Masonry Masterpieces from Start to Finish
World class photo artist Pedro Guerrero said, “…many grow timid when they grow old, Frank Lloyd Wright only gained more confidence.”
In discussions, I often refer to Wright’s time between projects like Unity Temple (1908) and the David and Gladys Wright House (1952) as evolution. In this context Wright said, “Unity Temple makes an entirely new architecture —and is the first expression of change.” Change is the self-fulfilling design plan as he builds David Wright’s self-proclaimed masterpiece and final residence project. In House & Home, (June 1953) Wright refers to Arcadia House as “the essence of the house—we need no others.”
Imagine you are David Wright and you ask your dad, Frank Lloyd Wright, to build you a home. David & Gladys were both in their 50’s and will finish their 100+ year life in this, Wright’s last residential design. Built in the Arcadia neighborhood, some have surmised that the house (Phoenix, AZ 1952) inspired the spiraling ramp design of the Guggenheim Museum (Manhattan, NY 1959) – it did not. The Guggenheim was drawn many years in advance of the David and Gladys Wright House. In fact, there are spiraling designs Wright drew as early as 1920.
When I started docent training with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, then Volunteer Director Linda Bonifas asked me to summarize what our tours might want to accomplish. My answer was; the evolution of Wright’s style. It appeared to me in his first and own home design (Oak Park, IL 1889) Wright relied on influences, but quickly developed his own style points each time he picked up a pencil. There were constant visions and revisions of working innovations from one design to the next. And in the end Wright no longer looks to influences but rather becomes the influencer in his designs. So, I think it’s fitting Wright started his residential career in a house for himself and ended it with one for his son. During those years signatures of Wrights aggregate genius are in David Wright’s House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s ending project.
David and Gladys Wright House checks many of the boxes we associate with Wright: connecting with nature, aggressive forward design, sensitivity to the setting, a livable space fashioned with materials which seem to grow from the landscape, amazing built-in cabinetry, central gathering fireplace radiating outward and the ultimate pathway to discovery ever conceived.
For David & Gladys it must have been an exciting, comfortable and gratifying place to live, complete with green touches long before many understood what their benefits would be. The idea of reducing the sun energy of a year around home in Arizona’s super-hot summer was addressed by Wright in using the wrap-around spiral walkway as an awning for windows that were placed just below each revolution of the walkway.
The house was designed on pillars, raising it high above the still, desert floor and up to passing breezes skimming the tree topped expanse of orange groves which originally comprised the Arcadia neighborhood. It was a modest 2,400 square foot house on one living level, but Wright’s use of the large window bands connects it with nature, and confuses the eye as to where outside starts and inside ends. Durable cement blocks (not textile) and concrete walkway give it a substantive and solid appearance. The rounded, curvy structure feels somehow at peace with its surroundings. The restoration by now private owner Bing Hu (a one-time student of Wright’s at Taliesin West) is carefully changing nothing, rather improving everything. Materials first used, like the copper roof and accents, have been returned with a new copper, coated in chemicals which restrain the oxidation. Now when the rain sheds for the roof eaves and ornament, there is no staining to the concrete or woods below.
My recent visit to David & Gladys Wright House was conducted by the current property manager/master carpenter “Mac”. He gave a little-known fact and demonstrated Arizona’s equivalence to New York’s Grand Central Stations Whisper Corridor. When standing in the courtyard center patio stone, voice radiates around the inside curvature of the house allowing you to hear a whisper.
Pssst… Wright built this.
by Peter Yankala, UTRF member and volunteer
all photos by Peter Yankala