In tune with gothic: Local rock musician's new house sings with height and drama

schandler@newsobserver.comApril 26, 2013 

  • The house and the man The house

    Location: Pittsboro

    Date completed: 2012

    Designers and builders: Tonic Design + Tonic Construction, Raleigh

    Square footage: 3,158 (plus 1,100 square feet of garage space)

    Land: 50 acres

    2013 home value: $524,563 (not including the land)

    The man

    Michael Rank’s house may be new, but he’s no newcomer to the Triangle.

    The New York City-born musician moved to Chapel Hill as a child and, aside from touring and a brief stint living in California, has been in the area ever since.

    In the 1980s, he started Snatches of Pink, a Rolling Stones-influenced band whose beer-soaked garage punk sound landed them gigs with the likes of the Ramones, Iggy Pop and Soundgarden.

    More recently, Rank, 47, fronts Stag, a band that retains the Stones’ influence but adds a little more twang, with help from Triangle music luminaries such as Chatham County Line’s John Teer, Mandolin Orange’s Emily Frantz and John Howie Jr. from the Two Dollar Pistols and the Rosewood Bluff. The band released “In the Weeds” – the album art features Rank’s front staircase and an interior hallway – earlier this year.

    Rank’s latest venture is a radio show called “The Dust Hand Sessions,” described on its Facebook page as “tracking the songwriter/outlaw imprints found in country, folk, bluegrass and rock ’n’ roll.” The show airs on WCOM-FM in Carrboro 10-11 a.m. each Friday and can be streamed live online at wcomfm.org.

On the cover of his latest album, singer-songwriter Michael Rank walks down a dramatic concrete staircase that appears to lead endlessly upward behind him.

But that staircase does end eventually – right at his front door.

The stairs, the front door and even Rank himself are striking elements of a 3,200-square-foot modern gothic home that at once contrasts and complements the rolling, wooded land on which it is situated outside Pittsboro. The home recently received a Design Award from the Triangle chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and it is expected to be part of a tour later this year hosted by the Triangle Modernist Houses group.

Rank has owned the 50 acres for decades, but his earlier attempts to build a dream house there were “a discouraging experience,” he said. He envisioned sort of a “gothic cathedral,” he said, but when he asked builders for their ideas, “their bids came in full of fear.” So he put his plans on the back burner.

But last year, at a friend’s recommendation, he contacted Tonic Design and Tonic Construction, a design-and-build firm based in Raleigh that specializes in modern homes.

“I was really taken with the way they use space, especially small space, and made it not feel small at all,” he said.

Katherine Hogan, a partner with Tonic, said Rank had a clear idea of what he wanted, visualized in “stacks and stacks of images from magazines that he had collected.”

“He really liked gothic architecture, which seems to contrast the modern concept,” Hogan said. “But what we tried to do is try to understand the elements of the gothic that he liked and then reinterpret it into the style that he really wanted.”

What he really wanted was tall vertical spaces, high ceilings and dramatic stairs. And, despite his frequent appearances on stages in the Triangle and beyond, he also wanted privacy, which is why the home is nestled deep within the wooded lot, with no other houses in sight.

You may have to dodge wild turkeys out for a stroll as you approach on the long gravel driveway, but your eyes will immediately be drawn to the house itself. It’s four stories tall, sitting on a concrete base with black metal siding wrapping the top two stories.

The windows, spaced irregularly on all four sides of the house, echo the building’s tall, narrow shape – and the occupant’s passion for music.

On an early diagram of the home’s design, Hogan wrapped a tiny rectangle of wood with a piece of paper dotted with musical notes.

“The windows become kind of notes on a music staff,” she said.

From outside, the house appears strikingly narrow, echoing the tall trees around it.

But inside, the feeling of narrowness falls away. The living room sits at the base of three stories of sunlit space that is crisscrossed by metal stairways and walkways floored in industrial steel grating to allow glimpses of the room below. Along the walls, open hallways are lined with ledges that hold Rank’s extensive art collection – much of it procured while touring with his bands, Snatches of Pink and now Stag. A black, white and gray color palette unifies the home and lets the artwork and architecture take center stage.

Hogan described the house as both raw and refined, a duality reflected in the scribbled numbers and pencil marks visible on steel beams supporting the interior stairs as well as on the walls flanking the staircase leading to the front door. While most people moving into their new home would want those notations erased, Rank insisted they be preserved.

Rank lives in the house with his 6-year-old son, Bowie, who “really digs it a lot,” Rank said. But Bowie has his own opinions on some of the design decisions his father made.

“I think he wishes it was purple,” Rank said.

The home’s flooring is dark gray bamboo that’s both handsome and eco-friendly, but the main draw is the smooth surface it provides for Rank and Bowie’s nightly “slip-and-slide races” in stocking feet.

In quieter moments at home, Rank focuses on his music, and he said he’s found plenty of inspiration in the house since moving in last fall.

“I’ve written a whole new album here,” he said, noting that most of his “good spots” are on the front end of the house, which offers views down the long driveway. “I’ve written some of the best songs I’ve ever written.”

It’s a bit early to say whether the house will make another appearance on the cover of Rank’s next album, but it seems sure that it will, in some way, figure into the music and the spirit of the work he creates there.

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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