Carter Sparks Magic

Drama, humor, and exoticism meld with redwood warmth for architect's quirky brand of modernism

yee rear viewFranklin Yee, a young surgeon, and his wife, Sandra, knew what they wanted when they sought an architect—sort of. "We wanted the unexpected," Sandra says.

That's exactly what they got—thanks to their architect, Carter Sparks, whose brand of modernism diverged in many ways from that of his contemporaries—especially in his taste for drama and the exotic.

Today, mid-century modernism is back in fashion, even in the aesthetically conservative Sacramento Valley. People who own mid-century homes are paying more attention to the style. In Sacramento, most of those folks live in homes designed by Sparks, thanks to his work for the Streng Bros. developers.

But that doesn't mean they all get what makes Sparks' work special. To many of its fans, mid-century modern has taken on a meaning that is simple—even simplistic. It means open plans, walls of glass, and easy access to the outdoors. But how about those architects, like Sparks, who brought something unique to the style—humor, exoticism, personal quirks—along with the Bay Area's traditional love for the warmth of redwood?

staircase

Mid-century modern, after all, was never a style. It was a catchall phrase to describe the work of individualistic architects whose styles sometimes converged—but often, thankfully, did not. The work of the woodsier among these architects is often ignored by mid-century fans. Wood-paneled walls are often painted white. That could be why Sparks (1923-1997), who never achieved fame during his lifetime, hasn't gained fame during today's revival. Woodsy modernism still isn't hip.

But Sparks has gained increased admiration from Streng homeowners, many of whom have tried to preserve their homes' architectural character while adding rooms or otherwise remodeling. Often, however, even with the best intentions, they end up losing some of the Sparks magic.

So, what 'is' that Sparks magic? And what did Sparks put of himself into his homes? One way to find out is to visit Sparks' custom houses. Even his largest custom homes bear much in common, both in attitude and detail, with the humblest of his tract houses.

For this purpose you couldn't find better owners than Sandra and Franklin Yee, who live in a two-story, four-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot home on just under an acre of land in suburban Sacramento. For one thing, the home remains remarkably unchanged since it was built in 1968. "Anything we added to the house would be detrimental to Sparks' design," says Franklin.

For another, Franklin seems to speak with the architect's own voice as he repeats some of Sparks' mantras. "When you walk into a house," Franklin says, "Carter wanted a sense of excitement. 'Most houses, when you walk in you know where the living room is, you know where the dining room is. I want you to walk into a home where you don't know where all the components are going to be. You want to wonder where everything is.'"

at the piano

The demands the Yees made on their architect were great. Sandra, who had lived in Berkeley, wanted something that recalled that town's Arts and Crafts shingled or wood-sided hillside architecture. Both Sandra and Franklin were fans of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Sparks' main influences.

Plus, Franklin says, "We liked a house to be multi-storied with a lot of balconies, and with redwood, like you were in a mountain place." They also needed bedrooms for their three children. "No long halls, no wasted space," Franklin says. "I wanted a sunken living room. And we wanted a very dramatic stairwell." And, of course, they wanted to spend as little as possible.

Then, the kicker. Franklin tossed in an odd demand. "We also said, if we were living in the era of George Washington, we would have a Colonial house with large columns. I said I wanted contemporary columns in our home." Columns, of course, are not something modern architects do—not, at least, in the pre-post modern era. But Sparks smiled, then started asking questions.

carter sparks