The Rice House

Added by Julia Lewis, last update: August 7, 2012, 2:51 pm

The Rice House
The Rice House, source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
Location
1000 Old Locke Lane
Richmond, VA 23226
United States
37° 33' 21.4956" N, 77° 31' 0.156" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Residential (RES)
Secondary classification: Education (EDC)
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):

National Register of Historic Places (1999)
James River and Kanawha Canal Historic District (1971)

History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

Richmond, Virginia is a classic southern city where Colonial Revival architecture creates a uniform aesthetic and abnormalities in the architectural system are usually not welcome. However, if one ventures to the western edge of the city to the site of Lock Island, or Lock Hill, a delightful International Style house can be found dramatically overlooking the James River. The house, referred to as the Rice House, is named after the client that occupied it until recently, Walter and Inger Rice. The house was designed by the West Coast architect Richard Neutra who was enticed by the site conditions and spectacular views and agreed to work on the project, one of his few on the East Coast. The house was completed in 1965, one of Neutra’s later works, and stands as an excellent example of the Modern, International Style of architecture of the time. Neutra employed a unique building style that can be found in this mature example of his work. An immigrant from Vienna, Neutra’s creative genius flourished in post-war America. He utilized the latest advances in technology and also applied popular psychoanalysis techniques to his work. These principles can be clearly explained throughout the architecture found in the Rice House. Protection of this house is a crucial concern because there are so few examples of this style of architecture existing in the state of Virginia. The prominence of the architect and the family that commissioned it also lend to the building’s merit.

Dates: Commission / Completion:1962-1965
Architectural and other Designer(s): Richard Neutra and Thaddeus Longstreth
Others associated with Building/Site: The Rice family lived in the house until they donated it to the Science Museum of Virginia in 1996 with an endowment.
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s):
Current Use: The Rice House underwent a $400,000 restoration in 2011 that involved interior work and stabilization of the exterior, the condition of the roof was of major concern and was a focal point for the restoration.
Current Condition: The Rice House underwent a $400,000 restoration in 2011 that involved interior work and stabilization of the exterior. Today the Rice House is in excellent condition and has been well received by the community.
General Description:

The Rice House seamlessly integrates a structure of sleek glass, aluminum, stucco, and white marble into the hilly landscape of Lock Island. The building reads in two horizontal bands separated by glass walls; the lower floor weaves into the surrounding ground while the second floor hovers above weightlessly. An open floor plan provides private family space and open entertaining areas, both with carefully planned sight-lines of the James River. The site, for Neutra, is just as important as the architecture which he designs. Neutra said, “If we fuse the house with its site, it seems to grow.” He studied the relationship between site and structure intensely and wrote books on the topic. After all, the site of the Rice House, sheer rock face overlooking the James River, was the deciding factor in Neutra’s decision to take on the project. The Rice’s found the site on Lock Island by taking a boat up and down the James River. They climbed over a lock in the canal and arrived at the island. Inger Rice described the site, “It was a complete jungle, [but we] saw through the woods a view” Walter Rice wanted to build on the mainland but Inger Rice insisted on the building the house on the island and proposed a bridge be constructed for access. She sought out engineers willing to take on the task.
Neutra approached this historic site with all of the knowledge from his past projects. He relies on the theories of bio-realism, he did not want to design nature, but create an environment for one to realize and come to terms with it. Neutra designed a dramatic reveal for the Rice House, as one crosses the slender bridge that connects the island to the mainland, the driveway hugs the island, twisting to the river side before the house emerges from the ground and into sight. The well-proportioned 6,000 square foot house appears to be part of the island, which is due to the strategic site planning that Neutra insisted on.

Construction Period:

1962-1965

Original Physical Context:

The history of the site dates back to 1776 when it is believed that entrepreneur John Ballendine started to develop land nearby. The James River and Kanawha Canal, which borders the site, is the country’s oldest operating canal. By 1954 trains had become the popular method of transportation and the canal system was bought by the Allegheny Railroad Company. The Rice’s purchased the land from the Railroad Company. In keeping with the island’s history the site also contains historic remnants including; three graves of men from the Civil War, remains of a mid-nineteenth century shot tower, and natural and man-made caves that line the river.

