On September 5, 2012, Carmel Valley, California-based architect George Brook-Kothlow died. He was 77. He’d been battling cancer, all the while working with unflinching dedication on several new ambitious building projects. When I saw him last spring, he had a new bicycle, a connoisseurs ride, propped against a wall in his living room. That weekend, we hiked a nearby park together. A marathon runner for many years, he was even setting his sights on road time again. More than once during this period, his once-masterful tennis game came up in conversation. Give in, or at least slow down? Not George, and certainly not with his wife of 50 years, artist Jennifer Brook-Kothlow, at his side as a collaborator and a constant source of inspiration and support. He was one of the kindest, coolest, and most talented men I’ve known. I was honored to be able to count him as a good friend. His body of work—in particular the house he and Jennifer built for themselves and daughters Marit and Ingrid—is essential to the story of Handmade Houses.
A principal author of the Bohemian Modern [my term for it] design vocabulary, an idiom that found its energy source first in the Beat scene and then in the 1960s/70s back-to-the-land movement and its ad-hoc handmade house phenomenon, Brook-Kothlow was a major figure of first-wave environmental architecture in the American West. He specialized in conceiving houses that have that aura—an overwhelming feeling that gets you in the solar plexus the moment you sit down in front of the fireplace. Brook-Kothlow designed homes that manage to stand monklike amid the most intimidating of idyllic scenarios. How do you insert a building into glorious perfection? Really, how do you place a house in a scene involving wildflower-blanketed mountains, wind-contorted Monterey cypress trees on a white-sand beach, and long-interval azure swells unloading with abandon on sea lion-inhabited protruding shards of granite? George knew.
He’d come up through Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic Architecture tradition, however indirectly. When pressed, he’d classify himself as a Modernist, although I could never imagine him waving that flag, or any other for that matter. Unlike so many in his profession, this architect could never be called an ideologue. Hero worship of Modern’s forefathers, a common practice in architecture, and the business of “marketecture” just weren’t in him. He was his own man. Understated in his personal style, he simply stood for thoughtful, details-obsessed design that respected its natural surroundings. He considered the needs of the client, of course, but his own vision came first. Sometimes clients felt they weren’t being heard. When you hired George, you were hiring an artist who was going to go off and come up with an original idea, and you’d better be prepared—both for the extraordinary rewards and the inherent challenges.
Brook-Kothlow seldom marketed himself to the magazines. In 2006, when I began working at Architectural Digest as senior editor overseeing architecture, one of the first things I did was crack open the “B” section of the alphabetized project-submissions files. I was excited to find him there, but in all his years of practice he’d submitted only a single project to the magazine, the Fox House, which tragically, due to “furniture issues,” didn’t get the green light from the editor in chief. [We won't go into that bit of politics here...] In the extensive paperwork that he was required to fill out for the submission, dated 1991, I found this, his eloquent description of his work for the client.
Brook-Kothlow had earned his architecture degree at the University of Colorado and while in school worked under Elizabeth Wright-Ingraham (Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter) in Colorado Springs. From Colorado, he leapt to Mill Valley and, from 1962 to ’66, worked for Callister & Hillmer, a boutique Bay Area design firm known for its high-end work and Japanese Organic leanings. In ’58, Callister had designed a house for Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, one of many Callister buildings regarded as influential.
In terms of organic-architecture history in the Monterey Peninsula region, Brook-Kothlow’s ’66 arrival in Big Sur and subsequent output situates him in-between the late Taliesin alum Mark Mills and the great Bruce Goff protege and Post Ranch Inn architect Mickey Muennig. For decades, these three transplants operated as friendly contemporaries in the region, and for all high-art design intents and purposes, as far as organic architecture goes, they were without peer. With Frank Lloyd Wright’s Walker House on the beach in Carmel looming in the background as an early benchmark, Mills, Muennig, and Brook-Kothlow, each in his own unique way, showed us how Modern could also be rustic, idiosyncratic, and warm. (Nepenthe Restaurant architect Rowan Maiden, also a Taliesin apprentice, has to be mentioned here. A tragic story, Maiden died very young.) But even in this rarefied company, Brook-Kothlow stands out. He was the region’s first Modern architect to build “from the ground up” principally with architectural salvage. Keep in mind that, even through the 1960s, most Modern architects who dabbled in “woodsy” did so with easy-to-handle, machine-cut veneers. Brook-Kothlow worked with solid redwood—giant used first-growth redwood timbers that had been saw-sized to be able to support train and automobile traffic over great spans. Between the 1960s and ’80s, in house after house, he made an art form out of re-using these large-scale natural materials that might’ve otherwise ended up in landfills or incinerators. In the process, he gave his clients showpiece ecofriendly homes that have skyrocketed in value and are regularly sought out by Hollywood location scouts.
