"It's absolutely a secret — don't even tell your best friend," Walter L. Rice warned his dynamic, Danish-born bride, Inger, in 1963.
Inger and Walter, a top executive at Reynolds Metals Co., were tackling the logistics of a daunting engineering challenge — how to bridge a canal, a railroad track and a remote, wooded gorge in the West End to build their dream home.
What they planned was an East Coast rarity, a modern design by internationally renowned architect Richard Joseph Neutra (1892-1970).
His sleek and trailblazing houses for the wealthy and otherwise, built in the first half of the 20th century, had dissolved the line between shelter and nature. Radical when he began his career, Neutra's designs defined and still inform Southern California's architectural aesthetic. But while he was celebrated worldwide, what the Rices envisioned was outré for conservative Richmond.
Fifty years since its inception, however, the iconic complex at 1000 Old Locke Lane, embedded in a rocky cliff above the James River, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And it might never have happened if not for the romance and resolve of the Rices.
Inger Rice, 83, greets her visitor warmly but with characteristic purposefulness at the front door of her home in the Westminster Canterbury Richmond compound near Bryan Park. She's dressed impeccably, in a crisp cotton blouse and slacks, as if about to go sailing.
Walking toward the large, sunlight-filled kitchen, she passes dozens of artworks and artifacts. They consume every wall of the spacious, two-story house — complexly patterned textiles from Japan, landscape paintings from Australia, colorful Jamaican pieces and more somber oils from her native country of Denmark. Some 20 New Guinea artifacts — swords, canoe ends and a judge's chair — are on display at the University of Richmond's Lora Robins Gallery. All bespeak a life of travel and curiosity.
For four years Inger and her late husband lived in Australia, where he served as ambassador during President Richard Nixon's first term. And in the later 1970s, she founded the Virginia chapter of the Friendship Force, an international people-to-people exchange program.
But her most-prized object and crowning project, the Neutra House, no longer belongs to her. In 1996 she and her husband gave it to the Science Museum of Virginia Foundation after making it their home and rearing their family there.
Upon exchanging vows in 1960, the Rices were living comfortably near the University of Richmond across from the sixth hole of the Country Club of Virginia. They played golf, hunted and fished regularly. And although they considered building a house on property they owned in Goochland County, what they really craved was living with a water view. So lakefront explorations and James River hikes became routine.
One perfect autumn day while they trudged along a riverbank near Windsor Farms, they had their eureka moment.
"It was all jungle, no roads," Inger recalls of stumbling upon a remote and steeply sloping site alongside the Chesapeake and Ohio (now CSX) train tracks. "This is it, here we will build," she said. "But then I looked a little farther toward a slope and asked, 'What is that over there?'"
After descending the treacherous incline and crossing the James River and Kanawha Canal, a barbed wire barrier was no deterrent, she says, "Walter put his jacket on the fence and we climbed over."
It was named Dead Man's Hill because of three men interred there in the 1860s. And from atop it the Rices scanned the canal, Williams Dam and the James River rapids that raged 110 feet below. "The view was magnificent. We fell in love with it," she says, recalling the conversation.
"Walter, build me a drawbridge," Inger implored.
"Absolutely not," he replied.
"Walter," she persisted, "Build me a suspension bridge."
But when Inger consulted a company engineer at Reynolds Metals, her husband knew she'd dug in.
After purchasing the 17-acre island plus 16 acres north of the tracks, Walter also began to study bridge design. Eventually, Inger says, "he knew more about bridge building than anyone."
To span the deep ravine to link Dead Man's Hill with the mainland would require a single, 60-foot stretch of steel.
"The city said we couldn't build a house on the island because fire trucks couldn't get there," Inger says. "So we asked how much a fire truck weighed, and we were told 13 tons. Walter said, 'OK, I will build it to hold 13.8 tons.'"
"Since then, fire trucks have become much larger — they now weigh 25 tons," Inger says. "But they still keep one fire truck on standby that weighs 13 tons."
Walter was a Harvard-educated lawyer who'd argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and headed five of Reynolds' international subsidiaries. But the logistics of constructing a bridge in so rustic a location would require all the savvy and mettle he could muster.
