Kim Bixler (right) and a childhood friend outside the Wright-designed Edward E. Boynton home in Rochester, New York. Image via Kim Bixler.
“Some people restore classic cars, I happened to restore an old home.”
Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than 500 completed buildings, forming a canon of architecture that few can match. Even if one judged his legacy solely on his private residences and commissions in Oak Park and Chicago, Illinois, it would still be a one worth elevating. But there’s a lot more to Wright’s architecture than touring the homes turned museums that have become icons and tourist draws. Literally hundreds of Wright’s designs are still in private hands, and the current owners experience aspects of these unique buildings that docent-led tours can’t showcase: repair, renovation, upkeep, and even the occasional die-hard architecture fan knocking on the front door all make the experience of living in a Wright home different than the norm. Curbed spoke with owners of a half-dozen Wright homes to learn what it’s like to live inside one of the architect’s designs.
The J.A. Sweeton House from earlier this year. Image via J.A. Sweeton.
Dan Nichols: J.A. Sweeton House (Cherry Hill, New Jersey)
It seems fitting an architect would be attracted to a Frank Lloyd Wright home, especially this dramatic design from 1950 with a steeply slanted red roof. Nichols, who works for Ragan Design Group, bought the Usonian design in March of 2008 and moved in with his wife Christine a year later. “I would say it’s been a real learning experience for me as an architect,” he said about the process of maintaining Wright’s design while utilizing modern materials for renovations and repairs. “It’s a wonderful house to live in and a grand puzzle to solve.”
Being an architect, had you thought about living in a Wright home for a long time? What inspired you to move into this home?
“I first learned of Wright when I was about 10 years old growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in an old magazine that featured his work. His houses were a big deal to me. My father was an industrial designer, so modern design had a big appeal, and one of his homes, the Dudley Spencer House in Wilmington, Delaware, was nearby. It all tied together, and I pursued a career in architecture.”
How did that lead you to the Sweeton House?
“My wife and I had taken jobs elsewhere and moved away from Philly, but our parents were getting older, so we decided to move back to the area to help them. We had just moved into a house of our own design, so moving back into just any house seemed like a step back. Certainly not as exciting as moving into a Frank Lloyd Wright home. We discovered the Sweeton House was on the market. I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about Wright’s work and restore the house.”
The Sweeton home in 2008, before Nichols began repairs and restoration. Image via Dan Nichols.
What was the condition of the home when you purchased it, and what was required to bring it up to speed? You mentioned in other interviews that it was a 20-year project.
“It’s a continuing process. When we moved in, the bones of the house were pretty good, but it was in need of a new roof and a new septic system. It had lots of deferred maintenance. It hadn’t been lived in for the last eight years; the owner was just keeping the heat on. When we bought it, there were some mold and insect issues, an overgrown yard, the kind of things that happens when a home isn’t occupied.”
Do you feel there’s anything about the design that makes upkeep more difficult?
“It isn’t any more difficult than a Victorian home or something from the early 20th century. Everything here was custom made, so I’d say yes, it’s a little more difficult to work on than a builder’s tract house, but it’s no more difficult than working on an older, historic home. Since it’s all custom made, it’s important to keep the character of the home. You don’t just replace a window with an Andersen window, you want to maintain what Wright did. It’s just a house, in that way, but it is a work of art. We’re redoing the roof, which had deteriorated over the years, and replacing it with the original red shingles.”
What sticks out about this Wright home?
“What speaks to me is something that you’ve heard from quite a few other Wright homeowners, is that it really is one with nature. You really get a sense of the outdoors. You notice the passing of the seasons. You notice where the sun is during every part of the year. I’ve enjoyed seeing the moonlight and the phases of the moon, since the home doesn’t have any window coverings. You see moonlight in the house at night. I’ve found it enriching to live in the house for that reason, watching the snowfall. In comparison to other Wright homes, it was traditionally thought of as a lesser work, since it’s smaller and less expensive. But the house’s significance is that Wright was presented with a client that had a really small budget. Wright often said he wanted to design homes for the middle class, but quite often, the middle class still couldn’t afford his homes. Thought it was more expensive than, say, a Levittown house, it was still much cheaper than his other homes. Instead of bricks, it was built with concrete blocks.”
Sweeton Home in the winter. Image via Dan Nichols.