Brook-Kothlow’s pioneering work with reclaimed wood wasn’t plotted, however, and its beginning was hardly the path of least resistance. The client behind his 1966 break into independent practice, artist Claire Chappellet, was the one who’d nudged him in that then-unpopular direction, asking for a big family house and a studio made of bridge timbers for her oceanfront ranch in the Ventana Wilderness. Earlier, the architect had observed both Daniel Liebermann and Lloyd Kahn build successfully in Mill Valley using mostly scraps. But by comparison these were small-scale endeavors, not fair points of reference. Really, in the case of the Chappellet project Brook-Kothlow would be on his own.
With many of the state’s old wood bridges then being decommissioned and replaced with steel-reinforced concrete structures as part of a major infrastructure overhaul, the timing was perfect; a suitable candidate for his new client, a bridge that had served Sonoma County’s Duncans Mills, was found quickly and trucked south. The structure was all gorgeous first-growth redwood, with a patina that read like an epic novel.
When you design with the intention of using salvaged materials, you’re in effect working in reverse of conventional practice. The material, in this case 8″ x 22″ x 30′ rough-sawn redwood, establishes certain guidelines. And you must know every inch, every nuance, of what you’ve got on hand. Brook-Kothlow’s “materials first” post-and-beam design was as ambitious—and some might say unproven—as himself. Chappellet gave it a name that poet Robinson Jeffers would have appreciated: Hill of the Hawk.
Part of that ambitiousness can be attributed to the circumstances of the build. It seems that for everyone involved (note: the Chappellet’s small crew of builder friends included Lloyd Kahn), completing this unconventional, incredibly heavy building—all by hand—on a remote mountaintop ranch susceptible to 100-mph-plus winds gave a new definition to “taxing.” Typical of Big Sur in the sixties (hell, even now), in about ten minutes you could find your way into a bar seat with a bottomless beer or a killer bottle of wine, but the nearest building-supply store (not to mention a hospital or drug store or legitimate grocery store) was almost an hour away. This was not your ordinary construction site, and in Big Sur, where Brook-Kothlow did so much of his early work, it never is.
Hill of the Hawk’s owners required hands-on involvement in the construction, and I’ve gathered there was no small amount of tinkering with the details. There were also architect-builder disagreements, particularly over the engineering of all the heavy elements. Complicating matters further, as part of the deal the entire team, including their wives, lived on-site, with some of them ending up squeezed into a warren of old chicken coops. Inevitably during the multi-year construction, relationships between the collaborators broke down. Knowing the history, I’m amazed the house was finished as it was. In the end, however, the Chappellet’s persevered. But it was Brook-Kothlow’s design, his artistic vision, that emerged as the winner in the disputes. Today, Hill of the Hawk remains a beloved residence, and if you’ve been there I think you’d have to agree that it ought to be formally recognized as the one of the 20th century’s great California houses.
Even before its completion, within Big Sur’s extended community of accomplished creatives (the Westons, Emile Norman, Ansel Adams, Morley Baer, Gordon Newell, Louisa Jenkins, etc., etc.) Hill of the Hawk’s emerging dramatic aura was causing a stir. After the house’s May 25, 1969 heralding in the Los Angeles Times‘s Home magazine, with photos by Baer, Brook-Kothlow knew things were going to change for him. As unlikely as it may sound, among progressives statewide interest in houses made of old weather-beaten rough-sawn redwood was spreading. In fact, thanks to Brook-Kothlow and to similarly important creative input from artist-carpenters in the Bay Area enclave of Canyon, in just a few years the California bridgetimber house was on its way toward becoming an actual building trend.
And so with his first project, Brook-Kothlow had made a name for himself. For the better part of the next 15 or so years, the architect was in high demand, all the while repeatedly drawing from that Duncans Mills timber stash and outdoing himself, it must be said, with each new project. In ’69, it was the Staude House, his first radial design and the first project to come directly from the Hill of the Hawk work. In ’71, there was Coker Studio. In ’74, he did the Kemnitz House. In ’78, he was building his own house and studio. In the ’80s, there were houses for Michael Trotter and Allen Fox. A few of these are visible from Highway One, and they would have caught your attention. The zenith, though, is the house you’ll never see during a drive and won’t find on the Internet: The Clint Eastwood residence, ’75, in Pebble Beach. Clint, too, had seen the LA Times’s Home magazine piece on Hill of the Hawk.
