Ellen Braaten joined the faculty of the School of Architecture + Design (formerly the Department of Architecture) in 1971. Charles Burchard and Olivio Ferrari hired her as an editorial assistant and pottery teacher. She served the college as Assistant to the Dean for three deans and as Director of Student Affairs. She is an emeritus professor and currently teaches an independent study class in pottery and advises fifth year architecture students. She studied pottery with famed potters Alexander Giampietro and Vally Possony.
You have two houses in Blacksburg, one in the country and one in town. Can you tell us a little about them?
When I first came to Blacksburg, my daughter and I made close friends with some architecture students. We decided to live in the same house together and I bought a beautiful Victorian home at 409 East Roanoke Street. It had only one previous owner and was in pristine condition. It was a shotgun house with rooms on either side of a central hall, leading to a kitchen at the back. The second floor had four large rooms with high ceilings. The basement was dirt and the attic was unfinished. We started with three roomers and my daughter on the second floor and I lived on the first floor.
The house became a fixture in the school during the 70s and 80s. I cooked and served dinner and we worked together to make an environment that supported everyone’s interest in design and architecture.
Shortly after moving in we undertook kitchen renovation. Architecture students and myself worked tirelessly completing the project. During this time, Mr. Ferrari was instituting a visiting architect program and these individuals stayed at my house. The environment was lively and beneficial to all who lived in the house. Eventually we took on other projects: rewiring the house, digging out the basement and making a pottery studio, designing furniture for the second floor bedrooms which had no closets, and finally, in the late 80s we redid the attic. Finding roomers for the house was no problem. They came willingly and we had the added dimension of successful architects living among us.
My “boarding house” became a place where faculty would constantly visit. Mr. Ferrari was a frequent visitor and we initiated a “Friday Night Seminar” which was open to the entire school. We had speakers and discussions that continued into the night.
Can you tell us about what it was like to work with Ferrari?
Ferrari was a charismatic leader. He was demanding. His death was devastating to the Architecture program, and it has taken a long time to begin to recover. He demanded excellence from the faculty, and was always engaging us in conversations about art, music and philosophy. He attended to the entire faculty, bringing out the best in them. His vision of a European studies program was finalized with the purchase of the Villa Maderni. For him, travel for students and faculty was essential, and he made sure that many of us had that opportunity.
The very first international programs were organized by the architecture department and for that matter, the first offerings in pottery were through the architecture program. Even when he and Lucy spent a great deal of time abroad, he was in constant touch with the school. I was his editor. My job was to listen, take his ideas and writings and put them in proper editorial style. I was very lucky to call him and Lucy my close friends and he was my mentor. What I know about teaching I learned from him. Teachers mentor teachers. Over the years I am so grateful for the skills he gave me. As you add on years of teaching, the better you are at perceiving what students need and how to help them excel. Ferrari was a master at that.
Could you tell us about the house you currently live in?
Well, as you may know, I am a survivor of the poliovirus. When I first started teaching, I was walking on crutches, in fact, I walked on crutches for fifty years. I remember well, on a trip to Paris with the Ferraris, they insisted I use a wheelchair. Long distances in Europe overwhelmed me. Once in Venice, Ferrari pushed me all over the city, carrying my chair over the bridges while I walked over them—that was amazing. At any rate, I was having trouble walking and the house on Roanoke Street was becoming burdensome. It was also about this time that Charles Worley died. He was a professor in our school and he designed and lived in a beautiful mid-century house situated in an area called Dunstan Heights. At his death, his widow called and suggested I buy the house. It would be perfect for me and so I did.
The house was built in 1962; it is part Prairie style and looks from the exterior like a barn. It is sited so that it follows the tract of the moon. When I moved in there were no trees, no plants, just a green yard that backed onto other green yards. Worley and Herschel Elarth had houses in the same neighborhood and devised plans whereby everyone’s back yard was a interconnected greenway.
