So Long, George Seminoff
text and photos (unless otherwise stated) by Lynne Rostochil
As if the storms raging through the state yesterday weren’t bad enough, we also learned of the passing of George Seminoff, one of OKC’s most important and beloved architects. In addition to being an architect, George (and his equally gregarious wife, Sharon) seemed to be involved in one way or the other in almost every arts-related event in the city for decades, from George acting in Mummers Theater plays to the couple working to organize the annual Festival of the Arts, to George lecturing on the modern European architecture he found during a year-long, 14,000-mile trip throughout Europe and North Africa in the early 50’s. Wherever there was anything arty going on around town, you could certainly count on the Seminoffs being organizers, participants, or even chefs — as in the still-famous annual omelet parties hosted by George and Sharon that benefitted the Oklahoma Arts Center (now OKCMOA). Yes, those who knew George and his great generosity will certainly miss his fun sense of style, infectious laughter, and boisterous personality, as well as his boundless curiosity and commitment to living life BIG.
George’s architecture was very much like the man himself, elegant, charming, and full of surprises. After working for two years during WWII as a Navy radar technician, graduating from OSU, and working as a lead designer for Coston, Frankfurt & Short, he went out on his own and landed his first commission designing a home in Nichols Hills for John McConnell. The L-shaped, corner-lot home is composed of 60-degree, equilateral triangles (there’s nary a right angle in the entire house), a leather floor in a greeting area, and redwood roof beams in the living room that add depth and coziness to the modern space. Here are a few shots that were taken by Julius Shulman soon after the home was built in 1957:
Seminoff was heavily influenced by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright when he designed this home and said, “If you are going to copy, you might was well copy the best.” Well, that he did and in doing so, he created a timeless masterpiece. When the McConnell home underwent an extensive restoration and remodel in 2007, the new owners Cara and Robert Barnes’ only structural change was to remove the wall from the kitchen to the living room to open up the space more; the rest of the rooms were so well proportioned and laid out that they were left as originally designed. That’s saying something for a 50-year-old house!
After the remodel was complete, Metropolitan Home magazine came a-calling and featured the McConnell/Barnes house in an eight-page spread in its April 2008 issue. Here are a few photos from that article:
And, here’s the floorplan:
George (who by now had formed the firm Seminoff, Bowman & Bode) designed another modern home for the McConnells in Bethany in 1960. Although the house has a protective privacy wall surrounding it, it is comprised mostly of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto sprawling covered patios and a beautifully landscaped yard:
Another Bethany building that George designed is the First Fidelity Bank at the corner of NW 39th and MacArthur:
In addition to these buildings, George designed the Science Museum (formerly the Omniplex), several buildings at the OKC Zoo (where he was also on the board of directors), the Mark Allen Everett Dermatology Building on the OU Medical Center campus, and the Fine Arts building at OCU. Perhaps his greatest architectural achievement, however, was his own home nestled in the woods in the far northern part of town.
In the mid-50’s, George bought a parcel of land way out of town (back then) from a relative and, being a bachelor on a tight budget with no huge need for space, designed and built a small, one-room Miesian box. The house was compact but open and airy with a wall of windows (and an indoor tree) looking onto the backyard, which allowed for more living space.
There was also ample wall space for George’s growing art collection (that also included many sculptures scattered around the house and on the grounds). Note the portrait of George in his younger days on the left:
After George and Sharon married, they lived happily in the small house and opted to put in a pool rather than expand the living space … until they decided to have kids, that is. At that point, George added a bedroom wing to the house that provided ample space for their growing family. He later added a master bedroom suite that completed the 3,600 sf house and won George an OK AIA Merit Award in 1970.
Julius Shulman also photographed the Seminoff’s home, and both George and Sharon had fond memories of that shoot. Sharon recalled that Shulman arrived with suitcases filled with flashbulbs (yes, it was a different era, indeed), several lights, and his camera and equipment. George also added that he and Shulman were outside setting up the shot and listening to music from the car radio of George’s VW Beetle when the music was interrupted abruptly with the announcement that a tornado was headed their way. They looked up to see dark, dramatic clouds heading their way. The wind picked up, swirling and gusting the way that it likes to do so often in Oklahoma, but the two determined men continued to set up their equipment in spite of the weather and were rewarded when the twister barely bypassed them.
When he was ready to take his photos, Shulman asked George to turn on all of the interior lights and sit in a chair inside. He then asked Sharon to stand at the kitchen sink, something she said she was unaccustomed to doing because cooking was not her thing. Shulman got his shot in one take, and that was that.
When Sharon and George saw Shulman’s exterior shot of their house on the cover of Living Now magazine awhile later, they were amazed. Somehow, the master photographer had turned day into night by capturing the daytime sky in the background while showing the actual structure of the house in dark silhouette. The interior was brightly illuminated, creating a warm, homey feeling to the space that George and Sharon loved so much. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the magazine cover with this photo on it — you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it’s pretty spectacular.)
When Julius Shulman last visited Oklahoma City in 2008, he and George camped out on Cara and Robert Barnes’ sofa in the house that George designed and Shulman photographed and told happy stories of their adventures together, laughed like little boys, and posed for this one last shot together:
It was a glorious moment for both men, I think, to be honored and recognized in the twilight of their lives by so many people who genuinely appreciated their work.
A couple of years ago, Sharon and a declining George decided to move to Dallas to be closer to family. They sold their beloved home (which has been lovingly restored by Fitzsimmons Architects and was on the 2012 AIA tour) and left, and Oklahoma City hasn’t been quite the same since.
We will miss you, George.