While on vacation in the South, Chicago based architect Louis H. Sullivan (known as the “Father of the Skyscraper”) took a special liking to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. So much so that he decided to invest in waterfront property and immediately designed two neighboring homes there–one for himself and one for his friends, James & Helen Charnley who were also enamored with the idea of a coastal refuge from Chicago’s urban environment and harsh winters. Although better known for his high-rise urban buildings, Sullivan designed these rural vacation retreats with a long, low orientation that blended into the natural surroundings of the coastal plain which was instrumental in inspiring the career trajectory of his young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright. The Charnleys referred to the property as “Charmleigh” meaning Charming Meadow. The home was later sold to the Fred & Elizabeth Norwood in the summer of 1896.
During the Norwoods first wintertime visit to the house, tragedy struck in the early morning hours of February 18, 1897 when a fire completely destroyed the Norwood’s house, but no time was wasted in rebuilding. They followed the original design of the house almost identically, with important improvements under Sullivan’s oversight. While the horizontal orientation, hipped roofs, T-shaped floor plan, and large porches of the house that burned were reconstructed, Sullivan’s famed declaration of “form follows function” (first publicly stated in an 1896 essay) was taken into consideration during the 1897 redesign of the house. Some of these changes include the use of natural curly pine tongue and groove interior walls instead of the wallpapered walls previously used, the inclusion of window bays in the bedrooms, and a theme of three carried throughout the house. The Norwoods named the property “Bon Silene” meaning Good Salt Water or Good Salt Marsh and would later plant roses of the same name in their garden.
A second tragety befell the house as the property sustained major damage when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Sullivan’s house was completely destroyed by the storm, and the Charnley-Norwood House was severely damaged. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History provided funding for emergency stabilization. John G. Waite Associates Architects of Albany, New York prepared a Historic Structure Report; this report, combined with an Analysis of the Historic Finishes conducted by architectural conservator, George Fore, of Raleigh, North Carolina produced a detailed description of the original design and construction of the Charnley-Norwood House. The structure was amazingly intact, despite the damage of the Katrina disaster. In 2011, the property was purchased by the State of Mississippi and restoration of the house was initiated with Larry Albert Associates Architects of Hattiesburg, Mississippi developing plans for the restoration of the house to its circa 1900 appearance.
This home invites natural light to shower each of its rooms, offering window seats to anyone wishing to sit and bask in the midst of sunlit Southern Yellow Long Leaf Pine walls. The historical background and complex preservation of the Charnley-Norwood House has been documented by filmmaker Ellis Anderson, in By the Hand of an Unseen Poet. Produced by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History the video may be viewed here.
What makes the Charnley-Norwood House national significant architecturally is its place at the forefront of modern architecture. It exhibits a degree of functionality and austerity not witnessed before that time in residential architecture. In an era filled with eclectic houses, neoclassical mansions and vernacular cottages, the Charnley-Norwood House offered a clear purpose, aesthetic, and functional layout that is not subsumed under a classicist or Victorian façade. Here, the verticality, complex floor plan and florid details of Victorian architecture were supplanted by horizontality, continuous spatial flow, simple natural materials, and expanses of glass that erase the barriers between inside and out – all features that became hallmarks of modern architecture. The design of the Charnley-Norwood House embodies the nexus of ideas that powerfully reshaped not only American, but international residential architecture in the 20th century. It is quite likely the first Modernist house ever.