Introduction

by Timothy A. Eaton

Please be Crated

by Penny Fowler

Growing Up Wright

by Mary Anna Eaton

 



 

Growing Up Wright

by Mary Anna Eaton

 

I grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. It was not an ordinary home and mine was not an ordinary life I thank H.C. Price Sr. for his inspired commission of the Grandma House and I thank my father for acting on an inspired impulse to purchase it from the Price family ten years after its construction. My father thought its sturdy concrete block construction would hold up to his raucous family of eleven children. It did, and it did so much more. From the moment I first saw the color sales brochure of the house, I felt its undeniable presence. This house seemed to be alive, it spoke to me. Through the years it unfailingly enlightened and comforted me.

It's an odd thought really, that a house could comfort its inhabitants, not just through the iconic holding of memories associated with holidays or family events, but by its very nature. This ability to comfort was the intention of its creator, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his purposefully complex intersection of materials and light and geometry. The harmony of these elements gave me something to look at and contemplate in moments of disappointment and quiet, and what I saw was beautiful. The honesty of the materials-gray concrete block, deep red polished concrete floors, copper, brass and mahogany-were rapturously steadfast. Virtually every square inch of my home was captivating, every turn and joining, every expanse and punctuation was a lesson from a genius who took his own lessons from an arduous life-long study of Nature. I spent many peaceful hours in contemplation of the joinery. It was easy for me to get lost in thought studying how the glass windows turned corners seamlessly and then butted concrete block pillars, slowly stepping back with each successive row. Richly grained mahogany walls and built-in cabinetry met with glass and angular concrete block in a precise sculptural unity. Often there were no moldings to cover up the inevitable gaps and poor workmanship found in ordinary houses. These surfaces had to join perfectly and effortlessly, and they did.

Built in 1954-55, the HC Price Grandma House was the last private residence personally supervised by Mr. Wright before his death in 1959. It was built not far from Taliesin West, in Arizona, by the same construction company, Hoskell Culwell, whom Mr. Price Sr. had employed for the building of the Price Tower The symbiosis of builder and architect is evident and the workmanship distinguished and deserving of a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. The seven bedroom house is comprised of four separate enclosed structures in a linear plan which softens the distinction between indoors and outdoors. A massive atrium is the central focus of the house. With a dish-shaped copper fountain in the center, the atrium is framed by impressive corbelled cement block pillars from which hang twelve muraled doors, three pair on two opposite sides. A corbelled block fireplace with an unusually high opening punctuates the third of the four sides. Through a glass door adjacent to the fireplace one can enter the main bedroom wing at the end of which is the oversized master suite, entered through a narrow covered breezeway. Alternatively one can enter the living: dining and work space (kitchen) through a large expanse of glass doors on the fourth side of the atrium, opposite and offset from the fireplace. A lower loggia with a second smaller fountain is covered passage between this living area and two lower bedrooms, beyond which are four carports. The domed shape of the loggia fountain (an inversion of the atrium fountain,) is repeated on, the copper hoods of both the atrium and living room fireplaces, making lyrical counterpoints to the rectilinear impact of the house. From the atrium one can enter an upper play yard featuring a large triangular swimming pool with a generous shallow end. The lower play yard contains a triangular sandbox, echoing the pool Situated on the slope of a small mountain, the house slowly drifts down the desert site so that the journey from the carports to the master suite is increasingly yet unnoticeably uphill, via a series of wide deep stairs At three locations in the plan, stairs simply open onto the desert terrain with no particular destination.

