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Curve appeal

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Posted: Sunday, January 9, 2011 6:00 am | Updated: 2:51 pm, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

This is an installment in an occasional series of stories on interesting homes in the area.

It takes an abundance of imagination, and perhaps a keen sense of humor, to design a house that practically insists on one performing a pirouette before gaining access.

Fiske Kimball’s Shack Mountain masterpiece is such a dwelling. After entering through the front door, a visitor steps into a small vestibule in which he has to turn to open, of all things, a curved door.

The bowed door provides access to a cheery and spacious living room with fireplace and large, triple-hung sash windows. Since its completion in 1937, Shack Mountain has been recognized as one of the nation’s architectural gems.

The house is widely regarded to be the architect’s finest work. It stands with Monticello, the University of Virginia’s Rotunda and the Academical Village as National Historic Landmarks.

More than 80,000 properties in the U.S. are on the National Register of Historic Places, but fewer than 2,500 have achieved Landmark status. Although the home is located just minutes from downtown Charlottesville, the 102 acres surrounding the house provide privacy, as well as an abundance of natural beauty.

Shack Mountain recently went on the sales block for the asking price of $4.445 million. Joe Samuels, president and principal broker of Jos. T. Samuels Inc., is handling the sale.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Samuels and a visitor walked a tree-lined field behind the house and admired the panoramic views. Kimball and his wife, Marie, had searched for years before discovering the ridge crest overlooking Ivy Creek and the Rivanna River.

“There are a lot of people who know about this house, and a lot who don’t, because it has been a private home,” Samuels said. “It’s been open very liberally to architects and historians.

“But because it has been a private home, only a small segment of the population has had the pleasure of seeing it. This, to me, is more than a property to sell — it’s history.”

Sir Kenneth Clark, a widely respected art historian, author and former director of the National Museum in London, called Shack Mountain “a temple in the woods.”

In the nomination for Landmark status, the house’s design was termed “a pure example of Jeffersonian Classicism, so carefully detailed that it might easily be mistaken as a work by Jefferson himself.”

The house’s Tuscan portico with paired Doric columns presents a stately countenance. Tall windows set into the elongated octagonal shape also suggest Jeffersonian influences.

Despite such features that are usually associated with sizable mansions, Shack Mountain is not large. There are six rooms and a bath on the ground floor, and five rooms in the basement, which includes another bath, laundry and storage area.

The house has charming features such as buzzers in each room that, when pushed, activate a small device in the kitchen that flops down a note telling which room the call came from.

Above the entranceway into the dining room is a striking profile of Jefferson. It was done by renowned sculptor and teacher Walker Kirtland Hancock.

Kimball’s intent was for the house to be a retirement home, but that wish was never realized. Just as he was about to retire, his wife died unexpectedly in March 1955. Deeply distraught, he lived only five months longer.

Kimball’s immense contributions are largely unknown today outside the architectural community. Born in Newton, Mass., Dec. 8, 1888, he was educated at Harvard University, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.

Kimball and his wife became familiar with the Charlottesville area in 1919, when he was selected to head the newly created McIntire Department of Fine Arts, which was focused primarily on architecture. He was instrumental in the design of Memorial Gymnasium as well as of the university’s hospital and medical complex.

It’s likely that Kimball came to the notice of UVa’s president, Edwin Alderman, because of a scholarly work he did, “Thomas Jefferson, Architect, Original Designs in the Collection of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Junior.” The book was limited to 350 copies, but its impact was profound.

Prior to Kimball’s research, Jefferson’s contributions to architecture were for the most part unknown or simply dismissed. He wasn’t even given credit for designing Monticello, or the Academical Village.

Kimball, as well as his wife — who wrote a three-volume biography about Jefferson and served as Monticello’s first curator from 1944 until her death — changed that. Their work established, as Kimball put it, that Jefferson was the “father of our classical architecture.”

Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History at UVa, said Shack Mountain provided another way of looking at American architecture.

“Most people look at American architecture in the 1930s as this development of modernism,” Wilson said. “As Kimball shows us, and one of the things that is pretty constant in his writings and so forth, is that there is another American architecture, and that is this reliance upon classical sources.

“There are several striking things about the house. On one level, there’s the grandeur of it, and at the same time it’s very domestic.”

Kimball was at UVa for only four years before leaving to accept a position as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But, as Wilson noted, he kept his connections here and throughout Virginia very strong.

For example, in 1928 Kimball accepted an appointment to head the Advisory Committee of Architects for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. And according to Wilson, the architect maintained his relationship with UVa right up until his death.

When the Kimballs found the site in 1935, they contracted R.E. Lee of Charlottesville to build the house. The working relationship between the two men quickly grew into a close friendship.

“When Marie died, Fiske spent a lot of time at R.E. Lee’s house recuperating and pulling himself together,” Samuels said. “He then traveled to Europe to occupy himself with new research, and died in Munich [Germany] on Aug. 14, 1955.

“My understanding is that Fiske and his wife occupied the house only during the Christmas season, and for a few weeks each June. He was a man who was really driven in a lot of respects.

“One of the interesting quotes I read is that his pleasure was scholarship. He didn’t fish, ride horses, play golf or any of those things. If he had any time off, he devoted it to studies.”

Shack Mountain gets its name from the Shackelford family, which first owned and settled the property in the early 18th century. Kimball wanted to name his new abode Tusculum, but he graciously conceded to history.

K. Edward Lay, professor emeritus of architecture at UVa, said a house of such stature rarely comes on the market. He wrote about Shack Mountain in his book, “The Architecture of Jefferson Country: Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia.”

“Shack Mountain is one of the prize things to come on the market in a long, long time,” said Lay, who is currently working on a book about the history of UVa’s School of Architecture. “It’s just fantastic scale-wise.

“It’s on a very human scale, but patterned after Farmington or perhaps Monticello. You can’t find its scale and quality elsewhere.

“The curved front door is one of its unique features, where you come into this curve and spin around and come into the front room. Kimball was a great architect in his own right, and an extraordinary person.”

Marie and Fiske Kimball are buried at Monticello Memorial Gardens. Lay visited the gravesites while researching the book he’s currently working on.

“What I found very interesting is that all the grave markers there face in one direction — south, I think,” Lay said. “But Kimball’s marker, as well as his wife’s, face Monticello.

“I thought that was the neatest thing.”

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