Q&A: Norman Askins reflects on his storied career and his first book

Atlanta’s veteran classicist releases Inspired by Tradition this month
Though created over a couple of decades, the homes featured in Askins' book, Inspired by Tradition (Monacelli Press), appear timeless. Text and principal photography are by Susan Sully.
Though created over a couple of decades, the homes featured in Askins’ book, Inspired by Tradition (Monacelli Press), appear timeless. Text and principal photography are by Susan Sully.

Photograph by Susan Sully/Courtesy of The Monacelli Press

In many ways, Norman Davenport Askins inherited the mantle of classical architecture directly from Atlanta icons Philip Trammell Shutze and Neel Reid. As a boy in Birmingham, Askins fell in love with traditional style and was a “closet classicist” during his days at Georgia Tech, when modernism ruled the architecture school in the 1960s. Graduate training in architectural history at the University of Virginia was more to his taste, leading to work at Colonial Williamsburg. Askins established his own Atlanta practice in 1977, and his stamp is on many of the city’s finest homes. This month he releases his first book, Inspired by Tradition. We talked with him about the project.

Are you considering retiring anytime soon?  I’m seventy-two, but I plan to keep on going. Every day is still so much fun.

You’ve trained a lot of other architects. Eighteen firms have started out of this firm, and they’re all flourishing: Yong Pak and his partner Charles Heydt, of course, Stan Dixon, Ross Piper, Jack Davis. There are so many. I’m proud of all those guys.

Photograph courtesy of the Monacelli Press

You’re known for stressing “appropriateness.” What does that mean? If people want windows to the floor, a Georgian house is not going to work. If they want high ceilings, an English cottage is not going to work. Windowpanes need to be proportional, whether they are tall or squat, square or horizontal. Everything has to do with the period of the house.

In your book, you talk about designing houses that look like they evolved over time. We make up a storyline. Maybe the house started as this, then they added an outbuilding or two, and then they connected them. It makes the house more interesting. So you can have a Georgian house with huge windows in another wing; it just looks like they were added on later. You can cheat. Otherwise, you can get a really big box that looks pretentious.

While you were in Virginia, I hear you got to work on the White House. During Nixon’s administration, we redid some of the offices and the cabinet room. The president invited us to the White House for a photo the day before Thanksgiving. We were sitting there waiting with Willie Nelson, and in rolls a cage with a turkey. We thought we were next, but we got upstaged by an albino turkey.

Have you ever had a client you couldn’t work with? That happens. But most people who want the kind of stuff I do are house people. They want a really good-looking house—not everybody does, you know. Usually those are kind of nice people.

Do some people want a big house just to show off? Even those people are nice. It’s just that they’re misguided.

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.

Advertisement