Evaluation
Technical Evaluation:

The choice of materials is crucial to the success of the house. The white Georgia marble flows from exterior walls to interior, blurring the lines of what is inside and outside. Glass walls contribute to the illusion and one feels part of the spectacular landscape.
The first portion of the house that one approaches is the sleek carport, an extension of the overhead roof deck; the thin stucco covered slab extends across the driveway. Tucked underneath the carport extension, is a simple oversized grey entry door. After opening the door, one is immediately confronted by a stunning floating stair, in contrast to the minimalist door. The stair is deceivingly doubled in size by a mirrored wall to the left, while to the right a window wall allows the James River to be reflected into the house. Neutra did not want visitors to forget about the fantastic view. Neutra saw great value in stairs, “What happens to one, in one, and around one, while ascending a stair- and what of it sticks with us as a strangely lasting memory – is to me a master specimen for what architectural experience means. It’s way beyond all that photography or motion pictures can convey.” He pairs one of his favorite architectural features, the stair, with another, the mirror. Neutra loved mirrors because of the way they expanded interior space. He refers in his writings back to his apartment in Vienna, “I began to like mirrors as much as did Louis XIV…The mirrors made the space so wide that I forgot to look at myself. I loved them almost as much as windows. They were both a blessing in a small world, as our apartment was, to my eyes, hungry for space.”
Ascending the stairs one enters into a large open floor plan, the dining room is set slightly to the left of the stair. There was room to seat twenty-four guests at the time. Originally Neutra tried to convince the Rice’s to forgo having a table and chairs, and have guests sit on the floor so that sight-lines would not be disrupted, however this was a battle the Rice’s won; they were allowed to have a traditional table and chairs. The kitchen is accessible off the back end of the dining room. Neutra installed state of the art appliances and designed custom cabinetry. The kitchen was remodeled in the 1980’s. Large windows come down to the countertops so that when one is working they feel as if they are outside. The kitchen is expansive and was designed to be able to accommodate caterers for large parties.
To the right of the dining room is the living room, separated by a custom designed bar, accessible from the inside and the outside deck. In the living room, Neutra is able to eliminate the need for furniture through built-ins. Neutra believed that built-in furniture should match the architecture of the house. He used cantilevers in the furniture when possible, mimicking those found in the steel framed structure of the residence. His dislike for furniture began when he was a child, “At night there were dark, inaccessible, mysterious spaces—such as that frightening area back of the olive-green upholstered love seat, placed ‘catty-corner’ into the room. I still shudder at the memory. And I still loathe the waste of space behind furniture.” He believed that belongings disrupted the architectural language of a space. The living room was strategically designed for entertaining. The space for the grand piano was acoustically outfitted. Aside from the view, Inger Rice comments that her most memorable place within the house was the built-in platforms that provided a place for people to give toasts at their parties. Inger Rice also commented that her husband loved to dance, and they would pull up the carpeted floors so that everyone could participate. The materials are carefully chosen for the living room. The exterior marble weaves inside to create the fireplace. Neutra appreciated diversity in materials.