Mum's the word, he instructed his wife, while he negotiated not just halting all C&O railroad traffic for a week, but also stopping water intake to the nearby Richmond water filtration system for the same period of time. He also convinced city officials to permit nighttime delivery of construction materials so as not to interfere with local daytime traffic.
"He did the impossible," Inger says. "I don't think you could do that today."
With infrastructure in place, the Rices tackled their next challenge, persuading the revolutionary, temperamental and Austrian-born architect Neutra to design a house for them.
Walter Lyman Rice and Inger Margarethe Vestergaard were introduced in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1960. Apparently it was love at first sight. "There was immediate electricity," she says.
A Copenhagen native, Inger was a purser for Pan American Airlines who'd been lent to Reynolds Metals to serve on a corporate flight. It was there that she caught the eye of Richard S. Reynolds Jr., president of the Richmond-based, Fortune 500 company, which merged with Alcoa in 2000.
Walter, a Minnesota native, was in Hamburg, Germany, overseeing a company ship-building project when he got a telephone call from his boss: "Come here, I've got something to show you," Reynolds told him, as he recounted to a reporter in 1996. "I thought he had discovered a new way of making aluminum."
When Walter arrived in Lucerne, he said he "found the most beautiful girl I've ever seen."
At dinner that night, Inger says, Reynolds' wife, Virginia, suggested they all go to the casino. "Walter was the best dancer in the world," she says. And a few days later the mutually smitten pair — she was 20 years his junior — rendezvoused in London. "We talked and talked and talked," she says. "We talked about life. I had been all over the world. He had been all over the world."
But when Walter proposed marriage just days later, there was a hitch: Inger was engaged to a man in Copenhagen. She immediately flew to Denmark and ended the commitment.
Within a month of meeting, the couple was married in the living room of the Reynolds' home on Sulgrave Road in Windsor Farms. "Virginia Reynolds had insisted that if we weren't married in their home Richmond society would never accept me," Inger says.
While the Rices settled into life on Ridgeway Road, Inger also observed that local society wasn't eager to accept anything architecturally short of traditional. This clearly wasn't for her. Inger says her interest in contemporary art and architecture had been heightened in part after the opening in 1958 of Denmark's architecturally bold and contemporary Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The museum's broad expanses of glass walls dispensed with any interruption between interior and exterior. Sculpture adorned the grounds and there were water views.
But modernism also was in the air in the Richmond of the late 1950s. In 1957, Reynolds Metals had moved into its strikingly sleek new headquarters complex on West Broad Street in Henrico County. It was the area's first suburban office complex, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill — and now headquarters of Altria Corp. In 1963 local architect Haig Jamgochian's startlingly metallic Markel Building was taking shape near Willow Lawn. And in 1960, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had featured Neutra's architecture in a one-man photographic exhibition that later toured colleges statewide.
If Walter had imported a wife, Inger was interested in bringing an International Style house to her adopted town.
"People were doing a lot of interesting things in design and manufacturing at the time," says Frederick Cox, a principal with the Richmond firm of Marcellus Wright Cox Architects who was entering the profession in the early 1960s, "Inger Rice was trying to do something interesting and trying something different on that island."
Walter's commitments as a director and policy committee member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took him frequently to Washington. So Inger often accompanied him. She'd spend the day at the American Institute of Architects, poring over books and other literature about contemporary architects. In the evenings she'd show the borrowed books to her husband in their suite in the Hay Adams Hotel near the White House.
"I loved the naturalistic setting of Falling Water," Inger says of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous house near Pittsburgh. "But he was dead. I also liked the Tugendhat House, by Mies van der Rohe, in Czechoslovakia."
"I finally nailed it down to three architects: Philip Johnson, Edward Durell Stone and Richard Neutra." Johnson was working on the New York World's Fair and Lincoln Center at the time, while Stone went on to design the Kennedy Center for the Arts.
But when the Rices asked Neutra about building a house on Dead Man's Hill, he was less than eager. "We approached Neutra and he was conceited and self-centered," Inger recalls. "He said: 'I'm famous. I don't need to come to Richmond, Virginia.'"
