Preliminary sketches of a house are often only vague concepts. Yet sometimes a simple diagram can instantly strike the perfect chord—even when the final outcome is a long time coming. More than a decade ago, architect Bobby McAlpine penned one such drawing while standing with Walter Russell on a magnificent piece of property in Alabama, overlooking Lake Martin.
“The key to designing a successful lake house is to create a silent witness to the greater environment,” says McAlpine, who admits falling under the charm of Lake Martin himself. Since founding his firm in nearby Montgomery in 1983, he has designed scores of houses there. “You need to be quiet and take in what is around you,” he adds, “and always remember why you are here.”
Walter Russell surely does. In 2002, before Walter had even heard of McAlpine, much less thought about commissioning him, they shared a love of Lake Martin. Walter had recently purchased property and spent weekends camping out, clearing the landscape, and imagining the home he would one day build there.
When Walter, who owns a lumber company, learned an architect was designing 10 Shingle-style homes nearby, he saw it as a business opportunity. Their first meeting at McAlpine’s office bordered on a sales call, but the subject of wood was not a mere commodity to the two of them. It was a unique personal connection. McAlpine’s father was a lumberman in rural Alabama, and he credits memories at the mill as powerful influences on his architecture.
The two men reviewed the plans and agreed to incorporate Walter’s products. A professional association was forged. A few months later, they met with a different agenda. This time it was along the lake to design Walter’s own home. “Bobby asked lots of questions and told me he wanted to get into my heart and soul, so the house would be all about ‘me,’ ” Walter recalls. “As we walked the land and talked, Bobby started drawing and quickly came up with plans and elevations.”
The peninsula property oversaw big water and two bays. “With this type of land, it’s possible for every room in the house to have views of the water,” McAlpine says. “That was my goal.”
The architecture is incredibly site-specific as it rambles along the shoreline. The house nods to the romantic notions of the Shingle style, with its familiar forms and gracious proportions, yet this structure enjoys a commanding stature and sense of permanence.
“This home acknowledges its owner, a gracious Southern lumberman,” McAlpine says. “The design draws elegance from devices not typically found in residential architecture. There are elements of a chapel in the woods, rural schoolhouses, and old factory offices. It even has its feed-and-seed-store moments.”
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