Following the footsteps of Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio school around the corners of Alabama begins with a trip to the Pie Lab in Greensboro for us. After polishing off some quiche in the courtyard, I sidled up to the counter hoping to get directions to Mason’s Bend. The lady behind the counter didn’t know, but she knew someone who did. Before long, I was speaking on her iPhone to a man who provided the following directions:
Take Highway 14 from Greensboro to Sawyerville. Once you pass the only blinking traffic light in Sawyerville, take the next left (might be Highway 15). Follow that road all the way on out until you pass a huge mansion. A little futher, the road will continue as a dirt road or a hard top- stay on the hard top which veers left.
Grandma Vicki used the spotty cell phone reception to consult Google Maps as we drove. Between the two of us, we balked at the rolling green hills and hot orange dirt while trying to figure out which roads we needed to follow. Max chirped up from the backseat that “This is like an awesome puzzle and we have to find our way with a few clues.” The thrill of the chase kept us laughing- it also kept our eyes and ears attuned to the landscape and world around us in which any road might be “the one clue”. I’m convinced that we learn so much more from these pilgrimage outings combining verbal directions with slipshod maps than any perfectly-planned field trip.
When I explained to Grandma Vicki that Rural Studio uses “local ingredients”, including clays, dirts, salvaged materials, and metals, she expressed the oft-repeated question of how dirt houses withstand Alabama thunderstorms. Little did we know that our adventure would provide a first-hand experience of exactly this building lesson.
The last thing I remember before the zombie apolcalypse is that we turned left onto Mason’s Bend Road. Before we knew it, a bright orange dirt road stretched out before us in a curve that could only be called “Mason’s Bend”. And there it was.
The Glass Chapel- a transportation stop, community gathering space, chapel for the local choral group, and distribution center for children’s summer school meals- made from car windows salvaged from a Chicago scrap yard provide set atop rammed earth walls. Anderson Harris, owner of the Butterfly House, donated the land for the center and before his recent death tended to its garden.
Max and Micah visit the Glass Chapel, a community center in Mason’s Bend.
Inside the Glass Chapel, which once held picnic tables.
A close-up of the exterior Glass Chapel walls.
The Basketball Court at Mason’s Bend
The Basketball Court was completed in 2000 around the same time as the Glass Chapel. The same rammed earth technnique was used for the court shelter. One difference is in the composition of its creators; the Basketball Court was the first Rural Studio Outreach project which brought together students from different disciplines.
Grandma Vicki poses with the kids near the Basketball Court which is currently missing a basketball goal.
The Butterfly House at Mason’s Bend
On the right at the beginning of the bend stands the Harris/Butterfly House, built for Anderson and Ora Lee Harris in 1996. Its name comes from the sharply angled roof structure that collects rainwater and shelters a screened porch. The house is largely heated and cooled passively, with assistance from a wood-burning stove. The roof’s “tail” funnels rain into a cistern, which is used for washing clothes and flushing toilets. The house is now occupied by Anderson and Ora Lee’s children.
The water spout just barely misses the bird bath, probably intended for less furious showers.
Chance encounters are my favorite kind, and we just chanced upon a young lady standing on a porch with her children. I asked her if it was alright to photograph the Glass Chapel, and she said, “Of course.” We got to talking about the Bend, her kids, the basketball court that used to sit behind her house before the balls kept landing in her windows, and her mom, who lived a few houses away in the Butterfly House. When I asked if there was some way we could contribute money for local kids to maintain the Glass Chapel, she called her parents, Daniel and Lori Harris, one of which I presumed was a descendant of Anderson Harris.
As the kids exchanged cockadoodles with a handsome rooster strutting across the road, Daniel and Lori Harris appeared- warm smiles, welcomes, no concern for the clouds just beginning to shed a drizzle overhead. While the drizzle turned to a shower (my first shower of the week, I confess), Daniel and Lori told me how we could could help the community of Mason’s Bend maintain the Glass Chapel and the Basketball Court. They gave their name and number, and Max immediately began drafting a poster to collect money for Mason’s Bend- for upkeep and to add a playground/basketball area for the kids.
The Green (Dirt) House at Mason’s Bend
Turning left onto Green Lane will lead you to the Green Dirt House and the Willie Bell House.
The Green Dirt House bore a group of 8 children, possibly Greens, playing on the porch, but the rain drove them back indoors.
The Green (Dirt) House, completed in 2005, was marked by fantastic overhanging eves which protect the dirt blocks from the elements and its inhabitants from the hot summer sun. Experimental blocks made of newspaper and Hale County red dirt molded into papercrete form the exterior wall that bears no load. Papercrete is a construction material composed of pulped paper, clay, and cement and has existed since the early 1920s, but has never been used extensively. As such, the wall is an experiment and consequently is protected by a big roof and does not carry any load.
The central column clad in metal serves as a towering chimney. Based on common African building techniques, the tower is located above the kitchen and creates a natural convective current by causing a pressure gradient — warm air rises and is pulled up and out the column while makeup air is pulled in creating cooling breezes.
The Willie Bell House at Mason’s Bend
In 2005, Rural Studio students tried their hand at a more disciplined project using conventional lumber and a standard box frame. The Willie Bell House next door to the Green House was the result. We saw brightly colored bowling balls on the front lawn, but the house itself was very difficult to see in the rain.
The barely-visible Willie Bell House.
What we missed at Mason’s Bend
The advent of a torrential downpour kept us from visiting the Harris Hay Bale House, completed in 1994. With 24-inch-thick walls constructed from stacked hay bales enveloped in concrete stucco, this house is a model for sustainable insulation. Hay bales act as a highly effective insulator, economical, and mildew- and mold-resistant. The awning windows pull air off the large front porch and form a natural convective current for cooling the home in the summer.
The Harris Smokehouse was made from broken concrete salvaged by the Hale County Highway Department. It was built for a total of $40 and now functions as a henhouse. The roof is made of salvaged road signs and beams from a local barn. Glass bottles are embedded in the walls and glow when seen from the inside. Mockbee dubbed the smokehouse style “Alabama Ronchamp”. I was hoping to see the special “bricks” up close and nab Mr. Shepard for a chat.
We also missed the Manor Bryant Seed House, 1999 thesis project for Rural Studio also located at Mason’s Bend.
The thunderstorm waltzed across the state with us as we drove Grandma Vicki to the airport.
Topsy-turvy clouds= cheering kids in the car.
If you’d like to help the community of Mason’s Bend, please send an email to rainscented @ gmail dot com. Include your name, suggestions, and possible donations for a playground.