Do you feel like a caretaker for this particular house?
“Yes, I do. The house will live on well after I’m gone. It’s a piece of history, a piece of Wright’s canon. I’ve taken on the responsibility of taking care of a house that was in critical shape and bringing it back to it’s original condition. But not all homes can be museums. You need to maintain Wright’s vision, but you do need to work in some modern conveniences and appliances for the next guy. We renovated the kitchen and kept the original cabinets, but we put in a modern oven and dishwasher. We turned an extra room into a powder room, and built it so the design details matched Wright’s work.”
Have you established relationships with other Wright home owners?
“Yes, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy has an annual conference. There’s a homeowners reception where we get together and trade war stories how we’ve dealt with different issues or contractors we’ve worked with. It’s been very helpful, and gotten me into a lot of Wright homes I otherwise wouldn’t have visited. It’s kind of like a car club, but you can’t move your home around.”
You’ve mentioned not every home is a museum. What’s your relationship with fans of Frank Lloyd Wright who may knock on your door and ask to see your home?”
“I’ve met an awful lot of people that way. Somebody showed up from Taiwan a few days ago in my front yard. If somebody is willing to go out of their way to see my house, I’m willing to show it to them. I don’t really find it an annoyance, people are usually very respectful. Sometimes I’ll get a letter, sometimes they’ll show up when I’m cutting the yard. I’m happy to show them around.”
Why is there any enduring interest in Frank Lloyd Wright? Why is he such a phenomena?
“I wonder if it was because he was the first American architect in an era of modern media He was on newsreels, radio, television; he really built up a brand. Legends have been built up around him, and many things aren’t true. But you don’t hear much about Edward Durell Stone, and he was also on the cover of Time magazine. But you keep hearing about Frank Lloyd Wright.”
As an architect, do you think, I can’t wait for someone to take care of my work like this in 70-80 years?
“Something like that would be nice to happen, but based on the buildings I work on, mostly commercial, I’m not sure it’ll have the same reaction. I’m more of a nuts and bolts architect, not working on a residential work of art.”
Thomas P. Hardy house from earlier this year. Creative Commons iage via Keith Ewing.
Gene Szymczak: Thomas P. Hardy House (Racine, Wisconsin)
For Wright fans, Racine often calls to mind the innovative S.C. Johnson Wax headquarters, a playful commercial space that stands as one of the architect’s most spectacular designs. But Wright made a larger impact on the surrounding area, including designing the Hardy House, a three-story residence built in 1905 and perched on a bluff that overlooks Lake Michigan. Gene Szymczak, a longtime architecture fan and president of the Educators Credit Union, moved into what he calls a “vertical Prairie home” during the fall of 2012.
Do you have an architecture or design background, or is it just something you’re interested in?
“It’s a bad hobby I have. I’m crazy about architecture. I’ve bought and sold a few John Randal McDonald homes, and have always been attracted to that kind of architecture.”
How did you become aware of the Hardy House?
“I became aware of it through a network of my friends. Mark Hertzberg, a journalist who wrote a book about the home, told me it was for sale.”
I get the impression that when you moved in, it was in pretty rough shape.
“Yeah, there was a lot of deferred maintenance.”
What attracted you to the home? Why move into a home that needed repairs and would be hamstrung a bit due to its historic designation?
“I have a natural affinity for this kind of home, and a desire to preserve it. I guess the old owners had talked to another party, who decided to walk away from it since it was in such bad shape. I was their last hope. That’s why I got involved.”
What kind of renovations were required?
“The front of the house had fallen in, the wood had rotted and the foundation was sunk four or five inches. That all needed to be fixed, and the plumbing needed to be redone. There a balcony between the two bedrooms that was sagging. Like I said, a lot of deferred maintenance.”
Thomas P. Hardy house from earlier this year. Creative Commons iage via Keith Ewing.
Do you feel like you restored it back to Wright’s vision?
“I hope so. That was my intent. The bones were still there. I wasn’t trying to change things, just trying to repair it so it would last a little longer.”
Do you offer tours, or if people show up, do you show them around?
“No, I don’t, not really. You know why? There’s no doorbell on the house. I’ve had some big tours come through to support Wright in Wisconsin and Preservation Racine, as well as some school groups. It’s OK, as long as it’s scheduled in advance.”
Any other quirks that make it different compared to other places you’ve lived in?
