EOA architect transforms a midcentury mainstay into a modern masterpiece

By Hollie Deese

Photography by Reeves Smith and Julia Steele

Not everyone can look at a ranch house and see how such an innocuous shape could be transformed into something magnificent, but then again, not everyone is an architect.

So when EOA Architects partner Michael Murdock and his wife, Carol, were relocated to Nashville for her job in the health-care industry, he knew they had a winner when they found a 1960s ranch home on a hill on four acres in a quiet part of town.

“There were 10-foot ceilings in the main living space, so it had some good bones,” Murdock says. “I love ranch houses because they’re kind of innocuous, and you can do a lot of things to change them. We wanted to obviously do contemporary, and you can transform a ranch house and make it work.”

And transform it he did, adding about 1,500 square feet to the existing 4,000, all done in stages, to make the space much more workable for the way they live every day. First up was removing the back deck and adding the sunroom, a feature they were used to from their time in California.

So out the deck went and in came the stone walls, fire pit, fountain, waterfall and sculpture adjacent to the two-story sunroom.

Initially, Murdock says, the home’s layout didn’t really take advantage of the site’s many mature trees, so they ended up changing the entrance to open it up to the view — giving a better sense of the trees and all the property has to offer.

“With the renovation, the key thing was not to take down any trees, so we totally built around the trees,” he says. Literally. There is a tulip magnolia that becomes a focal point at the entry, especially when it blooms every April.

Behind the property is a wildlife preserve deeded to the Friends of Radnor Lake by John Cheek Jr., so the result of the lot is not unlike the feeling of being in a treehouse.

“The truth is in ’95 I was like, “Okay, we’re still kind of far from downtown,” he jokes. “Now, you say, ‘Oh, we’re really close to downtown.’”

In the living room the windows were already large, but they took out the bottom quarter of the trusses to get more light in and to increase the feeling of space.

“We were trying to create something where we felt like we could use the whole house,” he says.

Before he and his wife had children — Kate, 23, and Colin — they did quite a bit of traveling and art collecting. Once they moved to Nashville they began to pick up pieces in earnest, especially by local artists.

“Wherever we traveled, we would buy something as a kind of memory of that, and art is something that we both could really engage in,” he says. They still travel to Chicago every November to collect at the Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design Fair (SOFA).

The house features a mixture of blond and red woods, and they chose white as the dominant paint color to embrace the variation in natural materials.

“The big theme of the whole property was the four elements, fire, water, air and earth,” he says. “The property is on a hill. The idea of water was a big thing for us with the aquarium here, and so we custom-designed it.”

Murdock knew in eighth grade he wanted to be an architect, even though he didn’t know then that’s what it was called. Then in high school he was in a drafting class and drew a house for his girlfriend at the time that was very much like the one he grew up in.

“In my first year of college, I had a Greek professor who taught a history and introduction to architecture, and the whole world just opened up,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh, so this is what architecture is,’ which is not really about building a shelter, but inspiring wonder.”