The house is a beautiful place to live; the central core is a double cube with the second floor being a mezzanine opening to that cube. Surrounding rooms are at the height of 7’6”— the height of the rooms in La Tourette. All exterior walls are double brick with the brick on the interior. The small details are numerous. It is interesting to note that Worley came from Chicago, studied at IIT and had Mies Van der Rohe as his master’s thesis advisor.
In 2003 when I retired from my full-time position, I built a pottery studio in the backyard of the house. A close friend, an architect from Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, Brigitte Peterhans, helped me with the design. It is from this studio that I teach my Independent Study class. It’s an evening class so that it does not interfere with studio time. Students can use the studio at other times so it’s not unusual to find them here on other days and weekends.
The changes I have made to the house have been minimal. It’s such a strong, intact object, beautifully detailed in every way. There are trees now and gardens, but little has changed. Students who do use the studio have an opportunity to be away from their desks and enjoy the seasons.
You have another house in the Catawba Valley. Can you talk about why you chose that location?
It’s interesting to see the full circle of circumstances that have led to the Catawba house. Our friends call this The Sisters House. My sister and I have lived together for almost ten years now and when she moved from California we decided to build this house. Robert Turner, my closest friend, was very instrumental in the purchase of my first house, the one on Roanoke Street. He was behind the kitchen renovation in that house and we shared that house with my daughter and two others until he accepted a job with Ezra Stoller. We stayed very close friends, spending our holidays and other times in New York, Chicago, London and Paris and finally in our houses in the Catawba Valley on Paris Mountain. He went on to be a partner at SOM and then retired and practiced privately in Paris. He died recently and has generously donated to our school. At any rate, on one of our trips from the airport, we started discussing the possibility of buying land together in our favorite valley: Catawba Valley. I found a beautiful parcel and along with another architecture alumni, Robert Reuter, we purchased the land in the 80s. We built three houses on our property and dedicated the rest of the land to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. We all have homes there on top of the hill.
The main objectives of the house in the Catawba Valley are to be accessible without looking so and to commune with nature. We sited the house so that it opens to the face of a deciduous mountain—one that is a green wall in summer, red-orange in fall, and can be snow covered in winter. The house has oversized corridors, large doorways and features a NanaWall system that opens it to the mountain from the living area and from my bedroom. Being able to feel the outside, being a part of nature is so important. You can’t be a potter without loving nature. My sister and I wanted a house that opened to the embrace of the mountain and I think we achieved that. Our terrace follows the curve of the mountain and when our NanaWall is open our house has no size, it is one with the outside. At night with the wall open (and the screen closed!), we can hear all the forest sounds, the tree frogs and the coyotes. You realize then that you are a visitor. The exterior of the house is board and batten, a nod to that construction evident in our valley and throughout the area.
Can you tell us a bit about the interior of the house?
Again, we come full circle with the Roanoke Street house. John Burcher lived in the house on Roanoke Street for four years in the 70s. He went on to be an Associate partner at SOM and now heads Interior Design at SmithGill Architects. We have remained very close friends and oversaw the interior design, specifically my bathroom which is open to my bedroom. He picked the tile for our bathrooms, the paint colors for the house and selected the cabinetry that makes the house usable for me as well as my sister. We took into account the limited motion I have now and this became a real issue in the design, but I think we were successful in making the house accessible without feeling accessible. As Ferrari once said: if it is designed well and it works for the differently-abled then it works for all of us. I am paraphrasing, but you understand what he means.
The Catawba house, like the others, is a joy to live in. I have been so lucky to live in such beautiful and enriching environments. Wherever I am, I go to sleep in a beautiful environment and wake to a beautiful space, inside and out. I don’t take my love of good design lightly; I am enriched by it. My wheelchair, my Gropius china, the Lauffer Stainless I eat with, all of these objects contribute to my well being.
[The text and images from this post have been edited and formatted for blog from the Ellen Braaten story of Volume 3]