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October 18, 2005

'Spending the Night With Frank Lloyd Wright'


That was the headline over Terry Teachout's story in the October 12 Wall Street Journal about the little–known fact that for the price of a hotel room you can spend the night as a paying resident in any of three houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Teachout did just that at two of the three and wrote that the experiences were transcendent.

The photo above is of the Schwartz House, one of the three.

The article follows, after which lodging details for each house are provided.

Even if you never get to one of these landmark places, visiting each via their websites in the links provided is itself oddly soothing and pleasant.

And you can't beat the price.

    Spending the Night With Frank Lloyd Wright

    Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up his fair share of spectacular public buildings, with New York's spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum topping the list.

    But America's greatest architect spent most of his life designing houses for American families.

    Some were meant for the rich, others for ordinary middle-class folk (though the latter dwellings rarely ended up being as affordable as he incautiously promised).

    Whatever the price tag, though, they were built with one overarching purpose in mind: Wright believed passionately that a "natural" house, designed in such a way as to blend organically into its physical environment and be fully compatible with the everyday needs of its occupants, could serve as the basis of "a better way of life."

    How practical was Wright's idealistic vision of better living through organic architecture?

    No one is in a stronger position to answer that question than those who live in his houses.

    Of the nearly 300 surviving houses designed by Wright between 1889 and 1959, all but 35 are still in use as private residences. (As of this week, nine are on the market.)

    Alas, few of their owners have written about the day-to-day experience of living in a Wright house, though one couple who did, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs, testified to "relishing the beauty and convenience" of their "simple, luxurious house."

    But what about the rest?

    Were they happy with Wright's radical innovations?

    Or did they prefer to suffer in silence, unwilling to admit that comfort mattered more to them than beauty?

    While all 35 of the Wright houses open to the public are worth visiting, no tour can possibly have more than a fraction of the impact of spending the night in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright -- and you can do just that.

    Three Wright houses, two of which are located in Wisconsin, the architect's home state (the third, the Penfield House, is near Cleveland), are currently available for short-term rentals.

    Last month I visited the four-bedroom Schwartz House in Two Rivers and the studio-sized Seth Peterson Cottage in Lake Delton, the latter not far from Taliesin, Wright's estate and headquarters, where visitors can see his theories of domestic architecture and décor writ large.

    To turn the key of a Wright house is to step into a parallel universe.

    The huge windows, the open, uncluttered floor plans, the straightforward use of such simple materials as wood, brick, concrete and rough-textured masonry: All create the illusion of a vast interior space in close harmony with its natural surroundings.

    Instead of walls, subtly varied ceiling heights denote the different living areas surrounding the massive fireplace that is the linchpin of every Wright house.

    This unoppressive openness -- both from area to area and between indoors and out -- is what makes even a small house like the 880-square-foot Peterson Cottage, which was boarded up for two decades before being rehabilitated in 1992, seem so much larger than it really is.

    For all their essential similarities, Wright's houses affect their occupants in very different ways.

    The Peterson Cottage, built in 1959 on the edge of an isolated, heavily wooded bluff overlooking Mirror Lake, is so tranquil and serene that I felt as though I could sit in meditative silence by its great sandstone hearth for hours on end.

    The 3,000-square-foot Schwartz House, on the other hand, is in a built-up residential neighborhood and has the friendly, slightly down-at-heel look of a place that has been occupied by children ever since it was built in 1939.

    To put it another way, the Peterson Cottage feels like a work of art, the Schwartz House like a comfortable home that just happens to be heart-stoppingly beautiful. (Taliesin, which was built, rebuilt and constantly remodeled between 1911 and Wright's death in 1959, suggests a cross between these two qualities.)

    While a visitor might well sense such things in the course of a daytime visit, it's only when the sun sets that you take full possession of a Wright house and start to imagine what it would be like to live there around the clock.

    After dark I turned on all the lights in the Schwartz House, stepped into the back yard and reveled in the warm amber glow that photographs only suggest.

    Then I went back inside, plugged my iPod into a pair of portable speakers and filled the house with the spacious, all-American sounds of Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata and Pat Metheny's "Midwestern Night's Dream," both of which were ideally suited to Wright's prairie-evoking interiors.

    You can't do that on an hour-long tour!

    Of course I wouldn't want to be without such scrupulously preserved "museum houses" as Taliesin, Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania, or the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Va.

    They are no less central to Wright's legacy.

    But just as an old-master painting never looks better than when it hangs in the home of a private collector who gazes at it lovingly each day, so are Frank Lloyd Wright's houses meant to be experienced, not merely visited.

    Wright himself said that the Schwartz House was "a house designed for utility and fecund living... in which there is no predominating feature, but in which the entire is so coordinated as to achieve a thing of beauty."

    Now more than ever, I know what he meant.


Two Rivers, Wis.
• Sleeps eight.
• Rates: $295/night, Sun.-Thurs.; $350/night, Fri.-Sat. Two-night minimum; 50% deposit due with reservation (circlenr.com/schwartzhouse or 651-222-5322).

Lake Delton, Wis.
• Sleeps four.
• Rates: $275/night, April-November; $225/night, December-March (sethpeterson.org or 608-254-6551).

Willoughby Hills, Ohio
• Sleeps five.
• Rates: $275/night. Two-night minimum; 50% deposit due with reservation (penfieldhouse.com or 440-942-9996).

October 18, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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