The best quality of the living room is unarguably the view. The southern wall offers an uninterrupted panoramic view of the James River and one is immediately drawn to the outside. Neutra believed that windows were a therapeutic tool and he uses them as much as possible within the house. Neutra’s dislike towards unnecessary complexities is evident in his design; doors slide easily and windows swivel open, allowing the barrier between interior and exterior to be broken. One can seamlessly step from inside the living room onto the back deck which offers sweeping panoramic views. Inger Rice said that the view of the dam was her favorite feature of the house. Neutra explains the physical benefits of panoramic views, “Our eyes relax and rejoice in sweeping over distant vistas.” The deck at the Rice house is an ideal moment for Neutra. Aside from the view, a visual delight, the auditory senses are engaged also by the sound of the James River. The constant noise creates a soothing effect. Neutra also taps into this as a resource, “Architecture is illuminated not only by light, but by sound as well…Whether we are conscious of it or not, the constructed environment either appeals to us or harms us also as a complex auditory phenomenon and is often effective even in its tiniest reverberations.” The deck is created to allow for full access of views. The deck off of the living room floats in a pool of water, mirroring the water from the river. Approximately two feet of still water extend past the wood of the deck and act as a water guard. Originally the porch, despite being on the second floor had no railings. Inger Rice said that Neutra explained to her, “people see water and they stop.” He used this water guard design inside of the house also by placing pools of water in front of the fireplaces. Inger Rice noted that no one ever fell off of the porch, or accidently stepped into the water.
A swimming pool, carved from the rocky island, lies directly beneath the porch. Apparently it was here that Neutra first stood when he came to the site, turned his back to the James River, looked up at the hillside and said, “There will be the house.” The porch wraps alongside the back of the house. A built-in grill resides over the carport; the chimney highlights the entrance. From the wrapping porch or by turning around after ascending the main stair, one can enter the Japanese room, an additional, more intimate, living space. A sunken seating pit around the fire mimics the Japanese architecture that Neutra admires. He describes Japanese architecture as being able to “imprint harmony on the total picture.” Neutra was fascinated by Japanese tradition and their ability to derive comfort out of small living conditions and make functional use of the minimal space, “all activities are subtly and organically integrated with the shell in which they are housed and the stage on which they play.” The Japanese Room was a quiet retreat, and still provided the picturesque view of the James River.
The Rice House was designed to function for private and public uses. The family’s rooms in the house are pushed to the rear extremities of the structure. The large master suite is connected to the living room. A built-in wooden desk and side tables match the full wall of closets to the left of the room, while the right wall is completely glass and opens onto a small side patio. The closets in the bedroom served as storage for out of season clothing and the walk-ins were for seasonal wear. Inger Rice commented that it was not unusual for Walter Rice to come home and say, “Tomorrow we are going to Jamaica,” which was one of their favorite places to vacation, which is why they needed access to out of season clothing. The back of the bedroom has his and her walk-in-closets. The large walk-in closets are lit by skylights and strip lighting that is hidden behind plexi-glass panels along the ceiling. Inger Rice commented that “[Neutra] was an artist with lighting.” Through the closets one enters the bathrooms. Each bathroom has floor to ceiling windows and the same tiles are used for the floor, walls, and bath, creating a harmonious connection between the surface planes. Mrs. Rice commented that this is where she had made a design compromise she said, “I wanted a marble bathtub, [Neutra] said ‘oh you want to lie in a coffin’?” The tub is composed of the same tile and sinks into the ground. Mrs. Rice comments that it was nice, especially with the water guard that was placed on the exterior of the wall, linking the bath to nature. Panoramic vistas are ideal, but the rear of the house does not have access to these views, Neutra explains his approach in areas such as this, “Sweeping views are great, but also a framed view with a beautiful plant is great.”
An additional guest room is accessible off of the Japanese room and the children’s rooms were on the first floor, overlooking the pools. The bathrooms for additional bedrooms followed the same design schematic of a unified tile, but each varied in color depending to whom the bathroom belonged. Downstairs a sauna was also located toward the rear of the house.

