The Poet of Place
How a soulful architect is changing the Southern landscape—one house at a time
When I asked the Southern architect Bobby McAlpine to show me something he designed that was especially meaningful to him, I expected his choice to be a house. His work, after all, is 99 percent residential, driven by what he calls “an insatiable hunger for finding home.” Instead, one day last fall, he drove me to a chapel on a private estate buffered from the creeping sprawl of East Montgomery, Alabama, by woods and rolling pasture. McAlpine parked his Mercedes sedan in front of an imposing redbrick Georgian house, whose buttoned-down symmetry there at the end of a long drive seemed familiarly Southern. Turning our backs to the house, we wandered down to a hollow where a small stone chapel was stitched into the folds of the earth by a series of vine-choked rubble walls. Moss-covered fieldstones, lancet windows, steep-pitched slate roof—we could have stumbled upon an English church that had weathered four hundred autumns, except that there were no Englishmen here four hundred years ago.
The man who commissioned the chapel and once lived in the respectable house, Wynton M. “Red” Blount, had been a prominent Alabamian—builder of the Superdome, U.S. Postmaster General (the country’s last) under Richard Nixon, powerful philanthropist.
“I could have put this on a knoll,” said McAlpine in his quiet way as we paused before the chapel’s heavy wooden door, and many an architect would have done just that. “But there’s humility implied by traveling down.”
Though humility is rarely associated with great architecture, it’s Bobby McAlpine’s secret ingredient, one reason the Montgomery-based architect’s phone has not stopped ringing since he started practicing twenty-five years ago. Speaking in the language of timber, stone, plaster, and glass, he articulates the intangible qualities of home: a sense of place, communion with nature, permanence, but also peacefulness, security, grace, fellowship, hope, and, yes, humility. To him, a home should be a warm and trusted friend, if also glamorous and occasionally exhilarating. He couldn’t care less about stature or curb appeal or resale value. Hell, he doesn’t even know what a house looks like until he has almost fully conceived it—and that’s the very language he uses, as if he will be giving birth by putting pen to paper. He starts with floor plans—the faceless soul of a house—and lives with them until they have reached the end of gestation. Only then does he begin to envision the flesh.
“Bobby doesn’t intellectualize his buildings. He approaches them more from a spiritual standpoint,” says Ken Pursely, who studied under McAlpine at Auburn University and who later worked for him for eight years before opening his own firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. “So many people who work in a traditional palette follow rules and regulations, reference books and maxims handed down from architects like [Andrea] Palladio. Bobby looks at things more from a human or emotional aspect. How a space feels is more important than if it’s traditionally right or wrong.”
Over the past quarter-century, McAlpine, a silver-haired fifty-one-year-old who speaks with a soft Southern lilt, has designed more than five hundred houses with the help of his firm, McAlpine Tankersley Architecture, which he has stubbornly kept in Montgomery (even though he moved to Nashville nine years ago). McAlpine is famous in the South because he is of the South, and he takes into consideration the things his fellow Southerners cherish—history, tradition, the land, a welcoming energy, and the poignant beauty of shabbiness and decay. His work is at once rustic and tailored, nostalgic and modern. Though it’s early in his career to start talking about legacy, that’s the quality for which McAlpine will most likely be remembered—the loving spirit he infuses into his homes.
A Self-Started Man
For an architect, Bobby McAlpine had about as unlikely a childhood as you could imagine. His parents married in their late teens and had a daughter in their mid-twenties. Around the age of thirty, his mother gave birth to a son, Robert Frank McAlpine. By then, Bobby’s father, who dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, was working as a sawmill boss in Vredenburgh, Alabama, a hundred miles southwest of Montgomery, a mill camp literally carved out of the virgin pine forests not far from the Mississippi border. Vredenburgh was a Faulknerian world where camp families bought food and clothing from a company store and tried to keep the red dirt out of their identical board-and-batten bungalows, which were hammered up out of the same pine that fell to make room for them. “It sent me inside to fantasize and create all the things that weren’t there,” McAlpine says.