This Is Proof That Less Is More
IT’S SNOWING the kind of snow that takes you by surprise. It’s morning, and the flakes falling from the mid-November sky are fat enough to leave a dusting on the ground, yet fragile enough to be gone within the hour. Luckily for those of us huddled inside this home, just off the Searcy Country Club’s 11th fairway, we’ve got a front-row seat, because what’s inside this home feels outside, and what’s outside feels … very much in. Just without the chill.
This house? It seems tailor-made for this—for feeling outdoors when you’re indoors. Maybe it’s the wall of glass separating us from the outdoor courtyard, where a fireplace blazes in the hearth. Maybe it’s the early-winter light flooding in through the skylights high above the two-story living space that is the heart of the home. Maybe it’s the simplicity of it all: how there’s nothing inside to detract from what’s going on in the great wide open. Whatever it is, you’d never guess that this home was ever anything other than what it is today.
And you’d certainly never guess that it used to be the garage-slash-guesthouse of a certain local ice cream magnate.
“WELL, ROGERS Yarnell had his estate for sale—a big house and a guesthouse,” John Rayburn says over the phone from Miami, where he’s waiting to board a boat bound for the Bahamas. “We were living in a 5,000-square-foot home about a mile away and were wanting to seriously downsize, so we weren’t interested. But when he decided he was going to sell the guesthouse separately? Well, thatsparked an interest.”
We should probably start by acknowledging that this, Rogers Yarnell’s guesthouse, wasn’t your typical guesthouse. For starters, it came with an acre of grounds overlooking the No. 11 tee box at the Searcy Country Club. And yes, there was an efficiency apartment involved, but there was also an oversized garage, and the entire upstairs was one big skylight-bright open room. It was big—almost 2,000-square-feet big. Or at least it was relatively big, because meanwhile, John and Jamie Rayburn were living in a French-Countrified estate that could have easily housed a soccer team. It had 4 acres of property and rooms upon rooms upon rooms, many of which were never used.
“There were two guestrooms and a theater room upstairs, another laundry room upstairs …” Jamie, who is also Bahamas-bound, pipes up on the line, doing a mental inventory of the home the empty nesters had shared for seven years.
“And there was a literal billiard room,” John says. “And what was that—a garden room?”
“I guess so?” Jamie says. “I mean, we brought our plants in there in the winter. And the elliptical was in there for a while!”
It had once served a purpose, this big house. But it had stopped being purposeful, so they’d had the place on and off the market for a few years. That’d given them plenty of time to mull over what they really wanted, which was this: Small. Cozy. A place where you could live outside even when you were inside, and vice versa. A place you could lock up and leave behind for the Bahamas and just … not worry about. A place with two bedrooms and an open living space that lived like they lived: simply.
“That house, it just kind of started to feel like a drag,” John says, remembering that weight—that heaviness. “We knew if we could create something simple, efficient, clean, the payoff would be immense.”
The payoff, you could say, would be the Bahamas—or at least what the Bahamas represented.
LITTLE ROCK architect Burt Taggart Sr. isn’t on his way to the Bahamas. Instead, he’s taking a mental trip back to his first meeting with the Rayburns, held right after they’d inked the deal on the Yarnell guesthouse (and after they’d peeped the Taggart Design Group website and had more than liked what they’d seen: simple, efficient, clean).
“As I’m talking to people, to clients, I’m trying to understand and absorb them,” Burt says of his process. “And I remember John and Jamie—they were helping, in a way, as we’re walking through their previous home, by saying, I don’t like this. I don’t like that. And it was clear to me: This house doesn’t reflect this couple at all. It was like Drizella trying to put her foot in Cinderella’s slippers. It just didn’t seem to bring any joy to them.”
What Burt saw at the Rayburns’ old place were the typical trappings of high-end builder homes: a standard checklist of “must-have” rooms that seem like a good idea on paper but hardly ever get used, a one-size-fits-all approach to program and personality. The new place, to him, had potential. Viewing it for the first time, he considered how he could take the raw materials he was looking at and transform them—how he could sculpt what he saw before him into something that would fit the Rayburns’ simple needs.
The new place, to the Rayburns, would be clean-lined and minimalist with a focus on natural elements—a direct relationship between the indoors and out—and it would be less than half the size of the old one. So while Burt got to work revamping the garage-guesthouse, they got busy with the business of downsizing, selling furniture and donating furniture and drinking the wine that didn’t make the this-is-all-that-will-fit-in-the-wine-fridge cut. Where they had five things, they chose only one—the best one, the one that brought them joy.
There wasn’t room in the new house for anything joyless, for anything that didn’t fit. And for Burt? This was top of mind as he sat down to the drawing board. “When I’m getting started, I’ll say, Show me a picture of what you want, but tell me what you like about the picture, through your eyes. And I want you to concentrate not on the details, but whether a room makes you feel good—and then let’s talk about why that makes you feel good,” he says. “If I don’t have that info, I’m just wandering in the dark. And I’ll likely just make another home that doesn’t fit.”
The first step—the “a-ha moment,” as Burt refers to it—was to essentially cut a hole in the second floor (the former ice-cream party room), reducing it by half and creating a towering, open living space that would be filled with light. “From there, I was playing sculptor,” Burt says, “trying to remove the clutter that didn’t fit into what we were trying to accomplish.” He pauses.
“That almost tells you everything you need to know.”
He doesn’t need to say much about the project because that’s how this project—this home, the Rayburns’—is: It’s quiet. There’s no checklist of unnecessary “must-haves,” unless those must-haves are two bedrooms, an open living space and a connection to the outdoors. There are no rooms that won’t be used, no property that needs maintaining. All the decisions were made in the name of simplicity and efficiency.
“It was a concrete floor when we inherited it, and it’s still a concrete floor,” Burt says. “The interior finishes, for the most part, are just like we found them. We didn’t doll it up. We just let it be what it wanted it to be.”
And that’s what the Rayburns tell me before they hop on that Bahamas-bound boat: It’s exactly what they wanted it to be.
I guess so! I say. You just locked up and left, right? Good timing, too. There’s more snow in the forecast.
They laugh. “Well, we kind of locked up and left.” Their English Lab, Max, is still at home, they tell me. He’s there with the dog sitter, likely looking out that wall of glass—the one that was once Mr. Yarnell’s garage door—and waiting for the flakes to fall.
(reprinted from Arkansas Life issue January 2019)