There was a lot of going inside and outside in this house and consequently a lot of door slamming. Fortunately, the construction is remarkably solid and has stood up to much abuse. The exterior walls are standard gray concrete block, both straight and battered, with steel framed glass doors and casement windows, painted sky blue, above which rests a two foot high glass transom. Large flat roofs of varying heights, trimmed with ornately stamped copper fascia, overlap and appear to float unsupported over the glass transom. The deeply eaved roofs are in fact supported at intervals by slender steel columns emerging from corbelled cement block pillars resembling inverted pylons tapering to their bases. Small square cast-iron blocks, painted turquoise, are decoratively attached to the sky blue steel columns. The sand-colored ceilings, made of industrial Tectum panels (wood fiber with cement binder) are gridded by the flat lower flanges of steel beams, also painted a pale sky blue Through the continuous band of transom glass at the ceiling line, one can see this sky blue grid extending beyond the interior, effacing the indoors and outdoors Mahogany is used for the interior walls and the multitude of built-in cabinetry and doors, all of which are hung solidly with brass piano hinges. The joints of the exterior concrete block walls, planters and retaining walls are raked horizontally and flush vertically, stressing the horizontal forms of the house. These gray cement blocks established the horizontal and vertical units for the design of the entire structure. As was customary in Wright's Usonion houses, the poured cement floor slab is scored in a uniform grid which is evidenced throughout. At every turning these measured units intersect dependably, yet with variation. Growing up there, I learned to embrace the effect of all the expressed geometry and found it very reassuring.

True to its name and purpose, as a winter home for Mr. and Mrs. Price and their visiting children and grandchildren, the Grandma House was great fun for children. There were all the amenities children require, including a secret passageway making an alternate child-sized passage between the bedrooms in the main wing. I remember encountering this secret door my very first night in this wonderful place. The door was carefully cut into the grain of a mahogany wall which separated the middle two of the four bedrooms in this main wing. Only a small brass lock revealed its location. It was about 12" wide by 24" high. No adult would dare attempt its passage and it lent an added dimension to many games of chase and hide-and-seek that went on in those bedrooms. The first two and last two bedrooms in this main wing had interior doors which connected them as pairs. With this little door open a child could see and travel through the interiors of all four bedrooms and never enter the long hallway from which each bedroom had a traditional door.

The bathrooms in this wing were made for families. In one, Wright designed a fold-down changing table alongside a large shallow sink meant for bathing a baby. Another had a bathtub with two seats, making communal bathing more fun Each of the seven bedrooms had unique qualities about them with some advantage the others didn't have. Over the years, as I changed bedrooms, my view changed, enriching my appreciation for this master architect, his apprentices, and the craftsmen who carried out his vision.

My younger siblings and I spent countless-hours in make believe activities using all the stage-like qualities of this very large home. There are seven separate large cascades of stairs that provided inspiration for imaginative play. The atrium, with six pair of immense and exquisitely muraled doors by Gene Masselink opening to the desert view, was the ultimate theater for active children, complete with a balcony from an adjacent bedroom. I remember being told the balcony was designed for musicians, and of course as children we used it for everything, most memorably as a look-out post. Here in the atrium the desert rain would rush down from the large open skylight in the ceiling and splash recklessly into the fountain below, or wherever the wind carried it. You could say it rained inside my house. When I celebrated my wedding in this atrium we poured hundreds of balloons through this open skylight.

Mr. Wright designed eight upholstered recliners with large wood arm rests and copper trim for the atrium. It was a divine respite when the weather was good and the doors were open to a desert breeze. I remember many frantic rushes to close the muraled doors at the start of a desert rainstorm to save these chairs, and the doors, from a drenching. On the Fourth of July with the doors wide open we reclined in those big chairs to watch the fireworks show taking place on the golf course next door. Certainly Mr. Wright didn't arrange for this, but no one ever had such a refined viewing spot as we.

Crossing through the atrium was much fun for me as I developed a variety of methods to run and slide on the waxed concrete floors, or when the rain made the floor unslidable, I remember the long and careful steps I took to cross the slippery red wax, using the gripping texture of the fountain's concrete block border as a safety zone. The exterior stairs are shallow and deep, making gentle rhythmic patterns for walking. For me it was like dancing when I ran and gauged how many steps I could pass with one leap. My home was full of passages and so perforated by openings that living there I felt both freedom and privacy. When traveling the entire length of the house from the master bedroom to the carport. I could take an outdoor route or choose a variety of inside and outside routes, pretty much avoiding anyone. This autonomy was of great value to a teenager. Both the scale and the design of the house made it too much trouble to track down children, particularly if they didn't want to be found.

