John Randal McDonald was born in 1922 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He served as a navigator in the U.S. Navy in World War II before pursuing a degree in Architecture. After a brief stint in the Fine Arts program at Milwaukee Teachers College (today’s UW-Milwaukee), McDonald earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Yale University in 1949. McDonald studied under some of the greatest American architects of his time including Louis Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and other modernist masters while at Yale. Yale awarded McDonald its highest honor, the Winchester Fellowship, to study abroad. He declined the opportunity and instead returned to Wisconsin with his wife Josephine and their daughter to begin his practice in Racine.
John Randal McDonald constructed his first house in 1949 in Racine, Wisconsin. McDonald lived in the house with his family for several years before moving to another home he designed in Racine. McDonald also designed several private, public, and religious buildings in Milwaukee and Kenosha. Initially, his designs were predominantly for private residences. However, as his success and reputation increased, McDonald was commissioned to design monasteries, hotels, factories, dormitories, schools, and churches across the country and abroad. His work has often been compared to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Once, in an interview he referred to himself as “the poor man’s Wright.” McDonald emphasized the importance of a natural setting and the use of natural materials. He encouraged homeowners to be more aware of the elegance of a natural environment, thereby making them more sensitive to nature.
After returning to Wisconsin, John Randal McDonald began immediately designing homes for clients, often young professionals that wanted a house quite different than most others, but the house had to be built within a limited budget. These affordable, distinctive designs were best described by the materials he designed with: wood, stone, and glass. Some describe this as Organic Architecture – McDonald liked to call it American Architecture. He considered his designs so “honest” that a room should look attractive without a single piece of furniture in it. From 1955 to 1958 McDonald contributed eleven “Guide House” designs to the bi-annual publication New Homes Guide which provided house designs by some of the nation’s most talented architects for readers to review. Construction drawings could be ordered from the architects for a modest fee and the reader would build or contract for construction from these plans. While John Randal McDonald designed over 60 homes for families in the state of Wisconsin alone and hundreds around the world, he believed that beyond this direct client work, the New Homes Guide enterprise helped fulfill his ambition. Apprentices were kept busy sending plans to customers and claim to have mailed working drawings to locations in all 50 states.
With his continued success, McDonald expanded his business and moved to Florida in 1963. He designed at least two homes in Temple Terrace, Florida. At one point, he became well known for delivering the styles of Frank Lloyd Wright at a comparably affordable price. McDonald was successful throughout his life. He designed homes for various celebrities such as; Bjorn Borg, Mickey Mantle, Perry Como, Jimmy Connors, James Garner, and Maureen O’Hara. During his career, McDonald had many apprentices; the last was Tom Bloczynski of Marshfield, Wisconsin. Bloczynski remained his apprentice until McDonald suddenly died in 2003 and completed his unfinished projects.
This mid-century modern home in Birmingham, Alabama was constructed in the 1960s and designed by John Randal McDonald. The house has the distinction of being the only one he designed in Alabama. Like his other work, McDonald designed the home as affordable informal living with the living room, dining room, and kitchen combined into one open space. The terrazzo floors, exposed brick, and an abundance of skylights help bring the outside elements indoors. The home had a host of unique features including, a partially flat roof, narrow hallways, no overhead ceiling lights, and the most prominent feature – a sunken hearth fireplace for close sitting. Sweeping lines give the two-bedroom, two-bath 1,500-square-foot home a much larger feel. The children’s rooms are in the center of the house and divided by a folding door that makes separate rooms for sleeping and opens into a large daytime play area. The master bedroom had sliding doors to the porch on one side and a closet on the other. In the rear of the property, A 1960s Chevrolet Corvair belonging to the previous owner rests nearby a large inground swimming pool. After the owner died, the property sat vacant for years. In March 2021, the property was sold to local investors who began a renovation shortly after.
More photos of the McDonald House in its abandoned state are featured in my upcoming book, Abandoned Alabama: Exploring the Heart of Dixie, set to release on October 25, 2021. The 96-page paperback includes over 140 photos from 11 locations across the state. You can read more about it and preorder a signed copy here.
After months of work, I returned to the McDonald House in September 2021 to see the renovation progress. The home is almost complete and ready for a new owner.
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