On June 27, The New York Times reported that Kean University, the father institution for the relatively new Michael Graves College for architecture and design, would purchase the late architect Michael Graves’ personal residence in Princeton, N.J., along with the two 20th-century residences on the shared, L-shaped lot, at the approval of its board of trustees for the price of $20.
The Warehouse, as Graves called it, alluding to its original use, was left to Princeton University in his estate after passing last year. However, the Ivy League school had to pass, saying that they, "could not meet the terms and conditions associated with the gift," in a statement sent to ARCHITECT.
Graves bought the dilapidated, 7,000-square-foot residence in 1974 for $30,000, and was charmed by it’s “rugged” aesthetic, according to Traditional Home. Constructed in the 1920s, the building was initially a functioning warehouse, laden with 44 rentable rooms, built for and by Italian masons in the Tuscan vernacular, while they were moonlighting from their regular jobs to build the Collegiate Gothic buildings that stand on Princeton’s campus today, according to Karen Nichols, AIA, principal at Michael Graves Architecture & Design.
At the time of purchase, the structure did not boast any of the basic amenities most homeowners look for, such as plumbing, heating and cooling, or a dependable electrical system. But the estate's stylistic roots resonated with Graves from the time he studied at the American Academy in Rome during the early 1960s. With the panache of the postmodernist pioneer’s design eye—he is known for timeless industrial design creations such as Italian houseware and design copmany Alessi’s 9093 Teakettle—and after several stages of renovations, it came to be a museum of his collectibles and personal work.
As a result, it turned into a gathering spot where the AIA Gold Medal-winning architect frequently held events and entertained students and clients at the house. He also integrated a studio in 2003, when a spinal infection left him paralyzed from the chest down, so he could work from home and access things from a wheelchair.
ARCHITECT spoke to David Mohney, FAIA, dean of the Michael Graves College of architecture and design, about the pending acquisition, and what’s to come for students that will interact with the site that once served as a hub of experimentation for Graves and his colleagues.
ARCHITECT: How were you approached about this opportunity?
Mohney: I received an inquiry from one of the principals of Michael [Graves’] firm about three months ago.
Why did you decide to accept it?
It is a marvelous opportunity on several different levels. First, it’s a chance to help preserve the legacy of a very important architect. Second, it’s an amazing opportunity to use a first-rate facility for student learning processes and to show them firsthand what it’s like for a leading architect to live and work.
How was the $20 fee determined?
I have no idea. Ask the lawyers. [Laughs]
What kind of shape are the buildings in?
Very good. Because of the renovations in 2003, [the site] is in excellent condition. There’s some minor cracking in the plaster in one of areas, and one small leak over a mechanical room that will have to be fixed, but as far as I know that’s one of the only major repair issues for the warehouse itself.
How do you plan to adapt the space to meet educational needs?
We don’t plan to change it much at all. The intention is to preserve it the way that Michael wanted, which is to show what life was like for him. I’m assuming we will offer some small seminars, lectures, and salons, so we may rearrange the chairs from time to time, but we’re not going to make wholesale changes to the architecture on the interior or even the furnishings very much.
Can you explain the relationship of the estate's interior furniture to the site?
The house is a part of Michael’s estate, and that is the gift in return for $20. The furnishings belong to the Michael Graves Foundation, so that’s a different entity that owns those. It certainly was Michael’s intention that the house and the furnishings stay together. So there are conversations going on between Kean [University] and the foundation about the ability to retain those furnishings in the house.
What is Graves’ relationship to Kean?
He very much wanted the humanism of architecture to come back into teaching it. I think a lot of us feel the architectural, pedagogical, and representational concerns in the digital world, [and as a result] we’re forgetting how to design and render. It’s very much the intention of being able to explain how design can meet processes that has depth to it and engages a wider audience in a meaningful way. And Michael, I think, intended for his warehouse to be an example of that: a place where you can cultivate a sense of depth.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.