From October 20-23, 2023, I was able to visit eight remarkable Wright-designed houses in the greater New York City area and discuss with homeowners their experiences in the preservation of their houses. Each visit revealed a strong commitment by these stewards to the preservation of these unique structures. As is always the case when I am able to visit several Wright-designed buildings, I was awed by the idea that one person could design such a diverse collection of structures. From the Bertha and Sol Friedman House, to the Rebhuhn House, to the Chahroudi Cottage, each house displayed specific characteristics that set it apart from the other buildings visited.
Always aiming to economize on my trips, I able to stay with friends in Manhattan, walking-distance from both Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal. Each day, just like many of the homeowners, past and present, I took trains to suburban stops where the Building Conservancy’s stalwart volunteer Betsy Bray met me. Betsy drove over from her home on Cape Cod and acted as invaluable support (as she always does) and as my chauffeur. While we know Wright was no fan of the classicism of Penn Station and Grand Central, as I came and went from the city, I couldn’t help but remember architectural historian Vincent Scully’s quip after the demolition of McKim, Meade and White’s original Penn Station: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” Thanks to the efforts of preservationists in the 1970s, Grand Central remains as an example of the kind of experience lost when Penn Station destroyed, and as a reminder of why those of us who support historic preservation do so.
On Friday the 20th, Betsy and I drove to the Christie House (1940) in Bernardsville, New Jersey. There, owners Kiran Merchant and Genevieve Castelino enthusiastically described their stewardship of the house. They showed us the kitchen, which they sensitively updated to better accommodate Genevieve’s passion for cooking. We discussed possible supplemental heating options for the house, including discreet ways of installing split systems into the gallery leading to the bedrooms. Also discussed was the possibility of beginning a restoration of the exterior wood. Also of interest was Kiran’s 30+ years’ journey as an airport planner/architect and founder of Merchant Aviation. Kiran started his tenure at TWA with a passion to preserve JFK Airport’s TWA Terminal, designed by Eero Saarinen. This eventually led an adaptive reuse study that resulted in the restored TWA Hotel.
Genevieve, an architect and filmmaker, has contributed a video to the Building Conservancy’s Notable Women Homeowners Project. In the video, she reads from a letter from Lucille Christie to Wright, written as the Christies were planning to sell their house in 1944. The Christies had a contentious relationship with Wright during the construction of the house, but Mrs. Christie’s letter movingly summarizes their appreciation the house.
On Saturday morning, we were joined by Christine Denario and Dan Nichols, owners of Wright’s Sweeton House in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Dan is an architect and chairs the Building Conservancy’s Architectural Advisory Committee. He is an invaluable resource to me as I work with building stewards. We were greeted at the Richardson House (designed in 1941, constructed in 1951) by its owner Todd Levin. Todd is admirably carrying on the tradition of preservation begun by former Richardson House owners Edith Payne and her late husband, John. Todd’s projects have included landscaping the property. In conjunction with this, he has opened up the carport. This area had been enclosed for additional living space. It is now being used for its intended purpose. On the north side of the house, Todd has installed precast concrete units to create a patio. The concrete units extend the interior floor’s hexagonal module to the exterior, which can now be used more conveniently. On the interior, Todd is working with Dan Nichols to update the kitchen.
More of the Richardson House can be seen in this video tour.
At the 1937 Rebhuhn House (rhymes with tri-bune) in Great Neck Estates on Long Island, New York, we met with owners Amy Braden and Terry Horn. The Usonian Rebhuhn House is fascinatingly reminiscent of Wright’s Prairie-period work, in particular his 1909 Baker House in Wilmette, Illinois. Like the Rebhuhn House, the Baker House features an impressive double-height living room, which is anchored at one end by a fireplace and at the other opens up to the exterior through tall windows. Among the many subtle but important tweaks that Wright makes in the Rebhuhn House is to place the central fireplace on a 45-degree angle to the living room axis. This allows the fireplace at the Rebhuhn House to address both the large living room space and the more intimate library space, which is connects at a right angle to the living room.
Amy and Terry have owned the house for over 40 years and have devoted much care to it, but their radiant heating system has been failing. One of the motivating goals of my trip was for Dan and me to meet them to discuss options to augment their heating system. We will be working with the Building Conservancy’s Architectural Advisory Committee to identify options for additional heat. These options may include developing means, such as electric heat, to bring heat to locations of the house that are not easily connected to the utility space in the house’s small basement.
On Sunday morning, we drove to Usonia in Pleasantville, New York. Usonia, a community consisting of over forty houses, which was laid out by Wright in 1947, contains three Wright-designed houses. Our first stop was the 1949 Serlin House. There we met with owners Michael Pinkus and Julie Wilsker for a stimulating conversation about preservation. Michael, a classic car aficionado, made several interesting parallels between the restoration of cars and buildings. Julie and Michael are 2020 Wright Spirit Award honorees. They received the award both for their outstanding stewardship of the Serlin House and also for Julie’s leadership in the stewardship of the Usonia landscape.
