on the sides of our highways and our commercial roadside strips. As a mnemonic to aid in understanding this new architecture, these three architects coined two new terms: the Duck and the Decorated Shed.
The Duck refers to any building whose shape is sculptural, often unique, and associated with the function and purpose of that building. The word is fortuitous in that these architects practiced on the eastern seaboard and so were familiar with the Big Duck, a well known concrete building near the Hamptons in Long Island, built in 1931 to sell ducks and duck eggs by the side of the road. Had Venturi, et. al. been practicing in Los Angeles or Pasadena, there would have been no “Duck.” Instead there would have been the Hot Dog (Tail O the Pup, 1946) or the Shoe (Mother Goose Pantry Restaurant, 1929).
The Decorated Shed is the polar opposite of the Duck. There is nothing sculptural about its form. It is shed-like, a rectangular box, unremarkable, constructed of cheap materials such as cinder or concrete blocks. Only its “decoration” gives it an identity, often in the form of a large sign or logo. For early examples, consider the simple gasoline station with an enormous “Esso” sign towering over it, or, today, the even larger blue and yellow “Ikea” sign, visible at 60mph from a half-mile in the distance.
All the architecture shown in this post is designed by Dan Scully. The first building, shown below in four photographs, could be considered emblematic of a Duck, were we still inclined to use this terminology. Following it are four more buildings, all on Dan Scully’s home compound in Southern New Hampshire, each of which has more in common with a Decorated Shed, as we will soon see.
Built on what was a former rail yard, the Bellows Falls Visitor’s Center was inspired by railroad locomotives. Its front resembles a large wedge plow used by railroad companies to clear snow, particularly in the western American states. The light just below its roof, featuring the number 17 on its sides, is an actual light salvaged from one of the locomotives that operated on the Vermont Rail System. The rear of Scully’s building passes underneath an arch which, in Scully’s words, “is an evocation of the Arch Bridge of 1905 that graced the Connecticut River.”
Here, in smaller scale, we see a similar wedge plow that once was fitted onto a big truck for clearing the local highways. Behind it is the rusted cab of a Dodge truck which Scully salvaged from a local municipal dump. The arched ribs behind the truck are prefabricated quonset arches, here made into a storage facility for his yard-maintenance equipment,
Similar quonset arches, below, have been converted into a chicken coop. Although quonset hut arches can be purchased from several manufacturers, these came from a Canadian company that had exhibited at the local, annual, Springfield Big Exposition. When the company dismantled its exhibit pavilions, it sold them rather than haul them back to Canada. As we will later see, these quonset arches will also serve as the main structural components of Scully’s Garage.
Dan also salvaged this torso from a local dump. Her original function was to display Maidenform bras. Now she cavorts, topless, amongst the trees and ferns of Scully’s property.
The front of Dan Scully’s house is as simple as can be: a gable roof covering a story-and-a-half and cantilevering beyond the façade. On the left is the front door. In the center, a large picture window. That’s it. But then we see the “decoration.” On center, a prominent red Doric column, only here turned at a forty-five degree angle. Above it, on axis, is a winged hood ornament from a Pontiac (ca. 1954). Then, above this, just under the attic windows, is a locomotive lamp–wired by Scully to operate. It was salvaged from a small steam engine that pushed coal cars around a Coke Factory in New Haven until ca. 1966.
There are three additional pieces of exterior applied decoration of note. Just to the left of the front door is a long, flat metal panel joined top and bottom by a concave piece of the same material. A similar one can be found on the far right edge of the house. These, of course, are understood to be Doric pilasters–flattened companions to that central column. Below the pilaster, we see what appears to be two connected strips of curved, rusted steel. What this was originally, however, was the rear bumper of a Ford Model A automobile. The left one, by the front door, conveniently serves as a boot/shoe scraper, to be used before entering the house on muddy days.
Finally, we see a large Pontiac Indian weathervane rising up above the west roof section, silhouetted among the trees in my photograph. Pontiac, apparently, made some weathervanes in the 1940s. Scully had this one fabricated from an exact tracing that he took from one he spied on the roof of a house in Massachusetts. His weathervane does not revolve, however–Scully fixed it to constantly face west, so defining a symbolic axis that he uses to connect the buildings in his compound.
Inside, the applied “decoration” continues, nearly all of it related to the automobile. By now, you begin to understand that the automobile and the road constitute that “non-architectural vernacular” embraced by Scully. It is also why he formally names his house: Highway 101: Two-Lane Blacktop House.
