When participants of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy 2023 conference gather in Minneapolis next month, they will be touring several of Wright’s built works in the area. These buildings include the Lovness Estate (1955), the Neils House (1949), and the Willey House (1933). Sadly, one Wright-designed house they will not be seeing is the one that Wright conceived in 1912 for Francis and Mary Little. Located on a bluff above Lake Minnetonka, this was the second Wright design built for the Littles. The first still stands in Peoria, Illinois. While the stone arch (not designed by Wright) shown in the animation below still stands on the Minnesota site, the second Little House is gone. Conference tour participants will see the site where it once stood.
Destroyed in 1972, the second Little House was the last major Wright-designed structure to be demolished. Before its destruction, many elements of the house were salvaged. Windows and other decorative items can be found in many public and private collections. Three spaces have been recreated in museums. The best-known of these recreations is the living room, installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The other spaces are the library, installed in the Allentown Art Museum, and the bedroom hallway, installed in the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
In order to better understand how these three spaces fitted into the original structure, I created a digital model of the house. In the process of creating that model, I learned about a significant change Wright made to the house during the process of designing it.
A Change in Design
As always, my first step in the process of understanding Wright’s buildings is to look at Wright’s drawings. This means examining drawings at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive at the Avery Library at Columbia University. These have been made available online through Artstor. There are 52 drawings available for the second Little House. Following these drawings, as well as photos of the house as constructed, I moved forward with constructing the model. The photos were critical to my goal of developing a model of the house as built that was as accurate as possible. One obvious difference between the drawings and the constructed house was that Wright’s initial design included arched upper windows in the living room. As constructed, these windows had rectilinear tops. Referencing the photos, I created what I thought were accurate representations of the square-headed upper windows. It was not until I began examining the drawings of the living room ceiling that I realized I had missed another important, but more subtle modification to the design than the change from arched- to square-headed windows: Wright had changed the number of paired windows on either side of the room from eight pairs to six pairs. This modification led to a significant change in the proportions of the room, as shown in the images below.
Locating the Surviving Elements
As I noted above, my initial impetus for creating this model was to understand the relationship of the living room, library and hallway. While we are fortunate to have these recreated interiors, they were not designed to be experienced individually. An example of this is the relationship between the lost dining room and recreated living room. A stairway led directly from the lower-level dining room to an anti-room on the upper level, then the living room. The living room was also known as the music room, and was used for after-dinner musical events (Mary Little was a concert pianist). The room, which looked out on Lake Minnetonka, cannot be fully experienced in a museum setting. This is not intended to lessen our appreciation for those who made the considerable effort to save the Little House interiors, once it was clear the house was going to be lost. Rather, it is said to heighten our appreciation of those buildings and interiors that remain preserved in place.
Today, the installation of the living room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has led to the space becoming one of Wright’s most recognized interiors. The library is preserved at the Allentown Art Museum. The bedroom hallway is a part of a larger display on Prairie School architecture and design at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that includes a built model of the house.
Along with Wright’s drawings, and photos of the reconstructed spaces, two sources of information were particularly helpful in creating the model. This video examines the loss of the Little House and provides some important glimpses of portions of the interior. Building Conservancy member Anthony Thompson visited the house shortly before its demolition. He has posted photos from his 1972 visit to the house on Flickr. Anthony has reviewed this animation and provided several comments on details, which, in conjunction with further research at the Met and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, I hope to follow up on. His most significant comment was that the bluff on the lake side of the house was much steeper when the house was there. Several years after the demolition of the house, the top of the hill on which it sat was was lowered to create the site for a new house. Information from current topographic maps I used to create the animation contours reflects this change.
This comment alludes to an important element of what has been lost in the demolition of the Little House: a thorough understanding of the house in relation to its site and its interiors in relation to one another.
Posted August 16, 2023