This is a dual obituary for a man and his house.
George Washington Varn II (1920-2021) was a solvent scion. “My grandfather and my great uncle were turpentine people,” he told Timber Processing magazine, in a 2019 profile. His family owned pine timberland in southeast Georgia, from which they originally extracted resin to make turpentine. Varn graduated from Harvard, in 1942, and served in Naval intelligence during the Second World War. He then joined the family business. In 1950, he and his wife, Betty, moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Varn’s father gave them a plot of land in one of the toniest neighborhoods in town, and a few years later they hired a young architect named Taylor Hardwick to design a house for them.
Hardwick, who grew up in Philadelphia, had moved to Jacksonville in 1949, and opened his own practice there in 1952. Along with his partner, W. Mayberry Lee, he began designing houses, schools, and commercial buildings throughout the city. Hardwick was only a few years out of architecture school and full of new ideas. His designs were innovative: his rooflines pitched and slanted; his buildings unfolded in segments; he used materials such as concrete and aluminum without trying to disguise them. He became best known for designing the butterfly-roofed, orange-and-white Skinners’ Dairy “milk house” stores, which became a beloved and ubiquitous feature of the Jacksonville landscape. The Varn House commission presented a particular challenge. Varn made his fortune cutting down trees—once the market for turpentine dried up, he reinvented the family business as a timber company—but he didn’t want to clear any of the cedars and live oaks on the property. The house had to be slotted onto the lot without disturbing them.
The house that Hardwick devised for the family was a series of staggered concrete pavilions with walls of glass, slate floors, and three separate rooflines that gave it the appearance of motion, almost like ocean breakers moving toward shore. Inside, there was glossy teak cabinetry, built-in planters, sliding glass doors, angular clerestory windows, and a wide view of the St. Johns River. In contrast to the chunky, earthbound heaviness of the Tudor-revival homes around it, the Varn House looked more like a floating assemblage of planes and lines, flooded with soft Florida light. The design was acclaimed, and Merrill Varn, one of George and Betty’s three children, recently told Tim Gilmore, who writes a blog about Jacksonville, jaxpsychogeo.com, that it was “one of the best places to grow up in the whole world.”
The family lived in the house for more than sixty years. Once the children were grown, George and Betty did a lot of travelling. Their favorite places were the Taj Mahal, which was completed in 1653 and has been preserved as the finest example of Mughal architecture on earth; the restored ruins of Palenque, in southern Mexico, which were completed by 799 A.D.; and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, in Greece, which dates to 440 B.C. You might conclude that architectural preservation was one of their passions. You might also conclude that Varn would have been of the mind to make sure that the house he commissioned would be similarly preserved. But his last wishes tell another story: he bequeathed the house to his three children, with the express request that they tear it down after his death. Demolition began last month and is now complete.
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According to Peter Brown, a trusts-and-estates lawyer at Nutter McClennen & Fish L.L.P., laws pertaining to wills vary from state to state, but “the overarching policy in most states would be to honor the wishes of the testator. Accordingly, a testator can impose conditions on a bequest that the recipient might find obnoxious or even outrageous—and those restrictions would be enforceable.” Something stated as “last wishes” in a handwritten note (which was the case here) might be less sturdy, but Merrill Varn says that she and her siblings had no intention not to honor it.
Tearing down buildings happens all the time, regardless of the pedigree of the structure, usually because someone wants to redevelop the land beneath them. Older modern buildings have been particularly vulnerable. Seventy-nine Frank Lloyd Wright structures have been demolished or destroyed, including Tokyo’s famed Imperial Hotel. Richard Neutra’s Maslon House, in Rancho Mirage, California, considered one of his most important houses, was torn down by new owners in 2002. Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital and Maternity Center, in Chicago, which opened in 1975 and was lauded by the eminent architect Frank Gehry, among others, was torn down in 2013; the land was used for a new medical-research center. This past January, Marcel Breuer’s famous Geller House 1, on Long Island, was destroyed and replaced with a tennis court. Hardwick’s most celebrated building in Jacksonville, the Haydon Burns Library, was slated for demolition some years ago, but his enthusiasts rallied (“Save the Old Library” bumper stickers were plastered around town), and the building was spared, restored, and repurposed as a center for nonprofit organizations.
Why would Varn want his cherished house to die with him? Was it some desire to exert control over his estate even from the grave? Or was it the ultimate enforcement of privacy? “They felt that it was a very personal space,” Merrill Varn told me, about her parents. “They didn’t want anyone other than family to ever live in it. Yes, there was an element of prideful bravado, that no one else should have it. But for them, it was a private space.” None of the three children considered taking over the house, she noted, because its multipart pitched roof leaked “like a sieve” and would have been exorbitant to repair. Varn is aware that the demolition has distressed architectural preservationists. “It’s complicated,” she said. “If something is private, is it public? This was a private home, a personal space. They thought of it as a home, not a piece of public art.” The house is gone, but there remains a slight hope that it could rise again. Merrill Varn and her siblings have donated Hardwick’s drawings for the house to the Jacksonville Historical Society. Anyone interested can study the plans and use them for inspiration. I asked her if she had been on site for the house’s demolition. “None of us were,” she said, sounding solemn. “No way.”