In the first couple of years after we bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Brandes House, in Sammamish, Washington, I noticed an unusual pleasure. In late January, the week of my daughter’s birthday, the large tree that stands outside our living room casement windows would bloom. That yellow-orange witch hazel marked the start of the blooming cycle of our winter garden, much of it planted and conceived by Mimi Brandes with the help and consultation of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Following that remarkable blossoming, which always led me to think of our own family’s winter bloom of life, and just to the tree’s left, the pink star magnolia would startle to life, a harbinger of spring. Soon, an inflorescence would follow on the next tree to the left, the gorgeous but tiny florets on our towering crimson maple, and then finally, in late summer, as a spectacular finale, as a completion to this gorgeous counterclockwise sweep around the living and sleeping quarters of the home, the delicate, elongated china white flowers on a multi-tiered dogwood would unfold.
A tree floricycle? I don’t know. Leave it to the experts to decide. I can only tell you that Mimi Brandes, the wife of the original owner and builder of Brandes House, was a landscaping contributor at Sunset Magazine and a master gardener. We know (from documents found at the Avery Library at Columbia University) that she worked with Wright on the design for the gardens and today we enjoy the now-mature results of her work.
But that is not why I am bringing up this fascinating tiny fact about our wonderful and difficult grounds. It is because of the start date — late January. While the trees still bloom in order, the date is no longer the same. That late January beginning for the witch hazel has crept earlier and earlier. This year, the first blooms appeared in early December, close to two months ahead of schedule. The winter bloom, which reminded me so much of the flower that is my daughter, was losing its tether to the seasons. Or perhaps it was trying to tell me something.
The “Heat Dome” in the Seattle area (which includes Sammamish) last July came as a surprise. But perhaps I should have expected it. Perhaps our trees were sending a warning. All of a sudden, it seemed, the state known for rain was facing days of parching, unprecedented heat. Why, I wonder, were we surprised?
In late 2015, Highland Park, Illinois, resident Gale Rothner drove down Lake Avenue and saw something that concerned her—a notice for an application to demolish the George and Alice Millard House, designed in 1906 by Frank Lloyd Wright. The prior owners had marketed the house for sale for more than three years, but were unable to sell it. Potential buyers gave feedback that the house needed a lot of work and it did not have the conveniences that 21st-century buyers expected. Financially unable to carry the house much longer, the owners applied for a demolition permit from Highland Park by July of 2015. This would allow them to clear the site and open up the property to new development. They received conditional approval for the permit on October 8, 2015. Having listed the house on its Wright on the Market website since 2012, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy actively worked to find a solution to save the house.
“I thought, ‘This house should not be demolished, something needs to be done!’” Rothner remembers. In response, she took the most direct action possible to save the house: She bought it. Four years later, the house is in a very different condition than it was when she took ownership. Rothner and her design and construction team, including architect Douglas Gilbert, have given the house new life by making major infrastructure improvements and sensitively updating it to meet contemporary expectations.
Rothner and her husband Eric live nearby in a 19th-century house that they brought back from the brink of ruin, so she was not a novice to restoring and renovating a historic structure. Each project has its own unique challenges, though, and the Millard House was no exception. The previous owners had worked with architect John Thorpe on a limited basis to upgrade the house. Thorpe, a longtime Conservancy board member and leader of its Advocacy and Technical Services Committees, was well known for his careful renovations of numerous Wright-designed buildings. Rothner planned to work with Thorpe on the Millard House. After Thorpe’s sudden death in January 2016, she turned to Gilbert, who had worked with Thorpe and also had independent experience on several Wright buildings. Her contracting team included Landmark Construction and subcontractor Felix Pacheco of Highland Construction.
John Waters, AIA, is the Conservancy’s preservation programs manager.
In late May I met with University of Southern California faculty members Trudi Sandmeier and Ken Breisch, as well Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation trustee Heather Lenkin, at Wright’s 1924 Freeman House in Los Angeles. Sandmeier, who is director of the Graduate Programs in Heritage Conservation at USC, is the current faculty liaison with the house, which has been owned by the USC School of Architecture since the mid-1980s.
The last of Wright’s Los Angeles textile block houses, the Freeman House is a fascinating site for the discussion of preservation issues. Soon after occupying the house, the Freemans brought in another major figure of 20th-century architecture, Rudolph Schindler, to make alterations, which he continued to do until his death in 1953. These modifications included built-in furniture, cabinetry and the altering of certain walls, as the Freemans adjusted the house to their lifestyles. Schindler’s interventions make for a complex site with a layered history, where preservation concepts, such as “period of significance” are not easily addressed. Additionally, the experimental nature of Wright’s textile blocks made them a challenging material from the beginning. Last, but certainly not least, the house suffered significant damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
On this visit, we were not only able to experience the spectacular view looking south from the living room down Highland Avenue, we examined the extensive reinforcing work done after Northridge to stabilize the main portion of the house. The process of reinforcing included the replacement of certain original textile block walls with reinforced concrete walls, the installation of steel trusses that span the living room roof, and, least conspicuously, the pouring of concrete caissons and piers that support both the house’s north, street-side wall, and the street itself.