It was late in Neutra's career and he was at the top of his game. He'd recently completed the U.S. Embassy in West Pakistan, which the Rices had visited, and was working on a plum commission, a memorial to Abraham Lincoln marking the centennial of the Gettysburg Address.
In California, where he'd almost single-handedly melded modernism onto the architectural landscape since opening his practice there in 1928, he was still in demand. Garden Grove Community Church, a commission by television evangelist Robert Schuller, was completed in 1962. It had huge glass walls that swung open so families could worship from the convenience of their automobiles (Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral for Schuller came later).
Born in fin de siécle Vienna, Austria, in 1892, Neutra was a beneficiary of the first generation of European architects who'd laid groundwork to straddle classicism with modernism both stylistically and in new construction techniques.
The Vienna of Neutra's youth was percolating with new philosophical, scientific, artistic and architectural ideas that would define the 20th century. The Neutras, agnostic Jews, were of the intelligentsia. His grandfather was a physician and his prosperous father owned a foundry. One brother was a violinist who mingled with revolutionary composer Arnold Schonberg. Sigmund Freud was a family friend.
Drawn to architecture since boyhood, Neutra was dazzled by the startlingly modern train stations by Otto Wagner, Austria's leading public building architect. Later, Neutra was influenced by another modernist forebear and teacher, Adolph Loos, who insisted buildings exhibit neither historical reference nor ornament. Loos stressed that architecture should be of its time, but timeless and honest and bold in expressing building techniques.
In 1911, the same year Neutra enrolled in architecture school, Frank Lloyd Wright's works were published in Europe, creating a positive sensation.
Neutra entered the Austrian army during World War I in 1914 and served in the Balkans. His friend and colleague, architect Rudolf Schindler, had left Vienna and settled in Chicago, where he secured a job with Wright. Remaining in Europe, however, Neutra was further exposed to such modern movements as the Bauhaus and the De Stijl: The ravages of war only strengthened the general belief that radical changes were essential in designing how people lived, worked and spent their leisure time.
Neutra became determined that human experience could be enhanced by design that embraced nature, employed humanistic systems and exploited technology. In 1919 he wrote in his diary, "I wish I could get out of Europe and get to an idyllic tropical island where one does not have to fear the winter ... but find time to think and ... be a free spirit."
In 1923 Neutra followed Schindler to the United States. He was attracted by Frank Lloyd Wright and worked for the master briefly in Chicago. But California beckoned and he established a mostly residential practice there. In 1929 he designed the Philip and Leah Lovell "Health" House in Los Angeles, which established exterior spaces as important as the interior. It also was the nation's first all light-steel house and the project was featured in the seminal exhibition, "Modern Architecture" at the Museum of Modern Art.
Neutra's client base became increasingly impressive and wealthy. For the department-store magnate Edgar Kauffman — whose 1939 house, Falling Water by Wright, continues to thrill architecture aficionados — he designed a large home in Palm Springs, Calif.
He also worked on city planning projects and designed public housing complexes. He pioneered the use of plywood and claims to have invented the sliding glass door. Time magazine put him on its cover in August 1949.
"We had written him and telephoned him" to no avail, Inger says. "But when we heard he was going to be in New York for a concert, we said, 'We are going to put you in a car and drive you to Richmond.' He finally agreed he would come to look and stay with us for a week."
The Rices expected him at 6 o'clock for dinner and finally he arrived at 9, Inger recalls. "He'd also brought his wife and his assistant, Thaddeus Longstreth, and Mrs. Longstreth. "When I said, 'Let's sit down a eat,' he said, 'No, my wife will first play the piano.'" The Rices dutifully sat through a rendition of classical music before settling down to boeuf bourguignon. "He was testing us," Inger says, almost approvingly.
The next day the party drove to Dead Man's Hill. "Neutra loved the river and loved the view," Inger says. The Rices also took their guests to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where they visited with director Leslie Cheek, an architect by training, who championed modernism.
"But most Richmonders were against contemporary architecture," Inger says. "My best friends said, 'This is Richmond and Richmond is Williamsburg.' But I said, we are on our own island and we will do what we like."
