The Rouse House
In the early 1950s, Ben and Mary Rouse purchased slightly over one acre of land on Ridgewood Terrace in North Haven, a quiet town just a short drive to Yale University. At that time, the street was a short cul de sac with a handful of traditional houses. Later development subsequently pushed the street deeper and added several larger scaled homes and a new spur, Ridgewood Court. The Rouse site contained a reasonably flat pad on the downward slope of a small hill.
It is unknown how the Rouses selected King-lui Wu as their architect. For Wu, the Rouse commission would be his first built residential design. Concurrently with Rouse, Wu was also working on the design of the Benjamin DuPont house, which incorporated a completely similar design vocabulary but was not completed until 1957. The Rouse plan underwent a few modifications (including the removal of a large fixed window in the living room) but remained relatively intact from its inception. Drawings in the Wu archive dating from 1951 reveal that Wu was already experimenting with conceptual schemes for rectangular houses (with or without interior courtyards, depending on size). Four studies of plans for houses of 1880, 2100, 2250, and 2400 square feet indicate his thoughts at the time.
With the Rouses, Wu apparently found willing clients and by June of 1952, the design scheme was finalized. The 1450 square foot house would have two bedrooms for the Rouses’ young sons, Peter and David, with a playroom in between, a study for Professor Rouse (originally planned to be closed off when needed), a formal living room with fireplace, a master bedroom for the parents, a dining room and a central core containing kitchen and dual “shared” bathrooms.
The United Building Company of West Haven was hired as builder and construction began some time in 1954. In March of 1955, the New Haven Register featured the newly completed house. The house was built for $20,000, a cost considered moderate for an architect-designed home at a time when a tract house on a suburban lot could be purchased for considerably less.
The house was built of simple post and beam construction. On two sides, the exterior was clad with vertical Cypress siding, while two others had white-painted Cemestos building board panels inset beneath large plate glass windows. Two expansive sets of plate glass sliding doors were custom made for the living and dining rooms, each with redwood fly screens for summer use. Floors were maple block and stone. Vinyl tile was originally used on kitchen and bath floors. Built-in desks and bookcases were fabricated for both boys’ rooms and Rouse’s study. Wu cleverly inserted drawers in the walls between bedrooms and dining area. Built-in lighting was also provided in the study and above and below the wall hung kitchen cabinets.
Early photos published in the journals Perspecta and Architectural Record show what appears to be furniture possibly designed and built for the house. This same furniture appears in the New Haven Register article published shortly upon completion of the house. While there are no drawings for furniture specifically done for Rouse included in Wu’s drawings, the chairs and sofa are very similar to those of Wu’s later design. This furniture is seen placed in areas indicated on the plans. The architect’s daughter does not consider the furniture to be her father’s work. It is quite possible that the house was simply “staged” for photography since vintage photos found with the house show different furnishings of a more traditional nature. Two modern wall lamps designed by Osten Kristiansson in 1954 (winner of the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design Award) are seen in original photographs. It is not known what became of the furniture seen in the published photographs.
The color scheme was kept simple; all plasterboard walls painted stark white, woods left in their natural finishes, and interior Masonite siding under windows painted a rich, dark brown to further heighten the contrast with the view outdoors.
Wu explained his design philosophy for the house shortly after its completion in an article published in the New Haven Register. Wu believed that furniture, art and even the clothing of the inhabitants provided color and decoration, noting, “A house should be the background for people’s lives, and I would like to see it a background with as much calm as possible. Indeed, that is my concept of life - it should be calm.” Wu emphasized this by stating that a home should be a haven from the over stimulation of everyday life, especially American everyday life as he observed it.
The house remained in the family until the death of Ben Rouse on February 4, 2006 at the age of 92. He lived in the house for 52 years.