Lake Martin is muse for noted architect Bobby McAlpine

Carolanne Roberts

Architect Bobby McAlpine sounds almost poetic, his voice growing church-soft and, at the same time, kid-at-Christmas exuberant when he talks about lakes. It seems he loves them. He loves the trees that artfully frame them, the canopy of sky that arches overhead, the fact that nature plays out a palette of soothing colors – and the joyful reality that, again and again, he is called to design houses on lakes throughout the world. That includes dozens of houses on Lake Martin, his personal favorite.

The soaring windows of this Lake Martin home provide natural light and breathtaking views. (Susan Sully)

Listen to the love between the lines as he reflects on his affair with the lake: “I really find it to be a muse,” he begins. “As much as the water is present and the trees hold you as you witness the setting, there’s also a lot that’s not there – the town is not there, your hours and your minutes are not sold in little megabytes all day long, there’s no place to go, you’ve probably brought in your own food, and so your whole tuning gets recalibrated in that setting. I’ve found it to be a healing, curative environment to me.”

When you look at it that way, who wouldn’t want a lake house? When he arrives at his own home on Lake Martin (nearly every weekend), McAlpine admits, “A big, broad smile comes over my face. Every house I’ve had at the lake always seems terribly glad to see me when I walk in, so it’s almost an unsaid blessing or prayer.”

What he designs for the rest of us is a blessing as well. And it all started with his first visit to Lake Martin just after launching his architecture business at age 25. The magic took hold, significantly, on his birthday.

The patio wall uses rocks harvested from the area to further anchor the house to the landscape. (Susan Sully)

“I didn’t grow up on a lake – we didn’t have that as an asset circumstantially or monetarily in my early life – so my present to myself was a week on the lake alone to draw and listen to music. A friend of mine had a little original cabin, very primitive. A metal shower, no a/c, a giant box fan on wheels you’d roll around.”

The result? “I had never felt so at home in my life. I decided I wanted to build a house for myself on the shores of the lake,” he says.

It was the first of many lake designs, this boxy structure, almost a treehouse, with 44 continuous windows wrapping around all sides. “The windows never stopped,” says McAlpine, a big fan of windows that showcase views of water and woods. “Ultimately, it looked like a big sleeping porch or barracks made for a WPA project to sleep men who were building the dams. It was very much a house a boy would build for himself.”

By 25 this “boy” had designed hundreds of homes. Growing up in a series of Alabama sawmill towns, where housing was board-and-batten bungalow style – every one like the next – he started drawing house plans at age 5. “My little heart knew that the world was bigger than that,” he recalls. “I was always organizing and fantasizing about space. I became infatuated.”

He created his escape plans, his dreams on paper, every day; he also walked construction sites with his father, studying how things came together and savoring the feel and aroma of the industry. “I was an architect essentially long before I even knew what the word was.”

From here the timetable tumbles forward. The first design that came to physical life: seventh grade, a $100 commission from a rich woman in town. The first professional job: ninth grade with a local architect (McAlpine, excused from afternoon classes, reported there at 1 p.m. each school day). The official degree: Auburn University, which created a second major of interior design for its promising star, enabling two degrees in six years. “That level of concentration for somebody like me who was single-visioned and wanting to live the life of an architect was heaven,” he says of the Auburn years.

After his birthday-at-lake epiphany and then the house he called his own for 10 years, McAlpine took on his first significant commission on a peninsula in the Trillium area. “I borrowed parts and pieces from Adirondack, from England and from romantic structures I knew in my heart and created a house that immediately changed the temperature of architecture on the lake,” McAlpine says. “Up until the ’80s, the best houses you might’ve seen were more akin to Hilton Head, but now a lot of houses started shifting themselves stylistically to drift more toward the Trillium design.” 

The living room window in architect Bobby McAlpine’s home at Lake Martin perfectly frames the beauty of the lake and sky. (Susan Sully)

The essential mood was simple, stemming from a realization McAlpine has embraced from that first commission onward. “I think a lake is a very different kind of place, not where you drag your town wares and your ego to it,” he begins. “For me, the lake is church and sanctuary, so consequently I think one of the primary jobs of the house is not to show  itself any more than it has to, to live in the shadows of the trees and the banks of the lake and not change the setting.”

In other words, he doesn’t want a house to shout McAlpine, to look flashy or overly architectural; he almost wants it to melt into the landscape with its colors, its woods, its moods. “The water is the leading star – I think anybody in the world finds great solace in water,” he says. “I’m fond of the lake context because it is so richly layered. It’s not as harsh as the beach, particularly on Lake Martin with its very complex shoreline. Almost everywhere you look is a beautiful layered landscape painting for your eyes.

“So it’s the job of the lake house basically to be a camera, to frame that landscape for you and to do it in such a way that you don’t become obtrusive to your environment.”

With a respectful nod to the Russell Cabins, the little olive-hued mill houses from the 1930s, the architect bought two peninsulas at The Ridge on Lake Martin where he has developed a series of similarly fashioned homes. “I wanted to create a context of houses that would all wear the same clothing and were roughly the same size,” he says. “They’re all painted the same color – a sort of blackish brown – with wooden roofs. I looked back to my original house and did an adult version of what had been a boy’s house. These houses are great friends and the people who’ve bought the houses have become friends, too.”

Right now, McAlpine is busily building an Atlanta home for himself with “outrageous ideas to test the waters,” but he hints that a new Lake Martin house may follow. “I will be itching like crazy to build the consummate house at the lake that also bears witness to what I know now that I didn’t know before,” he says with a glimmer of promise.

While he may not know the actual design or even the precise location on the lake, McAlpine does vow one thing. “My goal is not to ruin the place I’ve come to love by over-designing. Because the great offerings of the setting, if you’re quiet and just witness what’s bigger than you all around, you’re going to be better for it.”


A read to anticipate

Between the designs, Bobby McAlpine is penning a book showcasing his work over the past half-decade. Its name is yet to come, but he allows that “I’m spending a few hours each week writing stories for it, which has been a lovely exercise for me.” Expect the book from Rizzoli Publications in fall 2017.

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