A registered architect and the owner and restorer of the Wright-designed J.A. Sweeton House (1950) with his wife Christine Denario, Dan Nichols was raised in “the most banal raised ranch box ever to come from the pencil of a builder on a donut shop napkin,” but seeing Wright’s Dudley Spencer House (1956) in Wilmington, Delaware—as well as his parents’ encouragement to see out great buildings—had a profound influence on him. “The house was along my parents’ route to a Sears store in Wilmington, Delaware. I can remember being of elementary school age and always looking for that house during the drive, as I thought it was the greatest house I’d ever seen,” says Dan. “It was even before I knew who Wright was.”
What was your first experience or earliest memory of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture?
It was even before I knew who Wright was. Wright’s 1956 Dudley Spencer House was along my parents’ route to a Sears store in Wilmington, Delaware. I can remember being of elementary school age and always looking for that house during the drive, as I thought it was the greatest house I’d ever seen. When I was 9 or 10, I learned who Wright was in the pages of an old Arizona Highways magazine I found at my grandparent’s house. A subsequent trip to the local library answered my question if the house I’d admired on the way to Sears was designed by the architect I’d ‘discovered’ in the Arizona Highways magazine.
What work of architecture that was demolished really affected you in a personal way?
In high school, I saw an exotically exciting little brick building on a corner of Market Street near 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. I learned the building was by the 19th-century architect Frank Furness, who once employed Louis Sullivan. I found a book of his work hoping to seek out more buildings to see. I was saddened to learn that much of Furness’ work was demolished, among those demolished were some of his best.
Is there one work of Wright’s that has touched you more than any other?
Other than the Spencer House, which was a touchstone for me, and the Sweeton House, which I have restored, Fallingwater has great memories for me. Upon learning that the house was open for tours when I received Donald Hoffman’s book as a gift for my 13th birthday, my mother arranged for my father to take me there as soon as tours resumed in the spring of 1979. The father-son road trip we took to see the house is one of my fondest memories of my dad. About 20 years later, I took Christine on a road trip to Fallingwater, where I proposed to her in the pouring rain. Yes, I am a romantic ‘archigeek.’
What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve been a part of as a member of the Conservancy?
Sharing my experiences of our ‘restovation’ of Wright’s Sweeton House with other Wright homeowners. [Wright building owners: read Dan’s article “A Sensitive Restovation for a Modest House”]
Can you describe a favorite memory over your years with the Conservancy?
The 2016 Out and About Wright trip to see some of E. Fay Jones’ work in Northwest Arkansas was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. Meeting other Wright homeowners and hearing stories from original Wright clients and those who knew him at Conservancy conferences have been valuable experiences as well.
How has living in and restoring a Wright house influenced other parts of your life or career?
As an architect, the restoration of a Wright house has been a great puzzle to solve. For instance, how to make a given detail more durable, but maintain the same outward appearance. This experience has made me a more skilled detailer of buildings in general.
Has meeting and networking with other Wright homeowners had an impact on your own home?
Definitely. Seeing other Wright homes built in the same era as ours helped me with the ‘restovation’ of our house. When in doubt, I used the original details of our house as a ‘pattern book’ for the work to be done, but where we were proposing a condition that hadn’t existed in our house before, I looked to other Wright houses to see how Wright achieved a similar goal. Seeing the Penfield House was particularly helpful.
Can you share your favorite memory of living in your Wright home?
Waking up in the middle of a cold winter night and walking into the living room of our house and being bathed in blue full moonlight. Standing at a wall of French doors looking out at tree shadows on cold blue snow and a star-filled sky with my feet warmed by Wright’s red heated floor slab.
Posted February 25, 2017