Obviously, the “woodsy” aesthetic so closely associated with the 1970s, the earth-tones era—the decade that made the environmental movement, we must remember—was very much Brook-Kothlow’s stock in trade. With the bridgetimber structures, he’d carved out his very own high-end niche in the Monterey Peninsula region—true “handmade Modern.” Certainly by the time he completed the Clint Eastwood house, it was looking like the decade was his. As the ’80s broke, he was carrying a lot of momentum.
Starting in the 1980s, though, popular tastes shifted. A more flashy, if not more feminine, look was the direction. Increasingly among the affluent, it was common to hire an interior decorator and an architect. Surface treatments were now the vogue. Within the world of the shelter magazines, every element of an interior was being scrutinized. Moreover, out in the real world, every element of one’s home could now be “freshened up!” (Interior decorators don’t make money from calling for just a few changes.) One could go broke covering a decorator’s specifications for, well, let’s say, drapery shear or how about pillow piping?! By the ’90s, among the new design tastemakers, the genre of all-natural exposed-structure redwood interiors, what characterized Brook-Kothlow’s greatest houses, was being filed far away and under a new category: “Granola,” the East Coast’s new derogatory term for practically any interest or endeavor deemed to be rooted in the “loose” New Age-friendly California lifestyle. Every once in a while, fortunately, there were exceptions. The absurdly themed “Carefee Living” issue of House & Garden (July ’97) included a nice little layout on Brook-Kothlow’s Staude House in Big Sur, although the editors didn’t pay enough attention to get his name right. (I’m a New Yorker living in California, and often I have to remind some of my NYC colleagues that just because you live in Big Sur, not New York City, doesn’t mean you live without a care in the world.) Brook-Kothlow, like so many other West Coast architects, saw the writing on the wall early and did what he had to do in order to stay in business. Embracing stucco was on that to-do list, and so would have been “getting along with the decorator.”
Through the late ’80s, the ’90s, and the 2000s, the architect kept busy, having reinvented himself to some extent. Of course, the Eastwood commission helped. In Carmel and Pebble Beach and beyond, he completed dozens of houses during this period. [In case you haven't noticed, this is not a period that really interests me...or that fits the focus of this forum, so I won't really go into it here.] There were commercial projects too, including a renovation of Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn restaurant in Carmel. In the late 90s, the beginning of renewed popular interest in architectural salvage in interiors, raw barn wood in particular, suggested that tastes might be coming back around to the Brook-Kothlow approach of old.
In 2006, when I first contacted him, he seemed to have a lot going—all of it before him via word of mouth, as always. At the time, I remember thinking that some of that influx should have been a result of the new fire under the environmental movement, the new “green.” But because all through his career he never made a point of having his work professionally photographed and pitched to magazines, Brook-Kothlow had never formally been presented to the public for appreciation, much less have his work placed in historical context. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a pioneer of environmental design who’d created all these incredible houses but was virtually unknown outside of his own community.
In 2010, I was working on Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, and it was very clear to me that in order to have a chance of presenting even a halfway persuasive argument, a real look at back-to-the-land architecture and design, I would have to show Brook-Kothlow’s houses. One day, I got in his Volvo station wagon with him and drove from Carmel to Big Sur for a visit to several of his projects from the ’60s and ’70s. Getting this reserved 70-something architect to open up about his work was always a challenge. It just wasn’t his way, and after spending several years publishing the work of architects who have their sound bites ready at a moment’s notice I could really appreciate his humility. But on this day, as we passed Nepenthe and Deetjens Big Sur Inn, I had to press him. I needed to know if these iconic buildings entered his thinking when he was designing Hill of the Hawk in ’66 or any of the later houses. “I guess Nepenthe might have been an influence, you know, Rowan Maiden,” he said. “Not really consciously thinking about it, but more looking at what would be appropriate for Big Sur in terms of structure—expressing it. These were structures that kind of reflected the environment,” he said of Deetjens and Nepenthe.
It was a typical low-key George kind of response, insightful in an off-handed way but without any real zingers. But that last comment, I realized upon reviewing the tape later on, was actually a little gem. It was this very quality, what he saw as the highest complement you could bestow, that so perfectly summed up how I’d always felt about his structures.
Thanks for reading…. —R.O.
A memorial gathering for George will be held on Sunday, October 21,
at Hidden Valley, in Carmel Valley, at 2pm. All are welcome. A
schedule of tours of George’s buildings will be posted at a later
date. For questions and to express interest in a tour, email: