Back in the 70s, the Round House in Wilton, Connecticut, was so famous that it even appeared in an advert for Old Grand-Dad bourbon. “Pine forests, rolling hills, lakes and a house that rotates to take it all in… what more could you ask for?” said the ad, which graced the pages of Time magazine. Fast forward three decades or so and the Round House had fallen into relative obscurity – so much so that its current owners had hardly even heard of it before they decided to buy this ground-breaking home back in 2010.
“I found the house on a pop-up ad from Yahoo Mail,” says artist Rea David Tully, who shares the Round House with her husband, art critic and journalist Judd Tully. “I saw this little image and decided to explore it further, but we weren’t even in the market to buy a house and we didn’t even know where Wilton was.”
The couple began researching the house and uncovering its extraordinary history. Sitting on the green edge of town, looking across woodland and meadows, the Round House was designed by architect Richard Foster in the late 60s for himself and his family. For many years Foster collaborated with his mentor Philip Johnson, architect of the Glass House in nearby New Canaan, as well as landmark projects such as the New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows, built for the 1964 World’s Fair. The Tullys were familiar with Johnson and his work, but not with Foster, who went on to set up his own practice and build the Round House.
“We were fascinated by the way that the house sits in the landscape”, says Judd, “and this glass and steel ‘mushroom’ shell that’s set 12ft off the ground, not to mention its ability to rotate in analogue fashion both clockwise and counter-clockwise at the touch of a late-60s era push button.”
Foster wanted to take full advantage of the site, which he described as “a natural amphitheatre”, and the views. He grew frustrated with his first ideas for a more conventional, static house and decided that he needed something that would move to frame different views of the landscape and, if desired, follow the sun. The only problem was working out how to build a moving house, so he took inspiration from the technology used in kinetic telescopes, radar antennae and gun emplacements.
The architect placed his mushroom house, which is 72ft in diameter, on a slender central stem and developed a ball-bearing mechanism that allows the round body of the house to turn on its base over the course of 48 minutes. The original control box, which is still in working order, features a simple set of buttons marked “for” (forward), “rev” (reverse) and “stop”, while running on power from a small motor. “I was surprised at how normal it felt to be in a house that rotated,” says Rea. “It seemed to me, after experiencing the Round House, that all houses should be designed to move.”
After undertaking an extensive research process, recorded on a website devoted to the house (roundhousewilton.com), the Tullys commissioned architecture firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam to work on the restoration of the house. Remarkably, the original turning mechanism was still in working order, along with the ingenious electrical circuits and drainage channels that mean that the house remains fully functional even when it’s rotating. But the infrastructure in the house itself needed updating, along with the glazing and insulation, while the interiors felt overly dark, despite the ribbon of glass around the house and the circular balcony beyond it.
“The main priorities were to make it very comfortable for living in the 21st century,” says Rea. “But we also wanted to have a more comfortable layout, which our architects describe as a ‘light catcher’. But we love the fact that it still retains the essence of the house that was built by Foster in 1968.”
As well as updating the house and its services, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam remodelled the interior living spaces, which are arranged radially around the central hallway, to create a more fluid layout with connections between the spaces themselves and with the all-important vista. The original pool was also upgraded with a new saltwater swimming pool, while the former garage and store room to one side of the house was replaced with a guest room and home spa. The Tullys have also spent a good deal of time restoring the grounds around the house, introducing more in the way of native plants.
For the future, Rea is looking at ideas for a new building on the empty site next to the Round House. At the same time, the couple see themselves very much as guardians or custodians of this iconic American house. “Custodians sounds right,” says Judd, “and the idea that Foster’s landmark and rarified Round House deserves respectful care. But there’s also the need for the house to be lived in, just as Foster did with his family back in the day.”
The Round House appears in The Iconic American House, by Dominic Bradbury and Richard Powers (Thames & Hudson, £50). To buy a copy for £43.50 go to guardianbookshop.com