Home & Garden

Architect’s ‘moments’ define striking Myers Park home

Architect Stan Russell converted a Myers Park traditional home to this contemporary dwelling. It's evident in the homes he designs for clients -- and in his "all-in" approach.
Architect Stan Russell converted a Myers Park traditional home to this contemporary dwelling. It's evident in the homes he designs for clients -- and in his "all-in" approach. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Stan Russell encourages clients to think of him as a priest. He wants them to be honest. In exchange for their honesty, he promises not to be judgmental.

He asks clients how they live: “Don’t tell me your favorite hobby is listening to opera if it’s really eating on the sofa and watching TV. Because I’ll design a house that may not be conducive to watching TV.”

Russell, 61, is not just a hybrid confessor/architect. He wants to be involved in clients’ decorating decisions, landscaping and art choices, too. But he doesn’t come in like a freight train; he’s soft-spoken, thoughtful, studious.

Although Russell was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright (who did come in like a freight train), he doesn’t mimic Wright. “Each client is different, and each site is different,” he said.

He’s like Wright (“one of my heroes”) in some ways. Russell takes the environment into account and is concerned with proportion.

“The right scale is missing from a lot of the built environment today,” he said, citing the proliferation of vainglorious mansions. “You walk into a house with a 20-foot-high foyer, and it’s like a one-line joke you’ve heard before,” he said. “There’s no mystery in that, no intrigue.”

Russell is a fan of small spaces, of enticing people outside onto terraces hidden from street view.

He also insists on an honest use of materials. At Betsey and Dick Sesler’s Myers Park home, a steel beam spanning the living and dining rooms wasn’t covered with sheetrock. It’s on full view and painted Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature Cherokee Red.

‘Stan’s thinking about it’

The Seslers bought their home – which had been converted from duplex to a traditional-style single family by a previous owner – in 1997.

In 2014, the Seslers wanted a change. Dick, retired and running Camp Blue Skies, the nonprofit he founded, wanted to downsize. He was “tired of the maintenance an old house required and of doors and drawers that wouldn’t close.”

But Betsey loved their location and had enjoyed working with an architect when they’d designed a mountain house years ago. She said they “compromised” – a diplomatic way of saying: She won.

The couple gave Russell creative freedom to transform the house into a contemporary stunner. For instance, their home, built in 1939, had a red brick, double-sided fireplace in the center of the living room. One side was used by residents of half the original duplex; the other by occupants on the other side.

During the renovation, it stood like Janus – one side facing the living room, one side facing the dining room. Russell’s original plans didn’t account for what to do with the structure. So, Dick Sesler inquired. “I’m thinking about it,” Russell told him.

Each time the question arose, the answer was the same.

Eventually a Sesler family friend asked what would become of the elephant in the room. “Stan’s thinking about it,” Dick Sesler said.

Since Russell loves highlighting what some architects keep hidden, he turned the fireplace into a dominant sculptural element. It’s an art niche, a conversation piece, a partition between living and dining areas. And it retains its original function, although it now uses gas instead of wood.

“The process was … constantly evolving, right up until the last minute,” said Betsey of working with Russell.

The previous renovation had left the rooms still too small for entertaining. Betsey, a harpist and bluegrass banjo player, wanted space for a recital or house concert.

Russell built low benches – “perches” he calls them – along the perimeter of the living area/salon for that purpose. Eames chairs in the salon are low, so as not to interfere with visibility to the outside – or to the piano in the music room.

The original kitchen, at the back of the house, got little light. Russell moved it up and opened it up. Designed for entertaining, the kitchen is a work of art itself. There’s no clutter; cabinets and pantry doors don’t even have hardware. Custom-designed maple cabinets and a stunning Patagonia granite island with cooktop are all you see.

“It makes a nice statement,” Russell said (an understatement) of the single piece of translucent granite lit from underneath.

“I love walking through here and looking straight through the house,” Betsy said. “The windows make me feel like I’m part of the outdoors.” (Russell insists on integrating inside and out. All the Seslers’ windows are single pieces of glass; no mullions block the vistas.)

Everywhere you look, there’s an intriguing view. Even the area where trash cans are stored is lovely. What for most homeowners is a little-considered, utilitarian space is, for the Seslers, a work of art. Russell designed a steel door on rollers and had a friend make patterned laser cuts in it. At night, when the lights are turned on inside the stall, it becomes a large-scale lantern.

Frank Lloyd Wright dictated how his clients should live. Russell likes to tell a story about the legendary architect once driving by a client’s Malibu home – the Oboler house – and noticed they’d added a wall and gate he didn’t like. He had his assistants tear it down with sledgehammers.

Stan Russell doesn’t carry a sledgehammer. He just gently encourages clients to partner with him on every aspect of their home. And confess their sins.

Stan Russell

Stan Russell can build you a house. But he’d rather furnish it, decorate it and landscape it, too. “Design doesn’t just stop at the walls,” he said. “Everything is important. Details matter.”

He considers all the details – “the feel of a doorknob, the texture of a rug, the grain of the wood.”

Russell’s interest in architecture began in a mechanical drawing class in high school in Ware Shoals, S.C. He worked his way through Clemson University as a carpenter. Designing commercial buildings never interested him. “I always wanted to work with the end user,” he said.

His favorite local architecture is Mario Botta’s Bechtler Museum and “early houses by A.G. Odell, although there aren’t many left.” He’s also a fan of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

One piece of advice he offers anyone planning a renovation: “Don’t spend money on something that isn’t going to get used. If you have guests just twice a year, you don’t need an elaborate guest suite. If you don’t cook, you don’t need a big kitchen.”

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