Friday, November 15, 2013

Did Mr. Wright Get It Wrong?

Don't misunderstand me -- I love Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of American architecture, the creative genius who championed an "organic" style, blending his Prairie School houses into their surroundings, melding the inside and the outside, using clean horizontal lines and beautiful art glass windows, with even the furniture matching the home's design elements.

I've visited Taliesin and Taliesin West, his home and studio in his native Spring Green, Wisconsin and his adopted winter encampment in Arizona.

I first saw the Guggenheim Museum when I was in high school and stood a long time looking up to the ceiling with the circular levels, reminiscent of nature's take on the inner structure of a snail shell.

I've read the best selling Loving Frank by Nancy Horan and marvelled over Wright's larger than life personal saga--- three wives, one 'love of his life' mistress, a horrific fire and murder scene at Taliesin, bankruptcy, rebirth, a life spanning almost 92 years.

His own parties were legendary. He died in debt but left a legacy of a new way of looking at architecture and his often quoted "Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves" neatly summarizes his vision of life. 

But, I had never visited homes he built for other people until this past weekend. Pleasing the customer was not part of the deal and his projects routinely ran over budget - it was only money, after all, and more importantly his client's money. Clients were only too eager to comply, since owning a Frank Llloyd Wright house was the newest status symbol and Wright's magnetic, persuasive personality was a force of nature.

South view of Martin house
During a wonderful weekend with college friends, we visited the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, a complex of five buildings begun in 1903 for a self made man, Darwin Martin.  Buffalo then was the 8th largest city in the US, situated at the end of the Erie Canal, booming with business and boasting more millionaires than any other city. Martin was a businessman with Larkin Soap Company and also solicited Wright to build the Larkin Administrative Building, Wright's first commercial building.

Darwin Martin became enamored with FLW and they considered themselves friends, even after the preliminary smaller house he built for Martin's sister came in well over budget. The next phase included a much larger house for Isabelle and Darwin Martin on the same one acre property with some truly beautiful features. Wright considered it years later to be his "opus" and the complex "a well-nigh perfect composition."

The charismatic Mr. Wright had convinced the Martin's to sell their Victorian home and move to this open space in the Parkside section of Buffalo. The family moved into the new house in 1905 and the last workmen left in 1907. That must have been a trying two years. With a controlling personality that would put even Steve Jobs to shame, FLW was notorious for requiring that clients sign a detailed (and unenforcible) agreement that they would not change even the placement of his originally designed furniture in the house.

View from the smaller Barton House
Our two hour tour encompassed three houses: the middle class smaller home of Wright's sister (Barton House), the big Martin house and the small gardener's cottage. Our docent was wonderful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. While I marveled at the beauty of the house-- the detailed, patterned windows; the arresting view from the vestibule down a long hall to the Greek statue of Nike in the conservatory; the open floor plan, uniting the library, living room and dining area by means of a framed wood ceiling; the fireplace decorated with delicate glass pattern; the unusual half brick that dominated both inside and out, I kept asking myself one question.

What would it be like to live here?
We don't know if Darwin and Isabelle ever complained about the reality of living in the house. Can you imagine Darwin back from the soap company after a long day and Isabelle yelling down from the bedroom:
D.R. chairs; corners of the table had elaborate light fixtures (not shown)
Is that you , Dar? Crap, my back went out again, so I'm stuck in bed, staring at these freakin' wisteria windows everywhere I look. I blame those straight backed chairs -- they're killing me. I had the ladies for lunch. Gertrude couldn't find the front door and Mamie accidentally knocked the corner table chandelier off not once but twice during lunch. She's a klutz, but, really, you can't even pass the food with those 2 big lights in the way. Believe me we needed them today, though. So cloudy and the house so dark- depression city.

Highly unlikely conversation, but I could see from our tour group's questions that I wasn't the only one imagining living here.

Reception room with those infamous barrel chairs! 
Why is the furniture so small?  asked one young man.
(and uncomfortable looking, he didn't add)
It's not really, said our tour guide. Maybe people were smaller then. We had yet to supersize everything in America from our food to our furniture. Nothing like a cozy barrel chair.

Why are there no closets?
Mr Wright thought they only encouraged clutter. The master bedroom does have a 'dressing room' and he conceded to add a closet in the guest room suite.
(Who knew the minimalist Mr.Wright could have had the first Declutter 101 reality TV show?)

Why is this vestibule have such a low ceiling? I'm claustrophobic.
You're supposed to be! Mr Wright was 6'3" himself and used the height of a room to encourage people to move out of the entrance hall and into the more inviting living area.

The hidden bookcases
If Mr. Martin loved to read, where are the bookshelves?
Our guide pulled open a door to what looked like a solid wooden support. Voila! A book shelf! Push it open and there was another behind it--along with the radiators for the house.

As the chilly Buffalo wind whipped around us, I heard: Does anyone else wonder why an open covered pergola walkway would be an ideal choice for this weather?
I guess we've never experienced a hot Buffalo summer.

Where was the front door?
Mr. Wright believed your house was your private space, so not just anyone should casually come knocking at your door. They'd have to look a bit or know where they were going.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and a deep appreciation for Frank Lloyd Wright's vision and artistry, but I have to admit I reexamined my own house critically when I got back to NJ.

Uh, oh, a generic center hall colonial with those double hung windows that Wright described as looking like 'guillotines.' Big kitchen and bathrooms which Wright dismissed as unnecessary. (Oh to have a serving staff to deal with the banalities!)  My kitchen does have a Chicago window (picture window, flanked by matching casement windows) and looks out on a wooded backyard, which FLW would have approved. But the house seems proud of its comfortable clutter and I can't imagine it any other way. I slumped into my favorite la-z-boy, popped up the foot rest and sank deep into my own definition of luxury. Ah, the plebeian lifestyle has some merits!

PS: Thanks to my good friend Anne, whose own hilarious insights on living the FLW style, gave me the idea for this post.

More pictures of the Darwin Martin House Complex:
The conservatory looking back toward the main house
Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Conservatory

Dining room in Barton House-FLW loved those chairs!
Note wisteria windows in Reception room of main house

Charming Gardeners Cottage

Overview of the complex

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Crazy Dreams

I had crazy dreams last night. Could it be the jalapeno poppers I ate at Hermano Carlos's party? Or was it because I slept with the window open? Or am I just decompressing after a very long month of Pinktober?

In any event Gary and I were moving out West and met people with a big black, furry Pyrennes dog whom we fell in love with. (a subconscious wish?) They gave us the dog and the house they were living in, which did turn out to be a nightmare--water pumping out of the floor in the kitchen and living room which we furiously mopped up, like the Mickey Mouse character in Fantasia, only to have the water continue rising. A man with ulcerous, bleeding arms appeared at the door to help. We suddenly had some unspecified children who caused a fire by using a vacuum cleaner in the bedroom. These were, of course, not our real children, who wouldn't have been familiar with such a machine, at least while they lived at home.

No, I hadn't been watching Halloween horror movies and the 10 trick or treaters who appeared at my door were dressed like princesses, hobos and super heroes, not zombies.  But I did watch some of the Sandy one year anniversary news coverage. We are having the basement recarpeted, after the last minor seepage a few years ago precipitated a major overreaction on our part of ripping up carpet and exposing a decidedly ugly and stark cement floor, gray with splotches of red paint.

I am trying to "move on" in a sense, creating more balance between working for Metastatic Breast Cancer Network and living every day to the fullest. I started with a reappearance at the Y, where my ID was so old it didn't work anymore. One yoga class under my belt so far. I wonder why that didn't appear in my dream?