Neutra agreed to take on the project. Although his architect assistant, Princeton-based Longstreth, oversaw the project, "Neutra was the boss and dictated to Thaddeus what to do," Inger says.
Taking their cues from what they'd seen and read about his approach to house design, the Rices presented Neutra an advance "like" and "do not like" list. "We like: White with rustic stone" and "We do not like: Extended beam with outside pillar."
While a construction budget was never established, the Rices had an agreement with builder William Kayhoe of Richmond that work would proceed on a cost plus basis. "Kayhoe Construction had never done a modern house before. The house plans were this thick," Inger says, indicating two inches with her fingers.
There were battles, Inger says: "Neutra didn't want a dining room. He hated the legs of dining room chairs and wanted us to have a Japanese dining area." But seating her guests on the floor wasn't for her: "I told Neutra that in Richmond we have formal dinners and I wanted to be able to seat 24. He compromised by adding the Japanese sitting room." And when Inger asked for a sunken, marble tub, Neutra balked: "It'd be like sitting in a tomb." He specified a tile tub.
During construction the Neutras came to check on the progress. When the architect saw that the shallow water feature off the second-floor master bedroom was too narrow — it not only created a reflective surface but also was a safety measure taking the place of a railing. "We wanted to make the pool one foot wider, but Neutra objected," Inger says. "He said he'd take his name off the project and he'd tear the whole house down if we did. "He and Walter argued over that. I had to calm Walter down, and then I had to calm Neutra down."
The water feature remained 4 feet wide.
Neutra also didn't like the craftsmanship of how the Georgia marble joined the concrete, although it had been done by three masons imported from the Peach State.
But Inger says her husband was especially intrigued and pleased by Neutra's use of atmospheric lighting, both inside and outside the house — which required 10,000 feet of wiring. "There was light on the roof, light on the dam, and there was lighting in the overhang."
Soon after the 6,000-square-foot house was finished, the architect came to inspect. "This house should last as long as the rapids," Neutra proclaimed. But apparently he was less than enamored by some of the furnishings. "He took the burgundy colored cushions — Walter loved red — and threw them out onto the terrace," Inger says. "Then he just lay down outside. He was very spirited."
In 1965 the Rices took occupancy of their house with floor-to-ceiling windows, built-in furniture, a swimming pool and various terraces with sweeping views of the James River.
Their son, John Eric, and daughter, Lisa, grew up in their perfectly modern house. "Some friends were surprised that their bedrooms were on the floor below our bedroom room," Inger says. "But we had an intercom and could always hear what was going on."
Built farther back into the hillside on the lower level was an air raid shelter — a very Cold War feature. It was approached by a zigzag of walls — "to deflect the rays," Inger says. It was never stocked.
Walter retired from Reynolds in 1968. Inger went into real estate. And they continued to travel — Inger says she's been around the world 18 times — and welcome guests to their midcentury modern landmark.
In August 1997 the Rices were still entertaining grandly in dining room that Neutra had balked at designing. The occasion, which this writer attended, was Walter's 94th birthday. Twenty guests ascended the broad, floating staircase from the poolside terrace to the main floor and were ushered in for supper. They sat on Danish modern chairs and dined on Rose Medallion china. Inger had done the flowers herself, Japanese bonsai-style.
Toasting the celebrants, the former ambassador uttered his favorite maxim: "Work hard, play hard."
He died the following year and was buried on the island near the grave of a son who died in infancy.
Inger continued to live in the house until 2007 before moving to a retirement community. But in 1996, before her husband's death, the Rices had donated their house to the Science Museum of Virginia Foundation to ensure its preservation and continued use. It's now used for conferences, nature study, occasional architectural studies and is available on a limited basis for private events.
Five years ago the foundation restored Virginia's Neutra gem. The project involved a new roof, laying cork floors, filling in the swimming pool and making 21st-century, environmentally sound enhancements. And in a nod to code and safety inspectors, a railing was installed around the second-floor deck and reflecting pool that Neutra and his client had locked horns over.
Walter Rice probably would have found a way around it. S