In describing the Imes compound at Windy Hill, you refer to the idea of a narrative that shaped the design process. Can you tell me what that story is?
Windy Hill is like a good novel that begins in the middle of a story, then slowly reveals events that occurred long before the main action takes place. I didn’t know what that story was until I was halfway through the design. All I knew was that my client wanted a house that looked like a French farmhouse on the outside, with much more refined, formal details within. She also wanted picturesque gardens, like those English landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll created at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century.As I put these elements together, I found myself telling a story about three different generations of a family: late-Renaissance French farmers who built the original structure; worldly late-eighteenth century descendents who remodeled the interior; and a couple of late-nineteenth-century romantics who restored the house and embellished the gardens. Once I knew the story, it began to dictate the design.
Building an early-seventeenth-century, French-style farmhouse in modern-day Mississippi seems a stretch of the imagination. How did you resolve the disparities in time and place?
Windy Hill is located several miles outside Columbus. By the time you’ve traveled down its driveway, through forests and fields, you don’t know exactly where you are anymore. There is no clear context. Interestingly, after we settled on the Norman style, we discovered that limestone lay just below the site’s soil just as it does in Normandy. So even though Mississippi and Normandy are quite far apart, in terms of topography and vegetation, they can be quite similar. Once we learned this, the idea of building a Norman house began to resonate in harmony with the surroundings. Stylistically, old French farmhouses are unpretentious family homes built for comfort from whatever materials are at hand. The same can be said of Mississippi farmhouses. So even though the styles are different, the spirit is the same.
How did you go about unifying the disparate parts and periods of this house and its gardens?
The ethos of this project is less about unifying things than simply allowing them to coexist in a natural, organic way. When you approach the house, a winding road terminates in front of a rugged stone facade resembling a modest farmhouse. When you climb the stone steps and enter the heavily paneled front door, you find yourself in a very grand entrance hall with trompe-l’oiel masonry walls and a dome painted to resemble the sky. There is a kind of wit to the neoclassical style of this space that is completely absent from the honest, simple forms of the facade. Sometimes, this kind of coexistence takes place within a single room. The long room, for example, has very delicate neoclassical paneling. At one end, however, I created a box-bay window made of pegged timber that appears to be a remnant from an earlier age. I even added a delicate plaster cornice above the lintel to exaggerate the difference in style and material. It was an act of bravery, but I knew it would work, and that it would be interesting. I love these visual moments when you just know contrast is going to enliven the space.
I’ve heard you liken your approach to designing this house to collage. Could you explain that idea?
Rustic French farmhouses actually have an unintended collage effect, because additions and outbuildings occur quite naturally, mixing different materials, periods, and styles. I think of the Edwardian architect, Sir Edward Lutyens, as the first intentional practitioner of architectural collage. To create romantic country homes for his clients, he combined styles from many different eras of English architecture, building houses that looked as if they had stood there for centuries. In America, Addison Mizner created collage architecture, mixing Spanish, Italian, and North African elements in fantastical ways. At Windy Hill, moments like the high-style, turned-stone balustrade above the rugged rubblestone stairs leading to the croquet lawn create surprises that have a romantic effect. Even though you may not consciously be aware of these details, you feel that you are in a place rich in history.
Fine craftsmanship and materials seem to be at the heart of the spell Windy Hill casts a spell that plays wonderful games with time. Can you comment on that?
Human beings resonate with materials. There is some kind of universal wisdom in the psyche that connects with the spirit of materials. If you built the same house with new materials, the psyche would know the difference. The connection with the past would be lost. You must use real materials as often as you can to create something that is more than a mere illusion. I took a picture of an old Norman farmhouse to a quarry and asked, How can I get stone that looks like this? He told me we had to cut it from the face of a mountain. So that’s what we did. The interior paneling is made from old, Russian pine, crafted by English master carpenters who came to Mississippi to install it. They also finished it with lime, which was a late-eighteenth-century technique. Mennonite woodworkers living on farms surrounding the house joined the wood-pegged timbers of the loggia and the box-bay window. Because of this, Windy Hill enraptures you a little. People who visit say, I just love the house. But they don’t quite know why. They don’t say always say it’s the most beautiful house but they say it’s fascinating. One of the reasons it fascinates is that every single ingredient of the illusion it creates is real.
View images of the Imes residence