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?
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.
Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, has recently undergone a massive restoration. During the work a small group from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy went inside the heavy tarps covering the building and climbed the multistory scaffolding for a closer look at the work underway with restoration architect and Conservancy board member Gunny Harboe.
The exterior restoration includes concrete conservation, skylight repair, new roofing and drainage, door and window restoration, landscape restoration and exterior lighting. The interior will see restored historic plaster, replication of original finishes, lighting upgrades, art glass restoration, and wood door and trim restoration.
“The $23 million restoration of Unity Temple has been underway almost exactly a year,” says Heather Hutchison, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. “In that amount of time, thousands of pieces of wood trim have been catalogued and shipped to Peoria, the art glass meticulously removed, crated and transported to Los Angeles, paint finishes scientifically studied under microscope, concrete surfaces sounded and readied for resurfacing, and geothermal wells drilled down 500 feet on the narrow front lawn for energy efficiency and to provide air conditioning for the first time in the building’s century-plus existence.”
The restoration work is being completed in one phase, according to Harboe, and is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2016.
Visit the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation website to explore their extensive documentation of every facet of the restoration process through articles, photos and video.
View more photos from the Conservancy’s visit on our Flickr page.