Entering the house was an adventure for the first time visitor, and an amusement for the family. The continuous band of windows in the living room gave us an advance view of the ascending head of a bewildered visitor whose intuitive journey never led to a front door but ended in a magnificent outdoor room, the atrium. By the time they had made it that far, visitors were usually too awestruck to remember why they had come in the first place. It was hard not to revel in the uncommoness of this house with the one exception of the impossibility of getting a pizza delivered. The house was somewhat isolated and hard to find in the dark because of its chameleon-like qualities. Mr. Wright did design a tall steel pole covered in dozens of light bulbs near the entrance, we called it 'the needle' But trying to tell a stranger to watch for the lighted needle was as awkward a task as instructing them to walk from the carport until they reach the atrium. A trained eye could see that needle from more than a mile away. Ordinary houses didn't have needles or atriums or loggias, mine did. From the many casement windows throughout the home we frequently saw students of architecture who were braving the scorching sun, usually on summer break, to clandestinely pirate a photograph from the eight acre site. They were always in plain view to us because the home has a commanding view of the surrounding desert despite its linear repose. These students' overwhelming gratitude on being invited inside was always a humbling reminder of my good fortune. They had made a pilgrimage, often from other continents, to study a masterpiece that I slept and ate and played in every day.

The Grandma House was wonderfully livable .Over the years I have always been perplexed by those who think Wright's homes are unlivable or, at the very least, strange. The only possible explanation is the poverty of their own experience. Living and growing up in that house, that place of beauty and serenity, was an unmatchable privilege. A common misconception seems to be about scale, another about eccentric omissions or inclusions, neither of which are true in my experience. All the rooms were big enough, all the doors tall and wide enough. We had a profusion of closets and cabinets and bookshelves and they were all beautifully made. The kitchen was designed around a large rectangular butcher block table underneath which are hidden three sturdy seats that swing in and out easily on rugged steel fittings. The countertops are stainless steel which aged beautifully and were indestructible. There is a lovely view from the kitchen sink where I often watched families of desert quail. Perhaps it is the uncommoness of Wright's buildings that provokes some people to speak ignorantly of them. After all, when our kitchen walls needed a cleaning, we sandblasted them.

With only a few exceptions, all the light fixtures we needed were built-in. Each of the corbelled pillars in the house has a flood light hidden inside that beamed up at night, intensifying the floating roofline. At Christmas time we switched the standard white floods for red and green. It was a remarkably fun effect. All the exterior walkways are lighted with multiple pathlights that could be controlled in numerous ways from a single light panel. Both the atrium and loggia fountains can be lit and turned on. The sound of the water was always uplifting and we turned them on often. I remember the pleasure I took in choosing which lights to leave on if I knew a guest would be arriving at night, lighting the house in a truly magical way. The natural light in the house is all indirect. It was, however, impossible to block the day light entirely in the bedrooms because the folding wooden shutters, as beautiful as they were, did not cover the glass transom. This made sleeping late difficult for those who required total darkness. I will agree that after sleeping in the house over a period of twenty years, there were a few mornings I really wished my room was completely dark. Still, visiting the house of a schoolmate was dreary by comparison and I missed the animation of my house with its honesty and the absence of concession to popular culture.

The Grandma House was the ideal spot for everything from slumber parties to grand receptions. It was as elegant as a palace and as comfortable as a cabin. This contrast was part of the brilliance of Wright's understanding of how we should live and how we do live .In the living room the upholstered hassocks were used with some abandon and shoved across the room on their wheels. The large wooden coffee tables were strong enough to support the weight of small children who were prone to breech etiquette by sitting on tables, and they were ideal locations for board games. Four daybeds are built into the north wall of the living room, one between each of the corbelled block pillars. It was common to find at least one younger sibling asleep there late at night. Here, Mr. Wright designed a place for the television to the rear of a low broad table, perfect for children and snacking. Even the stereo had its own hidden compartment nearby, pre-dating the now standard home entertainment center.