Among the many things found inside is a Mobilgas sign from ca. 1970. To its left hangs a 1965 print by Alan D’Arcangelo, The Trip. With its red arrow pointing left while enclosing a yellow hand pointing right, The Trip was pictured also in Learning from Las Vegas as emblematic of the contradiction of highway cloverleafs, on which one turns right to go left.
On the right, we see two photographs of racing cars with Dan the driver–a Lime Rock Vintage Fall Festival race of 1994 and another of a race on a track in Ohio. The long, horizontal, framed piece between these photos is a conceptual drawing by Scully of one of his early projects: The End of the Road House.
I remember seeing a plan of The End of the Road House several decades ago. I recall it as an elongated rectangle approached on one end by a driveway painted with a dotted center line. A roll-down garage door on that end allowed the owner’s pickup truck to drive and park inside the house. After all, the pickup had “the best seats in the house” as well as the only radio. Kitchen, bedroom, pantry and other rooms were accessed on either side of this paved, living-room drive, each with its own roll-down garage door.
Among several items on the dining room table is a small version of the Victory of Samothrace, a Hellenistic sculpture now in the Louvre Museum. Flanking it on either side are models of the 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic coupe. Scully calls this “the greatest car design ever.”
The original Victory of Samothrace was depicted as alighting on the prow of a ship (serving as its base) and facing the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the Island of Samothrace. It is thought that she was erected (ca. 190 B.C.) to commemorate a naval victory. She will re-enter our narrative later on.
This is a photo I took of the Bugatti 57 Atlantic on display in Los Angeles. Its design was radically different from those earlier Bugatti’s of Jean’s father, Ettore. The Atlantic, considered to be the most valuable car in the world, is one of only four such super sports cars ever produced. The reason its body has riveted seams is because Jean Bugatti used an extremely light material called Elektron (90% magnesium/10% aluminum). This high-tech material, then only used for airplane bodies, could not be welded.
Here we see more art making reference to wheeled movement and speed: a yellow velodrome racing bicycle, the college thesis project of Dan’s son, Michael; a photograph taken at night from a car window, Night Vision, by Alexa Thayer; and a set of header pipes (exhaust pipes) from a racing Volvo.
Moving into the kitchen, our velocity may have slowed down, but, still, transportation and the roadside remain dominant. In the top photograph, we see a set of old Art Deco diner stools mounted on the floor. In the center photograph, under the skylight, we see a sculptural assemblage by the artist, Paula Kirsh: the Madonna of the Kitchen. The Madonna stands on a truncated Doric column and is flanked by what look like the grilles from an old Dodge.
The lower photograph (directly above), looks through the window of a wrecked camper, here given new life and installed above the sink.
In the foreground, we may recognize a sculptural maquette (Dan calls it a “cheap knockoff”) of the Frederick Remington sculpture, The Cheyenne (original in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Although this passage is full of art related to the theme of the house, I wish only to highlight the large oil painting by Harold Keller titled Landscape (1983). In the right foreground, we see a cluster of urban buildings and a seated woman shown as a white silhouette. The left foreground looks more like a New England landscape. Above and to the left, the sky erupts into a jagged, abstract pattern, as if a different dimension of space/time were intruding into this bucolic scene. Then, flying straight at us in the center, we see five Phantom fighter jets (the first has already peeled off into a sharp banking maneuver). I don’t know what to make of the scene, but it suggests a compelling iconography. After seeing a few other Keller paintings on-line, I am guessing that the seated woman is Nemesis. Here, she may be passively sitting, but those Phantom jets are likely delivering her retribution to something.
We will later see another, equally compelling, painting by Harold Keller, who taught art at Union College and, as Dan fondly recalls, “taught me to draw…[and became] a life long friend and inspiration.”
Just beyond Keller’s Landscape is the bathroom. The pattern of its tile floor is designed to resemble automobile tire tracks. One can’t but help thinking of the Automobile Tire Print (1953) that Robert Rauschenberg made, assisted by John Cage and Cage’s Model A Ford. The print remains in the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Finally, we enter Dan Scully’s bedroom. Make note, in the top photograph, of the TV set at the foot of the bed. Push a button, and it rises up to provide a picture window to a virtual world. Push another button and it disappears, offering, instead, the real view we see in the second photograph.
The racing cars seen on the shelf to our right are models made by Dan’s son, Michael, when he was a young boy. As Dan recalls, “most of my childhood models did not survive; [they were] busted by a brother.”
