William Morgan, Dune House, Atlantic Beach Architecture

Treehouses, Pyramids and Sand Dunes: The Unusually Fundamental Architecture of William Morgan in Atlantic Beach

If you’ve marveled at some of the loveliest and quirkiest homes in Atlantic Beach, or if you’ve thought certain houses in the area seemed more like natural formations, chances are, you were admiring the architecture of William Morgan.

To refer to Morgan’s architecture of the 1960s through the 1980s with that current catch-all phrase, “mid-century modern,” misses his conceptual blending of architecture with environment. When Morgan’s designs don’t reflect natural shapes and contours, they reflect older human habitations that do. He has crafted museums that echo Pre-Columbian terraced mounds and savings banks inspired by the ancient American Indian city of Cahokia in Illinois. And he’s built homes in the form of treehouses, pyramids and sand dunes.

In the early 1960s, Morgan began to play with cubes, walls of windows, and whimsical geometric symmetries in a number of house and apartment designs at Jacksonville’s beaches. Then, in 1971, he perched a lovely, six-level, cedar-sided pyramid gracefully among the Atlantic Beach sand dunes, with well-sheltered receded walls of windows peering out to the ocean. He made this his and his family’s home. The terraces of oceanfront windows admit light into the red-cedar central interior from many levels, including the wide band of clerestory windows, 30 feet up from the living room floor. You feel simultaneously as though you’re in the belly of a great ship and that you’re buoyed up lightly in the dunes and ocean light.

Though Morgan’s residence takes its form and situation from the sand dunes and cabbage palms, it’s the Dunehouses next door that most deeply inhabit the beach. Built in 1975, the two separate houses peek from the dunes toward the sea like open, earthen eyes. While Morgan’s home rests lightly in the folds of the beach, the Dunehouses are buried in its sand and sawgrass. Their sloping exterior and rooflines are covered in green grass, and it’s easy to walk the beach past the Dunehouses without noticing them.

Each house is built like a pod within its dune but comprises two levels, an upper bedroom with steps which curve and flow down into the living room and kitchen area. Outside the glass-walled and glass-doored front wall is a small front porch, from which each house opens upward and out into the dunes and toward the sea. Though the Dunehouses, as wide as they are high, are built of concrete, Morgan contoured the entrance concrete softly into planks of blond wood. Each Dunehouse is a nest, a womb, and its front yard is the entire beach.

Central to Morgan’s work of the 1960s through the ’80s is the Golden Proportion. His designs work with curves and spirals and slopes in relation to the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci Series, the spiral whose proportion is 1:1.618. When I first met Morgan in the early 1990s, we stood in the great center of his pyramidal residence, and he named several natural structures that adhere to Golden Ratio: the tusk of the narwhal, the spirals in pine cones, certain sea shells, and daisies, the double helix of DNA. A square added to the long side of a rectangle produces a Golden Rectangle. He told me it was inaccurate to refer to his own home as a pyramid. More accurately, the design consisted of two massive triangles that met to form an A-frame. I’ve never possessed the math to connect that to Fibonacci.

Morgan’s 1983 Atlantic Beach Treehouse, at 1970 Beach Avenue (a perfectly symbolic address for Morgan’s residential architecture), stands just westward of his 1982 Goodloe Townhouses, and offers a view of the ocean from behind but above the oceanfront townhomes. For, while the townhouses spread wide into the dunes like the spacecraft so much “mid-century modernist” architecture resembles, the Treehouse stands a third-story cube atop a two-story pyramid, with cedar siding amidst the palms that surround it, to offer an ocean view from the far side of Beach Avenue. The Treehouse presents Beach Avenue its backside, making its presence even more inconspicuous than that of the Dunehouses, but its third-story balcony off the glass wall of the living room fulfills, in the words of architectural critic Paul Spreiregen, the concept of the treehouse as “one of mankind’s most ancient urges.”

About Tim Gilmore

Tim Gilmore is the author of several books, including In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People and Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic. He's the creator of www.jaxpsychogeo.com, which features nearly 250 stories about significant places across Jacksonville, Florida. He teaches Literature and Composition at Florida State College at Jacksonville.