House of Pods

The unique, sculptural “Mushroom House” located in Perinton, near Rochester, has been an attention grabber since it was built in the early 1970s. If you watched the way cars slow down to catch a glimpse of it, you’d think it was the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a herd of Romulus white deer. Its funky connected “pods” were designed to resemble the flowers and stems of Queen Anne’s lace, although to outside observers they look like mushrooms. Today, this unusual landmark at 142 Park Road is for sale. Here’s its story.

Umbels and pedicels

In 1969, Robert and Marguerite Antell, an attorney and artist, respectively, bought property next to Powder Mill Park, known for its steep hillsides, creekside meadows and wetlands. It’s an oasis in the suburban rush of nearby Route 96.

Marguerite wanted her home to be personal and meaningful – full of natural beauty and sunlight, free from constraint and intimate with art. To interpret her vision, she and Robert selected Rochester architect James. H. Johnson. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Johnson had studied with Professor Bruce Goff, known for combining unusual materials in unexpected ways to create buildings that were futuristic and plantlike.

Building it was an enormous undertaking. Four 80-ton pods and one balcony rest on variable-length concrete and steel stems that rise from a ravine. The stems vary in height from 14 to 20 feet, and taper up from 5 feet at ground level to 3 feet at the top. Johnson’s trademark was his use of earth forms and sand moldings; builders Peter Strong and William Ashton made the stems in molds they dug in the ground on the site.

That was the easy part. The problem was getting the pods to the top of the stems. “After several failed attempts, the decision was made to construct the pods in two parts, a bottom and a top,” says the Town of Perinton website. “The pod bases were formed in 30-foot ‘pie-pan’ molds of concrete and polyurethane. Lifted into place, they were reinforced with concrete and steel rods, and a rim of the same materials was added for stability. The tops were molded over a hill of sand, reinforced and insulated, and successfully moved into place. Steel and concrete floors connect the segments.”

On the inside

All of Johnson’s architecture, whether it’s a church or an office building, reflects a unified, integrated, artistic expression accomplished by using local Rochester artists, including potter and ceramist Marguerite Antell. In the Mushroom House, a banquet of art begins in the foyer with Marguerite’s hand-fashioned porcelain lighting fixtures and sculptured walls inlaid with colorful glass dots. They sparkle in the sunlight and shimmer in the moonlight.

There is no question that the three-bedroom, three-bathroom, 4,168-square-foot home is designed for entertaining. Throughout the decades the Mushroom House played host to benefit functions and private parties. On a tour of the home, I could picture men in leisure suits and women in large-floral-print dresses and platform shoes, meeting and greeting one another in groups that overflowed onto the patio pod that overlooks a tiered waterfall.

Throughout, the experimentation with geometric design works with the warm brown hues, textured walls, lampshades and the molded furniture that frames the lighter walls and ceilings.

Time for a change

The Antell’s sold their home in 1996, and since then it has had only two other owners. Current resident Steve Whitman is Marguerite’s nephew. In 2001, Whitman and his wife, Christine, commissioned original architect James Johnson to create a great-room addition overlooking a creek, waterfall and outdoor hot tub. It links to the original house by a Gaudi-inspired tunnel decorated with Marguerite’s tiles and the work of local artist and sculptor Pepsy Kettavong. The free-form tunnel and stairs are illuminated with tiny recessed lights like stars. Some claim that a stroll through this shimmering stretch takes years off your age. Stop into the guest bathroom for a look in a mirror framed in red glass and decide for yourself.

by Kay Thomas

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