“The view overlooking the lake. It’s always changing. The house is a machine that helps you look at life in the way that Wright looked at life. Are you into mindfulness? This is a machine that promotes being in the present moment. You don’t need a house to do that, but it does help. If there’s a snowstorm, and it’s miserable outside, you’re happy to be here.”
What advice would you give someone looking to buy a Frank Lloyd Wright home?
“You have to be patient. Emerson wrote that everything has its price. If you want something, there’s something you have to give. Nothing is free. With these homes, you have to understand the maintenance is going to be a little more expensive than you’d encounter with another house. I would say you have to have a lot of resources. But you also get to share the home with others.”
The Brandes House. Image via Dale Cotton.
Marsha Shyer: Ray Brandes House (Sammamish, Washington)
Shyer and her husband, John, New Yorkers through and through, had planned on getting a place out west when they stumbled upon this Wright home, a Usonian design with original furniture that was constructed by a local builder in 1952. Since moving in during June of 2013, Shyer has enjoyed her new home so much, she suggests everyone “hop on the bus.”
What brought you to the house?
“We didn’t start out looking for a Frank Lloyd Wright house. I didn’t even know you could buy one. We are forever New Yorkers, and engaged a real estate agent in California (my husband went to law school at Stanford) to find a second home on the West Coast. We thought we could get a small place in Palo Alto and quickly found out we couldn’t get much. We thought New York was expensive. My husband, who is very interested in architecture, came across a listing for the Brandes House on this site called Wright On the Market. We’d never been to Washington, but my husband said, ‘lets’s check it out. We’ll make a weekend out of it.’ We stepped foot inside and 60 seconds later, decided we wanted to buy it.”
What about the home caught your eye and made you immediately think it’s a place you wanted to live?
“Many people tell me they feel great when they walk inside a Frank Lloyd Wright house. I think a lot about why that is, and I believe it’s because he’s so excellent with proportions. You don’t know that, you just walk in and it feels right. We had both lived in modernist homes before, so walking into the Brandes place felt right, It felt like home to us.”
Did you have any difficulty moving in?
“There were pages of requirements outlining what we could and couldn’t do, since the furniture is all Frank Lloyd Wright-designed originals. We read through it and were comfortable with that, since it’s not something we’d ever want to change. That was OK with us. We’re all for historic preservation: you grow accustomed to it, it doesn’t grow accustomed to you.”
The Brandes House. Image via Brian Krugh.
Have you made any changes?
“We’re very fortunate. The home was built by the first owner, a local builder name Ray Brandes—he built his own house—so it’s always been well-maintained. We’ve made some changes, such as switching out the flourescent lights from one of the bedrooms back to the original light fixtures. Our philosophy has been to continue maintenance at a very high level. I imagine we’ll have to replace the roof in the next five years.”
How has moving into the home changed your lifestyle?
“We’re now bicoastal, so that’s a totally different lifestyle. We have a new community on the west coast, as well as the community of Wright home owners, which has been wonderful.”
What have been some unexpected advantages of living in the house?
“There’s so much light, it’s like a glass house. It’s in a private area surrounded by nature, which changes everyday. It has such a positive effect on my mood. It’s like living in a piece of changeable art every day. The whole house is like a living artwork.”
The Brandes House. Image via Sam Cunningham.
Do you feel like you have a big responsibility with this home?
“People often ask if we feel like we live in a museum. We don’t feel like we can’t sit on the furniture. It’s a very comfortable house, and we use the entire house. I put my feet up on the couch. There have been families, dogs and children inside. Every time one of these homes becomes a museum, I become sad; these Wright houses were made to be lived in. I do try to open the house for events a few times every year so people can experience the home. When people know how special these homes are, they want to keep them safe.”
What advice would you give someone thinking about purchasing a Frank Lloyd Wright home?
“I would say it’s the most amazing venture I never expected to be on.”
The Dorothy J. Turkel House. Creative Commons image via Michigan State Historic Preservation Office.
Norman Silk: Dorothy H. Turkel House (Detroit, Michigan)
Florist Norman Silk and his partner took their time moving into this 1956, two-story, 4,300-square-foot Usonian design in the Palmer Woods neighborhood, the only Wright work in the city of Detroit. After all, it took five years to renovate. But as the happy owner will tell you, it was exciting to move into a space that engages you with the outside through a grid of hundreds of windows. Modern homes are often wrapped in glass; Wright designs like the Turkel home are caves, which shelter while still directing your gaze outside.
