Top O Rock - it's Conception


Published: Sunday, April 03, 2005
Page: P1F
Byline: Julie Robinson For the Sunday Gazette-Mail

WHEN Charleston architect Henry Elden first spotted the land for sale along MacCorkle Avenue in the mid-1960s, he could just imagine the sort of home he would build in the natural setting. It would blend with the site's rocky and heavily wooded terrain, and still take advantage of the cityscape across the river.

The result of his vision is Top-O-Rock, his innovative circular home and office that's perched above the busy intersection of Porter/Bendview Road and MacCorkle Avenue, yet looks like an outgrowth of the crag on which it sits.

Nearly 40 years after its construction in 1968, the house still turns heads when spotted from the road. Its glass and steel exterior is most obvious when the surrounding trees have shed their leaves. Birds, squirrels, raccoons and even the occasional fox scamper among the towering, ivy-encrusted trees. The landscape really brightens in the spring, when more than 2,000 jonquils are in bloom.

The 3,400-square-foot structure consists of two circular sections. One side is Elden's residence, while the other side boasts spectacular office space.

The office section sits on a rocky outcropping that juts into the building's interior. The lines between indoor and outdoor blur in an imaginative space that features lush tropical plants, uncut rock "walls" and even a tree growing through the roof.

Before his retirement, Elden's architectural staff somehow managed to work and not be distracted by the scenery visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding them. Today, the space is empty of workers, but it is still filled with desks and all the tools of the architectural trade.

Back outside, a carved brass door opens into the residence, the crown jewel of which has to be the living/dining area with its panoramic view of the surrounding woods, river and city. The lofty ceiling is supported by structural steel mullions, the only interruption in the two-story window/walls.

The unadorned windows offer no privacy, but Elden is not concerned about concealment. "I don't need curtains," he said, smiling. "I lead a pure life." Elden aptly likened the design to a birdcage, and called it less a design than an opinion. The room is still furnished with many of the home's original contemporary pieces, selected by Elden's wife when the house was constructed.

A tapestry of Top-O-Rock created by Suzanne Riggio hangs on the room's only interior wall. The harmonious blend of rich fabrics and materials captures the essence of Top-O-Rock. The tapestry was judged to be one of the finest quilts sewn in the 20th century in a national competition and holds a place of honor in Elden's home. After all, he doesn't have an abundance of wall space.

The adjacent kitchen feels like a galley, with birch cabinets handcrafted to Elden's exacting standards. Cabinet doors mounted on piano hinges open smoothly once, then twice, to reveal three sets of doors with shelves for spices and canned goods. Built-in warming trays were helpful in the busy days when Henry, 91, and his wife, now deceased, entertained. A bar running along the outside wall of the kitchen offers dining so close to nature that it nearly qualifies as al fresco.

A curved staircase in the living room leads upstairs to a cozy loft with a fireplace in which Elden has placed a Mexican chimney. Like an eagle in his aerie, Elden enjoys sitting up here and reading or looking out over his incomparable living space to the vista beyond.

Three bedrooms and two baths also are upstairs. Reached by single-loaded corridors that run along the outside walls, the rooms all boast views of the wooded hills above the house. They are furnished simply, in keeping with the house's clean lines. The walls of the master bedroom's walk-in closet are curved to follow the lines of the house, as are all the outside corridors and walls. Not for the weak-kneed, a spiral staircase winds between the two floors, providing additional access.

The house's unconventional design raised a few eyebrows when Elden initially embarked on construction. The house is framed with 90 tons of structural steel, all of which were fabricated in the West Virginia Steel shop and transported up the winding road. The center support column for the office area was too long to negotiate the road's curves, so Elden brought in a boom to lift the column up the hill and swing it up and into place. Assembling all those massive steel pieces was much like building with a giant Erector Set.

Elden chuckled as he recalled the many unanticipated challenges during construction. Possessing a double registration in architecture and structural engineering, Elden limited his architectural drawings to six pages, but the plans for the steel structures totaled 60. Even with those impressive credentials, he still had trouble convincing his construction superintendent of the project's feasibility.

"My superintendent just couldn't grasp it. I told him to take it day to day, and tomorrow we would continue," Elden said. "He was pleased when it was all finished." The workers weren't the only people who were scratching their heads.

When the circular frame began to take shape, residents speculated that the workers were building another water tower for the railroad that ran along the bottom of the hill.

Because the surrounding natural setting was the inspiration for his design, Elden was adamant that the land and trees be disturbed as little as possible. Naturally, the construction company wanted to remove several large trees that were very close to the construction site.

The three lofty oak trees that stand beside the house, an oak tree around which part of the deck circles and the oak tree that rises through the office area's roof all stand as evidence to Elden's tenacity.

Featured in many publications, including Parade magazine, the unique design of Henry Elden's Top-O-Rock continues to inspire.