Top O Rock, Charleston Classic was - is ahead of it's time

Published: Wednesday, January 13, 1999
Page: P1D
Byline: Joseph E. Bird

ARCHITECTURE WRITER NEWER, BIGGER, better, faster. We are always looking for the latest and greatest. Even our throwaway greeting, "What's new?" begs for something fresh. Yet maybe it's time to take a step back and look at what we already have.

It's time to revisit the local classics, which I define as any building of any style that has stood the test of time. That is to say, its design was not merely a response to the trend of the day, but has a timeless aesthetic that spans the years.

One such classic, Toporock, serves as home and studio to one of Charleston's most accomplished architects, Henry Elden. The epitome of modern architecture, Toporock is literally nestled on a rock outcropping on the side of a hill off Porter Road.

When it was built back in 1968, it became an instant landmark. The problem with trying to describe Toporock is figuring out where to start.

Round and round How about "Wow." That was my thought when I first saw this amazing structure. I admit that's not much of an architectural critique, but it fits. It is a spectacular space and an incredible building.

Toporock is essentially composed of two circular structures, connected at their tangents with virtually nothing but glass for exterior walls.

The larger of the two circles serves as the studio/office, and is in essence, an atrium, built around an old rock outcropping leftover from a small quarry operation.

At the center of the atrium is a massive collection of plants that rivals that of any shopping mall. Besides the huge philodendron plants, a tree growing on the site at the time of construction was preserved and became an integral part of the design concept - so much so that accommodations were made to allow the tree to actually grow through the roof. The concept was repeated with another tree that grows through the deck and roof overhang outside the studio.

A mezzanine along the outside wall helps bring the room down to scale and actually provides for a very interactive work space. Drafting tables and other tools of the trade, together with an intriguing collection of artifacts from Elden's worldwide travels combine to create an eclectic and surreal atmosphere.

Everywhere the eye looks is a spectacular view. There's greenery inside and out. One can imagine trying to work in such a space with all of the distractions.

Overall, it is the studio space that is the most evocative. Choose your own imagery. Is it the epitome of designing with nature? The ultimate in an open system design? Or is it just the best tree house fort a kid could ever imagine?

Maybe all of those.

The other circular structure serves as the residence for Elden.

Although not as large and spectacular as the studio, it is just as special. Glass walls, with no window shading whatsoever, provide for spectacular views of downtown Charleston.

There is an air of openness throughout the house, yet it remains an intimate and inviting space.

The furnishings of the residence are, for the most part, the same furnishings Elden selected when Toporock was built 30 years ago, and therefore, there's a kind of '60s ambiance to the place. Throughout are unique details - from the cast bronze front door to custom-built structural connections - all of which add to the collective architectural wonder.

A challenge to build Toporock was born in the imagination of Henry Elden, but he's the first to acknowledge the important roles others played in making his vision a reality. The building is truly a structural engineering marvel, and if not for the persistence and ingenuity of those who helped build it, it might have never come together.

Old construction photos document the building process and the unique challenges encountered along the way, not the least of which was how to get 60-foot steel columns to the rugged site. (After being lifted to the site from the road below, each of the columns was then custom-cut to the required lengths and anchored into the rock.) Considering the complexity of the project, it's not surprising that it took only three months to design but 18 months to build.

Henry Elden has designed many notable buildings during his career, among them the library and two other buildings at West Virginia Tech in Montgomery, the Carver Technical School at Marmet, the Ben Franklin Career Technical School in Dunbar and the Lee Terrace and Jarrett Terrace high rises in Charleston. And today his practice continues with the help of his son Ted. But Toporock will forever be the building most associated with Henry Elden.

It's the "glass house on the hill" that Charlestonians point out to their visiting friends. It's the wondrous and mysterious house that many have heard of, but few have actually seen.

And more than anything, it is Charleston's own architectural classic.