What led to you moving into the Turkel home?
“We lived in the neighborhood and had been looking for a more modern house. A lot of amazing modern architects, such as Yamasaki, have done work in the area, but those homes just don’t go on sale very often. One day we took a different route home, and saw this place was for sale. Two weeks later, we purchased it.”
Sounds like you’re a big fan of modern architecture. Are you involved at all in the profession, or is it something you’ve been interested in?
“We’re florists, so there’s an aesthetic relationship. And many of our clients have incredible homes, so we’ve always been exposed to great architecture and art.”
What was the thought process before you decided to move in?
“We’re aesthetically driven, so it was a really easy choice. A lot of other people are financially driven. For wealthy people, oftentimes, a home is just another investment. There’s no natural affinity to it; it’s just buy what’s flashy and tells the neighbors they’ve arrived. We look at it as an interesting project. Life is just a series of interesting projects.”
What was the condition of the home when you moved in?
“It took a long time to restore. This was an experimental home, part of a rare subgroup of Usonian Automatic designs. It had no attic or basement, and all of the systems were shot. We worked with a fine architect, Lawrence R. Brink, who worked with Mr. Wright to build the Guggenheim. He guided us through the restoration, modification and adaptive reuse. We replaced all the windows, changed and updated electrical, put in a new master bathroom and closet, modified the use of some of the spaces. That’s just an easy overview. It was very complex.”
That’s a lot of money and time. Was it worth it?
“This kind of home needed a caretaker. With a conventional home, there’s nothing to doing a renovation; those McMansions being done for a few million, they’re just a bunch of studs and drywall. But when you’re working with a piece of fine architecture, it needs to be approached totally differently.”
Did you two have to make any adjustments in terms of lifestyle when you moved in?
“It’s different than living in a traditional house. You spend a lot of time outside You’re pulled outside. It’s not for somebody who needs everything hermetically sealed. This is a house where you’re part of nature, living inside a garden shelter. We did extensive landscaping that was Wrightian in feel, so we’re surrounded by a view of something that’s always changing.”
What’s your favorite part of the home?
“It’s the gardens. Inside, you feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of the gardens.”
What’s been the toughest adjustment to living inside the home?
“You need to change your thought pattern living in this house. While it does have lots of storage, the space forces you to edit things out of your life. It’s warm and inviting, but it forces you to keep it organized. It’s a house for living, not for showing off tchotchkes.”
The John J. Dobkins House. Image via Daniel and Dianne Chrzanowski.
Daniel and Dianne Chrzanowski: John J. Dobkins House (Canton, Ohio)
The Chrzanowski’s didn’t just move into a new setting when they stepped into their new home in 1997, a red-brick Usonian built in 1954. They moved into a new shape; based on an equilateral triangle, the floorplan of the Dobkins home banished 90-degree angles. The unique shape was one of the main reasons the couple’s dedicated restoration of the property required 14 years of work. As Daniel says, it’s hard to break outside of the box.
Do you feel like you’re been a Wright fan all your life?
Daniel: “I guess so, but never in my life did I think I’d own a home designed by him. Dianne reminded me that when I was doing my thesis in college—I majored in pictorial illustration—it was on Frank Lloyd Wright. We’d got into a bunch of Frank Lloyd Wright homes before, and saw the Weltzheimer/Johnson House in Oberlin, the first Usonian he did in Ohio. We’d seen Fallingwater like everyone else.”
What do you like about the equilateral triangle shape?
Daniel: “We all live in boxes, it’s 90-degrees everywhere. I bet your office is a box. We were attracted to living in this place, since it was so different.”
The John J. Dobkins House. Image via Daniel and Dianne Chrzanowski.
What was the condition when you moved in?
Daniel: “We realized, from the first visit, that it was going to need some attention. We needed to address every single material used to build the house: the masonry, the copper roof, the glass, wood (the home was built out of Honduras mahogany) and concrete. And most contractors out there don’t like challenges.”
Dianne: “Right from the start, before we even put an offer on the house, I said, ‘This isn’t purchasing another house, this is making a huge commitment to restore it and bring it back to what it should be.’ That commitment is what kept me going through the 14 years it took to finish the restoration. There’s nothing like sweat equity to make you appreciate a home.”
