Though I may work as a historic preservation professional, my love affair with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t baked in. It took many years and in-person visits to discover the mastery of his work. I am by no means a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar (yet!), but I love sharing my experiences in discovering his architecture in the hopes that others may do so too.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
As a young girl who grew up in Brooklyn, I can remember many visits with my parents into Manhattan, where I loved to look at the architecture. The city was amazing – filled with buildings of all different styles, time periods, heights, and appearances.
As my love for art and architecture grew in my teen years, I spent countless weekends traveling into the city to visit my favorite museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a place I never tired of, from its stunning Beaux Arts façade to its ‘building in a building’ (the current Met envelopes the original Calvert Vaux design), to the modern Temple of Dendur room overlooking Central Park. A visit to the Met was an immersive experience for me, with beauty and antiquities everywhere I looked.
In my senior year of High School I became more interested in modern art and was encouraged to visit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. The building was in my opinion, unbelievably ugly. In my eyes it looked as though aliens created it, and may very well have been dropped from the sky. It was not visually pleasing to me at all.
I figured that since the museum was so talked about that it must have some amazing attributes waiting inside. Despite my disappointment at the exterior, I was still excited to enter the building and view the collections. Again, I was not impressed. I did not understand the concept of walking the continuous spiral ramp to look at the artwork. I was used to walking slowly through beautiful galleries and taking the time to sit on benches and just soak in the artwork. The continuous spiral ramp made me feel as if I wasn’t supposed to stop, and that rushed feeling impacted my ability to appreciate the art.
I also really didn’t like the way the spiral ramp made it appear to me like the art was crooked on the walls. I simply could not enjoy it. I learned that the building’s designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, was famous the world over for his architecture. I couldn’t understand why.
Frank Lloyd Wright A Religious Experience?
In graduate school I took a course on American Architectural History. My professor’s name was Dr. Dale Allen Gyure. I remember him launching into a discussion on Frank Lloyd Wright during his lecture one day. I thought, “Oh, that’s the architect who designed that awful museum in the city…”.
As Dr. Gyure delved deeper into the discussion, I could tell that he really, really, really liked Wright’s work. A LOT. At one point he likened visiting the Wright designed Robie House in Chicago as a “religious experience”. I was perplexed. Here was an instructor who I really respected, who was an expert in his field, and I was questioning his assessment. I realized that perhaps I was the one missing something. After all, Dr. Gyure was a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar, and was working on a book about Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Florida Southern College campus.
Approximately a year later I found myself in Pittsburgh visiting a friend, and had a free afternoon. I knew what I had to do. I booked a tour and boarded a bus headed to Mill Run, Pennsylvania to visit the Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr. House, more famously known as Fallingwater. I was determined to give Frank Lloyd Wright another chance. The tour bus left visitors off quite a distance from the house, and it was an enjoyable walk through the woods to get to there.
Upon entering Fallingwater, I immediately knew I was somewhere special. I had never been in a building that so cohesively brought the outdoors in. Everything felt so organic and natural, and the forest felt like it was part of the home.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was when the guide opened one of the corner windows, revealing no corner supporting post! My mind had never even conceived of a building with no corner structure. We were in a bedroom that was actually quite small, and the simple act of opening that window made it feel so expansive. I was in awe of the outside-indoors design of the living room, and the fact that there was an open staircase that hovered just above the water of the falls.
When I learned that every single interior item had been conceived by Wright – furnishings, décor, textiles, I thought about the kind of imagination, vision, and organization that it would have taken to pull that all together, and how harmonious it all felt to me.
Even though I knew Fallingwater was designed in 1935, it was so hard for me to believe it. It was so forward thinking of a design, I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told me it had been constructed in the past decade. It dawned on me that Wright was designing buildings 50+ years before their time. It’s safe to say my opinion of this famous architect was improving.
Darwin D. Martin House
Several years ago I visited Buffalo, New York. This was my second visit to this beautiful and historic American city, and I looked forward to doing just as I had on my first visit – viewing Niagara Falls, driving through historic neighborhoods, antiquing, and eating great food.
I learned there was a Wright designed home in one of the historic districts, so of course I had to go. As I traveled towards the Darwin D. Martin house, I enjoyed looking at the Victorian era homes I passed. Upon viewing the home for the first time, my jaw just dropped. The home’s design stood in stark contrast to all the other buildings in the neighborhood. It didn’t strike me in the same negative way that viewing the Guggenhiem for the first time did, because even though the building was completely out of context for the neighborhood, I found it to be quite exciting.
As with Fallingwater, this home felt very organic and harmonious, and in fact, felt grounded to the earth – as if it belonged there all along.
There were so many cool design elements to the Martin House it would take too long to list. The attention to every detail was mind blowing.
I remember walking into a room and peering around a corner and seeing the thinnest sliver of a stained glass window I had ever seen, only several inches wide. This was in a location that is only visible if one is looking for it and I thought, “Wow, that’s art!” Wright didn’t have to go to that level of detail in his design, but he did, and that design detail was my favorite of all.
I also loved the light fixtures. They were so futuristic looking, they reminded me of something out of Star Wars.
I learned about the restoration of the Martin House during my tour and couldn’t resist purchasing a replica brick and roof tile while I was there. If you learned about what lengths the restoration team went through to get everything just right, you very well may purchase some bricks and tile too.
By the end of my visit to the Martin House, I realized I had that “religious experience” Dr. Gyure had spoken about years before. Being in that home made me feel as though I had to whisper, and left me with a profound respect for Wright’s vision. I was again struck by how ahead of his time Wright was, and still have a hard time wrapping my mind around that fact that this home was built between 1903 – 1905.
Florida Southern College
I began to wonder, “Are there any Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Florida?” I learned that a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home was on the campus of Florida Southern College and I couldn’t wait to see it. As luck would have it, a dear friend of mine grew up in Lakeland, Florida, where his mom had been a professor at the college for many years.
On a visit to Lakeland with another friend in preservation, we were able to get a private tour of the campus from her. Design of the campus began in 1938, and ultimately twelve Wright designed buildings were constructed over the course of approximately twenty years. The campus contains the largest collection of Wright’s architecture in one location.
The first building completed on campus was the Annie Pfieffer Chapel. Construction began in 1938 and was completed in 1941. This is another Wright designed building that is so futuristic in appearance it made me immediately think of a sci-fi movie. At the same time, the geometric patterns and shapes reminded me of elements I have seen associated with ancient Mayan culture.
The building’s sharp edges and geometric shapes are brilliantly punctuated by the colored block and stones set within the windowless walls. This was another building that surprised me so much. I had never been in a space like that.
My favorite part of the campus quickly became the Usonian House, constructed in 2013. The house was posthumously constructed based on Wright’s 1939 design for homes that would house the college’s live-in professors. The home serves as a visitor center and exhibition space, and I would dare say – art gallery too.
As with Fallingwater, the interior furnishings and décor are in harmony with the structure. And as with the Annie Pfieffer Chapel, the interior is brightened by the colorful blocks and stones that pierce the walls.
With each visit to a Wright designed building, I appreciate his vision and mastery more and more. I look forward to discovering even more of the innovative architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Christine Dalton, AICP is a Historic Preservation consultant specializing in community planning, heritage tourism, downtown revitalization, and civic engagement.