Bobby McAlpine is part mystery, part magic. Equally as at home in Atlanta as he is at his retreat in laidback Lake Martin, the renowned architect is perfectly coy about who he is when the day’s design is done and he’s just “Bobby.”
“I’m reminded of a line from an old movie made by David Byrne, this sort of nutty, wacky thing, and he’s a business evangelist in this movie, painting this picture, selling this vision, and he says, ‘Pretty soon, we won’t know the difference between weeks and weekends, between working and not working,’” McAlpine said, with a chuckle. “And, I really am that guy. I really don’t know the difference.
“I’m not a workaholic. It’s just so integral to what I think about and the walk I walk. It all goes into one camp pretty much for me: Church, spirituality, everything is this work for me. And, it really does me right and feeds me well. I have a lot of faith in what I’m given to do so I am not overly diverse in my interests.”
McAlpine grew up in an Alabama sawmill town, where he designed his first home at the tender age of five. He founded McAlpine House in the early 1980s, creating evocative stories in the form of residences, chapels, restaurants and follies on both public and private land. His portfolio is extensive; his accolades, irrefutable.
He is a regular in Architectural Digest, Veranda, House Beautiful, Elle Décor and Southern Living, a name among the greatest on Architectural Digest’s AD100 and Elle Décor’s A-List. His books, “Poetry of Place” and “The Home Within Us,” are as beautifully crafted as the homes that received his touch in northwest Florida.
He first became acquainted with the area through Seaside, Florida, which he described as a “slow-brewing” community in the Panhandle, a precursor to the idea of tightly-knit homesites and shared spaces that are the hallmark of the New Urbanism movement. He got his first commissions in the early days of Rosemary Beach, one after the other, ultimately building three homes in a row on the Eastern Green.
“That was great fun and that did tremendous damage to my greed in that we accidentally got to control the context of what the community would become,” McAlpine said, with a hint of humor in his voice. “My monopoly game was to the third power.”
McAlpine’s initial work on 30A came prior to spinning storms that bear human names, making demands about what housing along the coast could or should be.
“Most of these beach communities are now serious, very serious architectures so that these houses are like vaults,” he said, describing them as structures built more in line with old European standards, designed to withstand harsh environmental elements. “They are as invincible as they can be in their structure. There aren’t any rickety shacks or trembling cottages, which we also love, being built down there.”
The design-build journey at the beach is markedly different, McAlpine said, from other markets his firm has been privileged to work in — from New York to Tennessee and Georgia and back again.
“You know, even the most conservative person in the world lets their hair down at the beach and walks a little more on the wild side, if they have one,” McAlpine explained. “And, their houses are more liberal in how they function and how open they are.
“I think those houses in town are built, more often, by imperative dreams and standards. But, when you put yourself into another context, the beach intrinsically invites variety and fantasy and you tend to live a little closer to the truth of who you are,” he continued. “But, it is as whimsical as it is not a frivolous context either because of how serious the construction is.”
He won’t name names or, rather, addresses, but he does admit to having a few favorites among his 30A creations: A home he described as modern with a long, two-story glass wall overlooking a courtyard, a build that “wasn’t over-programmed”; a Cape Dutch petite in stature, a “mini bouillon cube of beauty.”
But, for all the times he’s had his hand in creating beach dwellings, he said that his work here is “odd” for what he’s generally known for, primary dwellings and houses of an English derivation. The beach here, he offered, is both a laidback escape and an urban context — townhome spaces that could appear anywhere, but just happen to sit between Alys and Rosemary Beaches. McAlpine said these beach residences share both similarities and differences.
“They shift from person to person but, in general, these second homes tend to be addressed looser from the clients’ viewpoint. This is not the house that needs to say everything that they want to be seen about themselves,” he offered. “This is a house, and because this is a house, it has way more license to become a great house.”
What drives McAlpine, he said, is creating a space that is “dead-on accurate” to who the clients are and where it is situated. He eschews inspiration from the world, focusing instead of who is in front of him and that story to be told.
“I have been lifelong cautious of looking for inspiration outside of myself. I don’t trust it,” he said. “Until I feel like I have a sound understanding of what the DNA is for this house and these people, I don’t look to the world at all for things. Each of us, in particular, and as couples are real contradictions. It is that non-linear, organic machinery you need to think of when you’re listening.
“If you’re very curious about what’s to come before you, you leave your agenda outside the door.”
McAlpine is known for mixing and borrowing from all cultures to pair things that have perhaps never met stylistically. What fuels his practice are the concepts of timelessness, beautiful stewardship and responsibility to both his clients, future homeowners and the earth.
“I want everything we do to have that inheritable trait about it, where they would never go out of style and they are untrackable to their real age. They have a timelessness about them, beyond fads and trends and whatever is going on in the moment,” McAlpine said. “I look beyond the client that’s in front of me, too. There is the potential for beautiful stewardship for this structure beyond them. That makes it a responsible investment for them. It makes it responsible for the world. Those are things any parent, I suppose, would feel.”
The journey homeowners take in the design-build process is not unlike the journey McAlpine himself has taken countless times over his nearly four-decades-long career.
“Here’s the thing that’s so incredible about what I get to do with my life. What I’m given to think about day and night, all my life, are people celebrating their lives. You couldn’t have a steady stream of people walking toward you better than that.
“I’m not an attorney, people walking toward me whose lives are falling apart. I’m not a doctor,” he continued. “I get invited in. It’s great therapy for me and I don’t ever want to get over it. I’m 63 and I feel like I’m just starting.”
To learn more about Bobby McAlpine and his work or to purchase his books and hand-crafted furnishings, visit mcalpinehouse.com.