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In Virginia: Homes with Gusto

8 minute read
Todd Brewster

You don’t see many trailers like Steve Badanes’ 1956 silver Airstream anymore. Round and compact, it is one of those sleek design achievements of the 1950s that can make people nostalgic for tackiness. Badanes even travels with a plastic pink flamingo that he props outside the door wherever he parks. Most recently, the trailer — and flamingo — was parked in a wooded lot of a wealthy northern Virginia suburb while serving as home for Badanes, his itinerant opera-singing girlfriend Donna Walter, and their dog Floyd Bite (after Frank Lloyd Wright). But if a tacky trailer in an expensive Colonial suburb seems a little out of place to you, consider what Badanes and his three colleagues, architect-builders who call themselves the Jersey Devil, were constructing on the same lot: a multimillion-dollar house that’s shaped like an overgrown hero sandwich.

“We didn’t set out to make it look like a hoagie,” says Badanes, appearing only slightly guilty about it all. “It just sort of turned out that way. But I have to admit it’s kind of ironic. The guy’s a heart surgeon, and we go and build him a house that looks like a cholesterol lunch.”

Badanes clearly enjoys the joke. In fact, such irreverence is his group’s trademark. Born at Princeton University during the counterculture days of the 1960s, the Jersey Devil is a traveling band of renegade architects who rejected standard careers to design the really far out and then, in an even more radical break with modern architectural practice, get out the saws, hammers and nails and build these unusual structures themselves. Since their first project, a child’s play structure built to resemble an enormous cockroach, they’ve painstakingly assembled twelve houses, from San Francisco to New Hampshire, parking tents, trailers or makeshift cardboard homes on site so they could live there as they worked, encouraging clients to pick up hammers and join them on weekends, and throwing parties in partly built houses to celebrate the completion of a foundation or their topping off of a roof. No, the Jersey Devil, which takes its name from a mythical creature said to threaten people in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, is no ordinary architectural firm. But don’t get them wrong. Badanes, Jim Adamson, Greg Torchio and John Ringel are serious about what they do, and say it is in the best tradition of the American pioneer spirit.

“When all of us went to architecture school, we thought being an architect had something to do with building,” says Badanes, 43, while sitting with the others in the Jersey Devil office trailer parked just opposite his Airstream. “But most architects these days sit in their offices, design their places down to the last details and then hand the plans over to be built by someone else. Now I ask you, which approach do you think would make for better results? Do you sit in your office and look up stock answers in your books? Or do you move to the guy’s property, immerse yourself in that piece of land, take your time, and do a one-off piece of art? In the early days, that’s how buildings were made. Where did we go wrong?”

The atmosphere inside the office trailer is a bit like that inside a college dorm room. On one wall is an autographed picture of the transvestite movie star Divine; on another, a 1950s vintage ad for the Mysto Erector Set (“Hello boys, what are you building?” says a stereotypical father to his stereotypical sons. “Come, Dad, come look!”). Rock music is blaring out of a radio that is nowhere in sight, and everywhere there are pictures of some of the group’s other projects: the “Football House,” built a quarter of a mile from California’s San Andreas Fault and shaped like a football, they say, so that if a quake comes, the house will simply roll down the hill end over end. And the “Helmet House,” built for a New Hampshire man whom Badanes describes as having a “kind of Don Quixote personality.” That house, says the clipping next to it, won the 1978 Enquirer Weird Home award.

“As we understand it, the change happened sometime around the end of the last century,” says Ringel, a dark-bearded character who looks a trifle like the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. “Up until then, architects built their own stuff, and they traveled around just like we do. But with the Industrial Revolution, the demand grew to build more buildings faster. Most architects gave up building and stuck to design.”

“Hell,” says Badanes, “the American Institute of Architects decided in 1909 to ban architects from building. Now that tells you where their heads were at. But we found an easy way around that one: we just never applied for a license.”

“The fact is,” says Adamson, “that whatever the A.I.A. or the Industrial Revolution did, it stifled the creativity of American home design. Just look at the standard American suburb. All the houses look like they were cut out of a cookie cutter. That may be cost efficient, but it has no relation to the way we live today.”

“What’s worse,” says Badanes, as he props his feet on a drafting table, “is that as Americans we’ve shown no interest in creating and supporting an architecture of our own. Sure, that Colonial stuff was great, but it was all built off European ideas. Now if I had a dollar for every architecture lecture where they show pictures of Rome, I’d be a rich man. And then they show you a crappy picture of an American cityscape or a picture of an American family smoking up their backyard with a barbecue; the message, of course, being ‘Why can’t we be more like Europe?’ But I think we should ask, ‘Why can’t we be more like America?’ “

Jersey Devil clients are a special breed. For one, they have to accept the notion that their dream house will be built with more than a little improvisation. “Hell, sometimes we don’t even use any plans,” says Ringel. Noting that practice, one client took out life insurance on Badanes, aware that most of the design for the house was in the architect’s head. Then, too, hiring the Jersey Devil takes a bit of exhibitionism. “To our clients, a house is more than just another box on a street,” says Torchio. “It is a means of self-expression.”

Today the group is putting the finishing touches on the Hoagie, built for a family out to express itself in a big way. Besides the twelve-room, 10,000- sq.-ft. house, the complex includes a separate guesthouse and separate caretaker’s house (both shaped like smaller hoagies), maid’s quarters and a swimming pool. There’s even a gift-wrapping room.”Hey, don’t look at me,” says Badanes. “The guy’s got a lot of kids and a lot of birthday parties.” But right now, the dilemma is over what car grille to order for the fireplace in the living room. “I’m looking for a ’60s Chrysler,” says Badanes, “but I could live with a ’51 Buick if I could hinge all that stuff.” He points to a picture of the Buick’s metalwork front. “Remember,” says Adamson, “the guy wants headlights that work!”

The car-grille fireplace isn’t the house’s only unusual feature: the “media room” has been modeled after an old Wurlitzer jukebox, and until the client vetoed it, the pool was planned to resemble an anatomical heart. “I guess it was just too close to the real thing,” says Badanes. “If you look at hearts all day, maybe the last thing you want to do is come home and go swimming in one.”

With the Hoagie in order, the Jersey Devil is already dreaming of new challenges. Adamson is eager to build a lobster farm in South Carolina, and a college in Seattle wants them to build a floating guesthouse in Puget Sound. But it is Cleveland’s proposed new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that really gets the Jersey Devil’s juices flowing. “If I have a dream commission, it is to design the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” says Badanes, mocking the manner of a politician at a press conference. His colleagues give him a rousing round of applause. “I mean, could you imagine a better job? We could do the walls in black pressed vinyl. And there’d be a lot of black-light posters around everywhere. Of course, we’d have to listen to records for months before tackling it. Research, gentlemen, research. And then, who knows? Maybe we’d even make the thing in the shape of a pair of blue jeans.”

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