A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century
Every day of progress brought with it more of the beauty of Wright’s architecture. This surprised me. I had assumed his iconic place in American architecture was the result of grand and imaginative creative sweeps. Falling Water is shocking in its bold relationship to its setting. All of his major buildings, the Guggenheim Museum of Manhattan, The Johnson Wax Works of Racine Wisconsin, the Imperial Hotel of Tokyo, Unity Temple of Oak Park, are almost overpowering in their grand vision. What I was gradually coming to understand through the layering on of the finishes of the Buehler House, was how the details interacted with the broader architectural concept to create the whole. This interaction is critical and without it, the broader architectural concept cannot carry the day. The board and bat system in relationship to the concrete block, the knuckles of the piano hinges, the perforated board windows, the book shelves, even the screw heads all harmonize and are part of the rhythm and beauty of the house. The integration between the macro and micro levels of design is critical to the overall aesthetic.
No one seemed to know this better than Walter. Every detail received the most intensive attention. There were weeks of full and half scale drawings attendant to the minutest considerations. The house grew more beautiful with each application of his attention.
Surprisingly, our client Maynard Buehler seemed totally unaware. This was particularly surprising given his involvement in building the house some 50 years earlier. Maynard was also an inventor and machinist who designed and made things, often things of beauty. For example, all of the door hardware in the house had been designed and machined by him. Nevertheless, he did not seem particularly in touch with Walter’s efforts or the design considerations going into the rebuilding. I might have thought that his 80 some years had taken the edge off his judgment except for the fact that he was sharp as a tack and unquestionably mentally acute in almost all regards.
I believe the answer to the paradox lies in two traits. One was thrift. As Betty Olds lovingly said some years after Maynard’s demise, when I was interviewing her for an article on Walter, “Maynard was as tight as the bark on a tree.” The other was pragmatism. Maynard was a deeply pragmatic man. The gallery bookshelves had to line up with the board and bat walls to satisfy the aesthetic of the house module. This time Maynard wanted the shelves to accommodate the height of his books. It was a fight of titans for Walter to convince him to stay with Wright’s architectural canyon.
It was pragmatism and tightness that drew Maynard like a magnet to Home Depot. There would be a need for things Home Deport supplied; sinks, faucets, toilets, towel bars, counter tops. One day Maynard arrived with dozens of cardboard boxes. He was pleased with the results of his shopping and relieved to have a host of decisions behind him. I was on site conferring with Cregg when Maynard arrived with the boxes. He instructed Tiger to move them to the living room where they would be out of the way. Cabinets were just about completed and after counter tops, we’d be ready for the plumbing fixtures. He announced with some satisfaction, “I think it’s all here.” What’s all here I asked thinking the worst as I looked at a picture of a faucet on one of the boxes. “All the plumbing fixtures. You can let Walter know everything is here. If there’s something missing, I can go back.”
Cregg and I shot each other a worried glance. I felt like I was being put in the middle. Maynard must have known that Walter would want to select all the fixtures. They were part of the design, part of how the house would look and feel and even function. Maynard was fully able to speak him mind and get his way. But somehow he was leaving it to us to let Walter know that his design role had been suddenly eclipsed by Home Depot.
Walter’s house was on the way home and so, after phoning first, I stopped by. Walter did not take the news happily. I could tell he was furious. I feared this could be disastrous. For all his painstaking effort to give the best house possible, and with, I suspect, little compensation for the actual hours of work, this was a slap in the face. It was a frightening moment. I tried to offer some hope. “Maybe what he bought is alright. If it’s not, I’m sure we can exchange or return it.” But it didn’t help. Walter was obviously hurt. He said something about letting Maynard finish the job on his own.
The next morning, I decided to talk to Maynard. I found him in the garden house having his morning coffee with the paper as he did everyday before heading to work. I stuck my head in. “Good morning Maynard. Have a moment?” “Good morning Keith”, he replied. “Come in. This is unusual. What’s on your mind?” In typical fashion, he got right to it. I thought I should do as much myself. “I told Walter about the stuff you bought and he didn’t seem pleased. You know how he reacts when you buy something and he hasn’t had a chance to think about it?” “Yes” he replied. “I sensed that. I don’t understand it. What’s wrong with my buying things? It’s my house. I’m just trying to help, trying to save him worrying about it. And they were on sale.” This was getting difficult. I tried to speak to the design issue, how Walter was a very good designer and wanted to give these matters his full attention. I could see that Maynard was oblivious. He seemed genuinely unaware of the mismatch between his selections and the architecture of his house. This was a possible entry.
I carry a pocket pad in my shirt pocket. I took it out and said, “you know the faucets you bought? Well a profile of one looks something like this.” I drew an outline of the curves of the faucet stem. It looked like the multiple ogee curves of Victorian crown molding. He complimented my drawing. “That’s pretty good.” “Thanks” I said, and continued. “Do you see any curves like that anywhere in the house?”
A light went off. “I see your point. What should I do?” he asked. I went for it. “If you returned those boxes and left it up Walter, you’d make him a lot happier and easier to work with.” That was a lot to ask. Maynard was not feeling at all comfortable with the direction this had taken. Walter and now Maynard felt pushed aside. But Maynard rose to the occasion by consenting to return the boxes. Nothing further was said about the plumbing fixtures until Walter got to the design of Maynard’s omelet making station in the kitchen, called by Wright, “the work station”. That’s a story for another day.
Keith R. Alward