By the way, Dan’s son, Michael Scully, certainly keeps alive the family focus on cars and speed. He is the director of M Sport design for BMW, and designed the U.S.A two-man bobsled for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as well as the new 2018 BMW M8 GTE race car.
Here, framed by two elegant birch trees, Scully’s house faces east, making an axial alignment with the second building in his compound, the Temple to the God of Speed. Turning around, we see the axis in the photograph below–a clear, processional path connecting the two buildings.
As is the House (Highway 101: Two-Lane Blacktop House), the Temple (Temple to the God of Speed) is also Doric, complete with a regulation, well-proportioned Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes. By now, we likely suspect that we have entered a sacred space, the temenos of a Doric sanctuary.
We then notice an old motorcycle centered at top of the Temple. The ancient Greeks would have called this an akroterion, an architectural ornament mounted on a building’s summit. Scully identifies this motorcycle as the front frame of a 1940 Indian Scout, again salvaged from a local dump. He goes on to say that the motorcycle is “here reincarnated as an early version of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.”
Historically, it is the case that a Nike (or winged Victory figure) became a common motif as an akroterion in the Hellenistic period. We then also recall the small Winged Victory of Samothrace centered on Dan Scully’s dining room table, flanked by those two Bugatti Atlantics. How, if at all, are these related to the Indian motorcycle? Is there more to this than Scully’s claim to “reincarnation?”
It so happens that Scully made an abstract Winged Victory of Samothrace out of two sheets of aluminum and placed it in a circular pool over which she hovers. She faces east in the direction of the Temple, but off axis to the north. She may be abstracted, but she is still figurative and nothing like the front frame of a motorcycle.
Yet, there is a connection between her and the motorcycle akroterion that gives meaning to Scully’s claim of “reincarnation.” That connection is provided by the early 20th-century art movement, Futurism. The movement’s spokesman, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (sometimes referred to as the high priest of speed) spoke of a new civilization in which “the machine will give us new rites, new laws.” He said Futurists would intuit “the instincts of metals.” Most famously, in 1909, he asserted that “a roaring motorcar, which seems to race on like machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.”
Behold, the reincarnation!
The other painting by Harold Keller covers the interior door of the Temple. A New England landscape with farms, silos and a church dominate the mid-ground and center section. In the sky we see a constellation of stars, two highway cloverleafs, three Harrier fighter jets, a WWI Dazzle Ship, and that white silhouetted nude woman, now with wings, shopping bag and coiled rope or whip. Most surely, she is Nemesis. In the foreground we see a Pontiac convertible towing an Airstream trailer. Scully tells us that the occupants of the convertible are “Picasso’s Les Demoiselles (d’Avignon) returning from the fair.”
We also note a red area in the painting’s center mid-ground–this appears to be the plan of a Greek Hexastyle Doric temple. Clearly, Keller’s painting is informed by an iconography which weaves modernity and the classical, rural living and the machine age. Then realize it is on a door. When opened, the door presents a threshold, a liminality. An anthropologist would define a liminality as a “middle stage of a rite of passage” in which the participant stands at the threshold between a prior and a new identity.
And so, the complex iconography of Keller’s panting, its seeming ambiguity, begins to make sense. By stepping across that liminal, wooden sill, we enter the Temple, a sacred space.
Once in the cella, we confront the God of Speed. It turns out to be a dragster, an old dragster. It dates from 1966, “before,” as Scully says, “they got even longer.” I’m tempted to take some liberties and call it O Theós tis Tachýtitas, Greek for “God of Speed.”
As so many of the devices that bring meaning and relevance to Scully’s architecture, the dragster is another found object: According to Dan, “it was for sale on the side of the road, [so] I bought it.”
We see several large candles on the dragster’s front frame, and keeping with the idea of ritual prayer and offering, Scully hints at their purpose: “one must pray before going to speeding court to save your license.”
A closer look at O Theós tis Tachýtitas shows us another alteration where its engine was once located. As Dan tells us, it “once had a Chrysler Hemi, then a Chevy, [but] now [it has] the original internal combustion engine–a wood stove.”
Might we infer that the God of Speed has been domesticated? Its header pipes have become flues to carry out the residue of burning wood. The cella is now furnished with comfortable seats–Ford van seats rescued from the Harrisville dump.
But, what about that Shell sign (most likely dating from the 1960s or earlier)? Given the connections to Greek mythology, it’s hard not to think of the Birth of Venus (Aphrodite) by Botticelli and then realize that Aphrodite pre-dated the Olympian gods. In her earlier aspects, she could be vengeful and she was known sometimes to mete out retribution. In other words, in one of her aspects, that sweet Aphrodite–borne on the shell–is also Nemesis.