The choice of materials is crucial to the success of the house. The white Georgia marble flows from exterior walls to interior, blurring the lines of what is inside and outside. Glass walls contribute to the illusion and one feels part of the spectacular landscape.

Neutra also employed cutting edge technological features into the house. He lit the perimeter of the house in a curtain of light, a technique he first used in his personal house. He also illuminated the ceilings of the bathrooms. Inger Neutra claims "he was an artist with lighting." In addition to the most modern lighting, he installed state of the art appliances in the kitchen and designed custom cabinetry for the bath's, kitchen, and bar. Neutra believed that built in furniture should match the architecture of the house. He used cantilevers when possible, mimicking those found in the structure of the residence.

Social:

Walter Rice was a prominent figure in the Richmond community. He was president of Reynolds Mining Corporation and eventually became vice president and director of Reynolds Metals Corporation. He was so successful with operations abroad that he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. In 1969 he became the ambassador to Australia. Inger Rice was very involved in philanthropic activities, especially those for children. She also was the one who studied architecture and selected Neutra as a potential architect for their house.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
Neutra also employed cutting edge technological features into the house. He lit the perimeter of the house in a curtain of light, a technique he first used in his personal house. He also illuminated the ceilings of the closets. Inger Neutra claims "he was an artist with lighting." In addition to the most modern lighting, he installed state of the art appliances in the kitchen and designed custom cabinetry for the baths, kitchen, and bar. Neutra believed that built in furniture should match the architecture of the house. He used cantilevers in the furniture when possible, mimicking those found in the structure of the residence. In addition to his use of the latest technology, Neutra believed in a psychological element to architecture. He had grown up being friends with the Freud family, Sigmund’s son, Ernst, was Neutra’s age and also an architect. Neutra would vacation with the Freud family and the influence of Sigmund’s psychological philosophies can be seen in Neutra’s architecture. Neutra envisioned the architect serving the role of designing a space for people as soon as they left the womb. Aside from this analogy, Neutra viewed the role of architect to client as that of psychiatrist to patient. He would have his client’s complete extensive questionnaires that ranged from questions about their childhood to their everyday routines. He would even ask clients to keep diaries of their daily activities so he could best design a space for them. He said that “listening was one of his favorite pastimes.” He would use the information he gathered from listening to his clients as a way to strengthen their relationship and can gain their trust.
Historical:

America served as a land of opportunity, especially after the war. The war led to a boom in technologies that could be applied to construction techniques and businesses that had been producing wartime supplies were desperately seeking new ways to apply their developed technologies. Standardization of materials had become the norm and architecture was capable of pushing all previous set boundaries. Neutra took full advantage of these new materials, pushing them to their boundaries of use and weaving them into his architectural designs, which now showed no limitations. Neutra’s ability to fuse new technologically advanced materials with thoughtful design set him apart from other architects. The Rice House represents the architecture of the innovative architect.

General Assessment:
Currently the building is owned by the Science Museum of Virginia. They offer tours of the property, rent the venue for meetings and events, and use the house to host visiting scientist and dignitaries. The Rice House underwent a $400,000 restoration in 2011 that involved interior work and the stabilization of the exterior. There are few examples of Modern, International Style, architecture in Virginia, and the Rice House is a unique asset to the architecture of the state. The building serves as a teaching tool of Richard Neutra’s architectural style. The Rice family played a prominent role in the community, and through their generosity the house is available to the public today.
Documentation
Text references:

Friedman, Alice T. American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

"Interview with Inger Rice." Personal interview with Inger Rice, Julia Blair Spalding (Science Museum of Virginia) and Ms. Rodney E. Hanneman (Project Architect) 13 Mar. 2012.

Lavin, Sylvia. Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004. Print.

Leatherbarrow, David. Uncommon Ground: Architecture, Technology, and Topography. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2000. Print.

McCoy, Esther. Richard Neutra. New York: G. Braziller, 1960. Print.

Neutra, Richard Joseph. Life and Shape. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. Print.

Neutra, Richard Joseph, and William Marlin. Nature Near: Late Essays of Richard Neutra. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra, 1989. Print.

Neutra, Richard Joseph, and Julius Shulman. Richard Neutra on Building: Mystery and Realities of the Site. Scarsdale, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1951. Print.

Neutra, Richard Joseph. Survival through Design. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print.

Sadler, Mary H. The Rice House Nomination Form. National Register of Historic Places; Register Form. United States Department of the Interior & National Park Service, 2 Nov. 1999.

Authoring
Recorder/Date: Julia Lewis February 2012
Additional Images
The Rice House
The Rice House, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
The Rice House, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Entry Stairs, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Living Room, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Living Room from Deck, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Deck, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Deck, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
View of house from the pool, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Side Deck, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Japanese Room, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Master Bedroom, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
Master Bathroom, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
The Rice House
View from Lower Level Bedroom, Source: Julia Lewis, date: March 2012
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