In his book, Working With Mr. Wright, Curtis Bessinger, the apprentice who created all the section and detail drawings for the Grandma House, recalls that the plan for this house grew from an earlier concept sketch in response to the proposition "How to live in the Southwest. " The north/south orientation and the deep overhangs of the house do in fact provide the ultimate in protection from the desert sun. Our shaded oasis was unlike everything else. In the chill of the desert night we could light a dramatic outdoor fire in the atrium with tall logs set on end creating flames that Jumped six-foot high, making use of the atrium for entertaining year round. After having himself lived in the desert for almost thirty years before the building of this house, Frank Lloyd Wright knew both the desert's majesty and its travails.

In a place so extraordinarily beautiful, the most ordinary daily tasks were made more enjoyable. The drudgery of a day spent lemon oiling the walls and doors and shelves, or the task of waxing and polishing the concrete floors with an industrial buffer was accompanied by a sense of pride. The results were well worth the effort. We had long handled squeegees to push the rain off the atrium floor and walkways. As I became an adult in this house I came to understand my role as caretaker in this living work of art. We never decorated the house, never bought furniture or carpets, knick knacks or bedspreads or lawn furniture. There weren't any curtains or wallpaper to update. Some years after we moved in, Taliesin was commissioned to refurbish the fabrics and the carpeting. The original color scheme was much duller than the turquoise, orange, green and gold they chose, but the new colors were very much in keeping with brighter palettes Mr. Wright had chosen for other homes of the same period. This new color scheme accentuated Gene Masselinks astonishing painted murals which masqueraded as atrium doors, filling the spaces between the atrium pillars. Exquisite treasures of their own, the murals are detailed configurations of colorful painted geometry, infiltrated with small bronze mirrors and gold leaf. Living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house can cure the inhabitants of their taste for the 'common', replacing it with a profound recognition of what is harmonious. For me, it set a standard that is rarely met in our culture. When it is, the qualities are certain to be spiritual, honest, harmonious and organic.

When I look at the many chairs chosen for this exhibition I am struck with a deep familiarity and a sense of intimacy. The chairs evoke in miniature the nature of Wright's organic architecture. Even chairs which were designed and built fifty years before my birth are somehow familiar and foretell Wright's genius for design. Some early designs, like the high back spindle chair, stayed with him all his life beginning with the chair he designed in 1895 for his Oak Park studio to the set of ten high back spindle chairs he designed for the Grandma House in 1954. It's easy to see the references in his, chair designs to the many houses and buildings he created, sometimes repeating and refining, and sometimes making a one-of-a-kind design. The chairs are condensed versions of the scale, proportion and honesty of material found in his architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright gave me invaluable visual lessons. The first drawings I ever remember making (at age 11) were of pyramids, spheres and cubes in composition, and I made many of them. This I'm sure was no accident, but a natural response to the compositions that enveloped me. These visual lessons were unavoidable and must have been absorbed to varying degrees by inhabitants of all of Wright's houses. My home was a perpetually accommodating still life to study and to literally draw from. The lessons Wright taught me easily translated beyond architecture After all, everything he knew he poured into his designs, the distillation of all his life experience was given to me as a gift. Writing this now, it is difficult to communicate to the reader exactly what made this place I grew up in so spiritually elevating. It's like trying to describe a walk in the woods. It wasn't just the visual pleasures or how the plan let me live so three dimensionally or how the desert embraced my home, it was the intrinsic totality Frank Lloyd Wright's complete artistic domination of my environment was the most freedom giving event of my lifetime because he took his lessons from Nature not from industry or fashion nor from idiosyncrasies or vanity Frank Lloyd Wright understood the power and sovereignty of the earth. His genius gave him the tools to impart this knowledge through architecture.

 

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