Take care for what you light those candles, Dan!
Dan’s Garage is set off to the north on an axis perpendicular to that of House-Temple axis and sited much closer to the House. Even though the quonset arch provides its main structural element, Scully retains the architectural idiom of a Greek temple. Four columns on its front support an entablature composed of three parts (in conformation with a Doric entablature). Between the (lower) architrave and the (upper) cornice, we see the frieze. Appropriately for a Doric order, the frieze is composed of triglyphs and metopes, only that now the metopes are out-of-date automobile license plates.
The four columns consist of a shaft and capital. The capitals are 55-gallon steel drums. The shafts (of wood and made by a carpenter friend, Franklin Burnham) are made to resemble huge piston connecting rods that Scully as a young boy “saw in ocean liner engine bays in the early ’50s.” Thus the column, in its entirety, looks like a piston and connecting rod for a giant internal combustion engine.
Topping off the entire ensemble is another akroterion: a Mobilgas gasoline pump from ca. 1950. As Dan says, “Once you have felt the power of the Parthenon, you have to deal with it.”
Inside the Garage are some serious machines. Dan’s “racing machine” is a 1959 Volvo 544 equipped with dual Weber 4-barrel carburetors and a cold air box. His “street rod” is a 1963 Volvo 544, also with dual Weber carbs and racing disc hubcaps. A third Volvo (with the number 55 painted on its hood) is a fuel-injected 1971 142. Scully enters his two racing Volvos in Vintage Sports Car road racing under several different sponsoring organizations: VRG, SCCA, VARAC, SVRA, and VSCCA.
Dan grew up reading car magazines, but he also had an uncle, Rowland Keith, who raced sports cars throughout the 1950s. In 1955, Keith won the Mount Washington Hill Climb in a 500cc Cooper and held the world record for that race until Carroll Shelby bested it in his 4,200cc Indy Ferrari. In this period of the mid-1950s, Dan helped his uncle in races and also pit crewed.
Besides a family connection to car racing, there was the Mille Miglia. As Dan recalls, “I saw the Mille Miglia race through Florence in 1953, and if you can’t catch it from the Italians, you are not going to catch it.”
The fourth, and final, building in Scully’s Compound is this simple studio. One of its functions is to serve as a historical archive for old files and projects. To express the idea of a place for storage, Dan gives its exterior the look of stone, of permanence. However, its siding is actually synthetic slate.
The Studio also functions as the place where Dan retreats to initiate new design projects. For this purpose, its interior offers more visual inspiration.
The main object of inspiration dominates the center of the Studio and hangs from the ridge beam of the roof. This is a 1957 Cooper MkIX (Mark IX) Formula 3 race car. Dan’s Uncle, Rowland Keith, raced a similar Formula Three Cooper.
When the Coopers (father and son) started the Cooper Car Company in 1947, a dearth of materials forced them to scavenge parts from other vehicles–a J.A. Prestwich motorcycle engine and body parts from Fiat Topolinos. Naturally, assembly from found objects makes the Coopers kindred spirits with much of Scully’s design process, thus reifying this Mark IX as a most inspiring presence.
Speaking of scavenged material, these two air supply grills above the windows came from an old 1940s Woolworth Department store that Scully Architects had renovated. Dan tells me that he has “another three of them that need homes!”
Finally, a different genre of inspiration can be found in these two photographs. The top one is a plaster cast from one section of a continuous, terracotta frieze taken from the exterior of a Louis Sullivan building. That building, I am almost certain, was the Garrick Theater, completed in 1892 and razed, tragically, in 1961 to be replaced by a parking garage. Sullivan’s ornament–complex, organic, abstracted from nature–enlivened and also unified the façades of his buildings and gave them a modern form–a form no longer beholden to historical idioms such as those of Classical Greece.
The bottom photograph shows a doorplate from Louis Sullivan’s 1891 Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, mounted with a dedicatory plaque from Christopher Bond, the governor of the state, to Vincent Scully (Dan’s father), in appreciation of Scully’s successful efforts to preserve the Wainwright.
How interesting to find these two exemplars of Sullivan’s design in Dan Scully’s Studio. For Louis Sullivan, nature was his inspiration, his way to reject historical idioms in favor of something more contemporary. For Daniel Scully, working a century later, the machine–particularly the automobile–was his inspiration, his way to graft new meaning onto the particular historical idiom of Classical Greece.
Abe Geasland says
Truly fascinating tour through Scully’s environs!!
Many Thanks Tyko!