Architecture as Art
Still modern after all these years
Denice and Vince Degenhart were married for about five years when they realized their small patio home just wouldn’t suit the needs of their growing family. Because Vince is an anesthesiologist, he wanted to be in the downtown area, closer to the hospitals. When a friend showed them an international style house that was for sale on Harden Street outside of Five Points, they loved the house but, sadly, thought it was out of their price range.
After a month of further searching, the Degenharts received a call from the owner, Glenn McGee. “He really wanted someone to live here who would appreciate it as a work of art,” says Vince. “The house was his ‘child,’ and he was looking for its next caretaker.”
That was nearly 19 years ago, and the house is still just as special to the Degenharts as the day they moved in. Dubbed the Wallace McGee House after its first two owners and listed on the National Register of Historic Homes, this wasn’t just any house. Collier’s magazine had commissioned world-renowned architect Edward D. Stone to “draw plans of an ideal modern house for a man of moderate means,” according to an article published in the magazine in March 1936. A limited number of the houses were constructed in the United States; this is one of them.
Edward Stone was known for his modernistic large structures, including the Museum of Modern Art and Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He also designed some well-known buildings in Columbia, among them the Thomas Cooper Library and the former dorm residence affectionately known to many U.S.C. students as the “Honeycombs.”
The house was completed in 1939 and featured what were the most modern of efficiencies for its time. It incorporated such innovations as concrete and steel construction, large living areas, multiple bathrooms, ample closet space and the newest concept, a flat roof. “The result,” quotes the magazine, “is a house which no designer or prospective home owner dare leave out of his calculations if he feels his appetite stirred for a new home.”
The house sits so that the “front” faces the back yard. Walls of glass allow a full view of the terraced yard and gardens from the living area. A long hallway along the upper level serves as a buffer from road noise for the three bedrooms, each of which opens onto the sun deck that overlooks the back yard. The “rear” of the house faces the street with a garage and “an entrance court that can serve as an outdoor living space,” according to the Collier’s article.
The Degenharts eventually made some renovations, working within the guidelines set by the National Register. “We had to submit plans for the addition to the National Register. The exterior couldn’t be changed without having it approved,” says Vince. “We were able to find the company in Pittsburgh that made the original eight-foot-square blocks that were used in the construction of the house.”
Renovations added 1,000 square feet to the size of the house. “The original kitchen was a small galley style kitchen. We added a new kitchen with modern features along with a large sitting area,” says Vince. “The addition is more for lounging while the rest of the house is more formal.”
To maintain the original feel of the house, the kitchen features sleek amenities such as a professional gas cooktop, stainless appliances and a glass hood. Stainless drawer fronts and black granite countertops continue the modern trends in the décor. “The Subzero refrigerator was already in the house,” notes Vince. “The previous owner also left behind a baby grand piano and an antique Coca-Cola cooler.”
A large stone fireplace provides a warm backdrop for cozy chairs and sofas. An expanse of built-in cabinetry offers various shelves and nooks for Denice’s collection of unique vases, pottery and glass artwork.
Denice, who was an art teacher in grade schools and at Columbia College, has filled the walls with a vast array of paintings. “I love art,” she smiles. “Almost everything is local. I look for balance and color and really lean toward abstracts. I’m attracted to whatever is pleasing to my eye.” Her collection includes artists like Heidi Darr Hope, Edward Wimberley and Laura Spong.
The Degenharts often open up their home to artists. “We invite people in the arts community to come in and see the style of the house,” Denice explains.
Other features of the house that were unique for its day include the spiral staircase that spans from the basement to the upper level. The formal dining room has a rounded wall of glass that provides yet another full view of the gardens and pool. A large living room with a French marble fireplace and a sunroom provide ample space for entertaining.
The patio overlooking the terraced lawn and pool provides a spacious area for outdoor entertaining. Two large cypress base tables, along with umbrella tables and wrought iron furniture, offer plenty of seating. Guests can wander throughout the yard enjoying the gardens, which were a large part of the Degenharts’ love for the house. “The yard is one of the best parts of this house,” says Vince. “The trees are incredible, and there is something in bloom year round.” Mature magnolias and Deodara cedars provide copious amounts of shade. Camellias, an arbor of confederate jasmine and borders of white impatiens provide a beautiful backdrop. “I garden in white,” says Denice. “It’s just so beautiful.”
Denice now owns an interior design and a floral business, and at one time she worked alongside several well-known area designers, including Paul Sloan, Brandon Davidson Shives, Evon Kirkland and Ellen Taylor. She believes a home should reflect the family that lives in it. “I love our house,” she says. “It’s very comfortable. It has a lived-in feel. It’s spacious and livable, not pretentious at all.”
Vince shares that sentiment. ”It’s a very special house,” he says. “There aren’t many houses that are almost 80 years old that people still consider to be very modern.”