We then went to the Reisley House for lunch with Roland Reisley and his partner Barbara Coats. Roland, who will turn 100 next May, is the last remaining original Wright client living in a Wright-designed house. He was a founding board member of the Building Conservancy and continues as an active member of the organization’s Homeowners Committee and as an emeritus board member. I find his perspective on the preservation of Wright’s work invaluable.
As a visit to the Hoffman House was planned for the afternoon, Roland told the story of a connection between the Reisley House and the Hoffman House. In advance of a visit to the Reisley House by Wright, Roland’s late wife Ronny quickly went out and bought an inexpensive set of outdoor furniture (from Gimbel’s) to serve as a dining set for the young couple’s minimally-furnished house. Wright took a liking to the chairs and asked Roland to have a set of them sent to Taliesin West. Roland did not take the request terribly seriously, but soon received a message from Wright wanting to know where his chairs were. Roland promptly ordered a set of chairs to be sent to Taliesin West. Wright went on to recommend to Max Hoffman that he get the same chairs for his house. The Hoffmans visited Roland and Ronny at their house, but Roland thinks it unlikely that Hoffman was very impressed with the set of garden furniture from Gimbels!
Wright’s 1955 Hoffman House, overlooking Long Island Sound, was purchased by Marc Jacobs and Charly Defrancesco in 2018 from Alice and Tom Tisch. As a part of the sales agreement, the Tischs requested that Marc and Charly donate a preservation easement on the exterior of the house to the Building Conservancy. Since the purchase, the house has undergone an extensive restoration and renovation. Marc’s assistant Nick Newbold has been the point person with whom I have corresponded as exterior work has moved forward. Nick and architect Andre Tchelistcheff kept me alerted to all plans for exterior work. This included modification of the swimming pool area so an unsightly fence could be removed, reconstruction of roof framing to remediate sagging eaves and replacement of the slate roof.
The purpose for our visit to the Hoffman House was two-fold: so I could review the work accomplished and to follow up on a request by Roland to meet Marc. Roland was a good friend of Tom Tisch and he wanted to continue the connection to the house. Marc and Charly graciously welcomed us, and while Roland, Barbara and Marc got to know each other, Nick, Charly and I made a tour of the exterior, including an up-close inspection of the new roof.
Bertha and Sol Friedman House
Betsy and I ended our day back in Usonia, welcomed by owners Brian and Jane Renz at the Bertha and Sol Friedman House (1948). The house has an unusual plan made up of two interlocking circles. Wright is well-known for the contrast between the spaciousness of his main living areas and the small size of his bedrooms, which the Friedman House takes to an extreme. The story-and-a-half-high living/dining room fills one of the interlocking circles, while small pie-shaped bedroom are cleverly inserted on both floors of the other circle.
Brian eagerly showed off several aspects of the house. This included taking me up on the three levels of the house’s roof. The roof structure is a complicated combination of inward-sloping concrete collars and wood-framed cones. The form can be seen in this section from the drawings in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives. Brian also showed me the inner structure of the ample fireplace that anchors the center of the house. On the exterior the Renzes have, at the suggestion of Julie Wilsker, cleared debris from the west side of the property to reveal the rock ledge that slopes up to the house.
Chahroudi Cottage and Petra Island
On Monday, we drove to Mahopac, New York, to meet Joe Massaro, the owner of Petra Island in the middle of Lake Mahopac. Joe took us in his boat to the island. The island is the location of two Wright-related structures.
One is the Chahroudi Cottage a small structure designed by Wright and built for A.K. Chahroudi in 1951. Constructed of desert concrete, the cottage’s plan is based on a triangular module and consists of a living/dining room, kitchen (work space) and three bedrooms. The structure is anchored by two vertical concrete forms, one that contains the workspace, the other that contains the chimney for fireplaces in the living area and the primary bedroom. Interior walls rise to a datum at 7′-2″ and are open to the interior framing of the hipped, wood-shingled roof. This roof framing is exposed on the interior and provides significant visual interest. Joe has done quite a bit of restoration on the cottage, and it is currently in very good condition.
Near the Chahroudi Cottage is the Massaro House. To build the house Joe Massaro worked with architect Thomas Heinz. The design is based on plans Wright did for the Chahroudi family for a house on the site. The house, as it was completed by Joe Massaro, is not without controversy. Wright completed only a handful of drawings for this large, complex house. Many details had to be interpreted from Wright’s other work. Contemporary building codes also required changes in construction. Some in the Wright world find the methods developed for translating these details unsatisfactory. But there are also many moments at the house worth experiencing. The approach toward the house from by water is exhilarating. The entry to the house, with a living-rock outcropping on one side and a concrete-framed skylight above, is unlike any of Wright’s built work. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Building Conservancy do not consider the house a work by Wright. That said, a visit to the house with an open mind is not without its rewards. The differences one may see from a work constructed during Wright’s lifetime create an opportunity to learn more about Wright as an architect.
Each of the properties I visited in New York and New Jersey communicated an important message about Wright’s genius. Each property also communicated the dedication of these homeowners to the buildings they steward.
Posted November 1, 2023