A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century
An architect recently confessed to struggling with how to promote Alward Construction over smaller contractors with less overhead. They referred clients to contractors who had worked successfully for other clients. While these contractors did not have our reputation, their work and service were both quite acceptable. They had smaller companies with less overhead and were assumed to be less expensive.
This is the first challenge for marketing. What distinguishes us from our competition?
I want to address this in an ongoing series of short articles all focused on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buehler House, which Alward Construction rebuilt and restored for the original owners, Maynard and Katie Buehler. It was designed by Wright for our clients and originally built in 1949. It sustained a serious fire in 1994 and we rebuilt it with the guidance of the original Clerk of the Works, Walter Olds, who Wright assigned to the project in 1948. This was a rich experience on many counts and there were numerous ways in which my company showed itself to provide special value to our client. I’m hoping some of the following not only tell about the wonderful detailing and construction of a Wright residence, but also how, in working with the entire building team, Alward Construction made its own valuable contributions to the project.
The recent public opening of the Buehler House held by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, July 30-31, 2011, was very successful. What was billed as a one day event was extended to two and even at that, hundreds were turned away. I gave my own tour of the house for select guests and have been encouraged to tell some stories of our rebuilding of the house after its 1994 fire.
First some brief background. In 1948, when Wright was 81, he was hired by Maynard and Katie Buehler who had bought a lot off a remote dirt road (now the North East corner of Glorietta and Moraga Way in Orinda California) that was situated between two meandering creeks. A horse stable stood on the site. After deciding against a two-story design by a local architect, Katie and Maynard decided to write and send pictures to Wright who had recently been featured in a magazine they came across. Wright saw the pictures of the site and wrote to the Buehlers a one sentence letter saying, “I’m ready to work for you.”
To oversee the construction, he asked his apprentice of many years, Walter Olds, to leave his position as Clerk of the Works on the Walker House in Carmel, and turn his attention to the Buehler House in Orinda. Walter had already completed the famous Morris Gift Shop on Maiden Lane in San Francisco. Maynard and Walter hired and fired two contractors. They eventually settled on being their own contractor. They hired the talent they needed for different phases of the project. A lovely 4,350 square foot three bedroom residence was built with a study and a complete wing devoted to Maynard’s avocation and hobby as a machinist and inventor. The machine shop had its own office and a small bedroom for live-in help that was never used as such. The house was one of Wright’s Usonian style residences which was a style of architecture he hoped would be widely adapted by everyday citizens of the United States of America; US-‘onian’. The first Usonian was built around 1938 a little after Falling Water.
The Buehlers raised two daughters in the house. Early in its history, at Wright’s strong suggestion, the Buehlers bought up the surrounding lots to avoid, as Wright put it, “looking out on your neighbor’s clothes lines”. Sometime in the 1950s, Walter was hired to design a garden house that could serve as a pool house, guesthouse and a cabaña. Later the swimming pool, cradled in the nock of the two wings of the house, was converted to a koi pond and the 2 ½ acres of land was transformed into an incredible garden with water falls, pagodas, a Japanese tea house, bridges, life size statues of Chinese figures, a rock river. All this was designed by Henry Matsitani who had been the landscape architect of the Japanese Gardens in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Henry had studied in the Japanese Imperial Gardens of Tokyo.
Katie Buehler was a tall thin women and prone to being chilly. The radiant heating in the house was not sufficient and Maynard, ever the inventor, devised an electrical heat system composed of wires that ran in the horizontal groves of the concrete block walls. A failure in this system caused the fire in 1994 that resulted in the loss of most of the main residential wing. A pet poodle was lost, years of possessions including many original Wright memorabilia and the original house plans went up in smoke. Both Maynard and Katie were out of the house at the time of the fire. As Katie said “it was not one of my better days”.
THREE BIDS FOR THE INSURANCE COMPANY
Walter lived in Berkeley with his wife Betty and had retired as an architect from Skidmore Owings and Merrill. Maynard called him and said, “Well Walter you figured this all out in 1948, I don’t see why you can’t figure it out now.” At that time I was working on Walter’s and Betty’s house. I had been Walter’s contractor for some time before I knew of his work with Wright. It was mentioned to me that a Wright house Walter had worked on in Orinda had a fire. The likelihood that I would be involved in its repair was not even hinted at and it was some time before the prospect came up. Maynard had hired William Simpson of Orinda to be the architect of record and Walter was to be the supervising architect. Simpson, in turn, had suggested Ed Van of Van-Catlin to develop a budget for rebuilding the house. They had been successful in estimating losses for homeowners in the Oakland Hills 1991 fire and had already put weeks and weeks of effort into establishing the cost for rebuilding this Usonian house and restoring the fire damaged portions that were to remain. I assumed, without really knowing, that they were being paid for their efforts. I also assumed they were likely to be the builders. However, the insurance company suddenly said they needed 3 bids for rebuilding the house. It was under this circumstance that I was asked by Walter if I would be interested in giving a bid for rebuilding the house. Walter and I had forged a relationship of sorts and I was pleased to be able to work with him on another project. The fact that it was a Frank Lloyd Wright project was intriguing but I didn’t really know much about Wright’s work.
I met with Walter at the site. While I knew this was a Wright building, I was not particularly impressed. Most of what was left did not strike me as a noteworthy building. The shop wing and carport that had not been destroyed seemed like a fairly utilitarian construction largely of grey concrete block. The living room was unique with its soaring pitched roof, but it was so affected by fire that it seemed sad and forlorn and hardly a thing of beauty. The site was smelly and filled with the debris of a burn out home. It was not a pretty sight.
I was also introduced to the Buehler’s. Katie was quite a figure. She was as tall as a rail and elegantly dressed. She had a very dramatic pair of glasses that accented her strong features and perfectly quaffed hair. Maynard looked like a Bavarian beer hall owner but with a decidedly sterner demeanor. The large bore rifles above his mantel in his office tended to reinforce the idea that the man was not to be taken lightly. I realized as I briefly surveyed the charred remains of this uniquely built house that there was a lot of work to do before I would have any sense of the cost to rebuild it. I also realized that becoming a contractor for Maynard would not be an easy matter, regardless of how the estimating proceeds.
I knew Canyon Construction was also being considered. Simpson had probably recommended them along with Van-Catlin. I recall driving up Marin Ave in Albany when I called Deva Rajan, owner of Canyon, and asked him if he thought Maynard would commit to hiring one of us for his project based on this estimate that we were suppose to produce. He replied that “Maynard was too sharp an old fox to ever do something like that.” I was still somewhat new to the business-end of construction and did most of my work on a time and materials basis without a contract. I very seldom did fixed price work and didn’t really appreciate the subtleties of negotiating contracts and bids. Indeed, why would Maynard commit to selecting someone to build something that had not yet been designed, based on their price for something that had been destroyed by fire and would never again see the light of day? The new house was under development by Maynard, Simpson, Walter and the engineers. The fact that Maynard would never allow himself to be caught in such a situation was an eye opener to me.
It was the first time I realized the importance of strategy in business. Along these lines, I realized that getting three bids was not good for anyone but the insurance company. Van-Catlin had the best idea of the actual costs and the result of two other bidders would simple be to secure less money for the Buehlers. As for the contractors, we would simple put a lot of effort into something that may or may not result in work.
On the next visit to the house, I explained this to Maynard and Walter and said I was with drawing from the bid process because it served no purpose beyond saving the insurance company money. This turned out to be an eye opener for Maynard as well and I believe it was the beginning of a relationship that eventually turned out to be deep, trusting and respectful.
Keith R. Alward