It’s truly a commitment.
Daniel: “Yeah, well, when most people move into a home, they can put their furniture anywhere they want. These homes were really designed to have it one way. In many ways, these buildings can be very restrictive. If you’re not willing to yield to it… ”
The John J. Dobkins House. Image via Daniel and Dianne Chrzanowski.
Any advice you’d give to someone else thinking about living in a Wright home?
Dianne: “I would say be willing to make a commitment. There are restrictions, but hopefully, you’ll get the joy of living inside. And get ready for people knocking at your doors. We had a group of architecture students come by and they were the most grateful visitors. They wrote us notes thanking us after the fact. You don’t get that in any other home. Those things far outweigh any negative feelings or restrictions.”
The dining room of the Edward E. Boynton House. Image provided by Kim Bixler.
Kim Bixler: Edward E. Boynton House (Rochester, New York)
While she never purchased a Wright home, Bixler can provide a perspective ever more rare than that of an owner: a child growing up inside a Wright home. Author of the book Growing Up In a Frank Lloyd Wright House, she’s chronicled her experiences inside the 1908 home, which her parents bought in 1977, giving tours and meeting apprentices of Frank Lloyd Wright.
What’s it like to live in these homes as a child?
“It’s interesting thinking of the arc I went through in relation to this home as a kid. My mom and dad got me involved when I was 8 years old. I’d be up there talking with architecture professors and students with a handful of notecards giving them tours. As a kid, you’d think it was about you, but it was about the house. I had such a sense of pride sharing this information to people coming through. We set up a lemonade stand outside; there were so many people outside, and some would be sketching the home. Then when you’re older, you start getting self conscious; will they think you’re rich, that you live in a mansion? I remember not wanting new people to come over, downplaying it. And then I really appreciated it when I was older. For me, it was such a strange arc.”
A 1919 image of the front of the Edward E. Boynton Home with reflecting pool. Image via the Landmark Society of Western New York.
Was it difficult to live there as a kid?
“It was real cold in the winter, I do remember that. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, and it was expensive to heat, so I do remember holing up in one room with a space heater. With all those windows and all that space, it was quite cold. That, and my parents would always tell us to put on a sweater if we got cold. I also remember when it rained, we were out there with pots and pans.”
How did you come to live in this house?
“My parents always lived in the weird house. My dad once rented a Wright home during college in Washington. So when they moved to Rochester, they looked for a weird home, but didn’t have any luck. But two months after moving in, they saw a story in the paper about a Frank Lloyd Wright home that was going on the market. They begged their realtor to give them a tour. When they finished looking at the home, they ran into the owners. After talking with them, the owners, the Clarks, liked them so much they gave them the “grand tour.” Afterwards, my parents asked them why they were moving out, and the wife said because upkeep was too much work. Well, my parents made them an offer: we’ll move in and you can take our house. They ended up making a house trade.”
Winter Exterior Photo; image via Kim Bixler.
How did you family adjust to the new home?
“My parents really didn’t have the budget to fully restore it, even buying it was a stretch. We were still using the original wooden fridge. When they purchased the house they assumed the furniture would remain in the house as part of the sale. At the close of negotiations the Clarks requested an additional $25,000 for the furniture or they would sell it to an outside buyer. Already financially strapped, and afraid the furniture would be separated from the house, my parents appealed to the Landmark Society and they agreed to purchase the furniture in order to guarantee that it would never leave the house or be sold off my future owners. When new owners came in 2009, they had the resources to restore it (they had previously restored 11 historic homes). They had a lot of money; you really need those financial resources to restore a Frank Lloyd Wright home. They did a total restoration of the house. I’ve been to the Robie and the Martin house, and this home was restored beautifully. The wood sings.”
Why was this such a unique place for you and your friends to play?
“We had so many built-ins inside our home, because Wright didn’t want anybody else’s furniture in there. We would always hide in there during hide-and-go-seek. We were kids in that house. My mom was so relaxed; this is a house we’re going to live in and enjoy, and my kids can play there. But we could not sit down without a coaster, that was the rule of the house. You look at the face of a new kid coming into the house, especially the dining room, would have this reaction, ‘this is so beautiful.’ An 8-year-old doesn’t know anything about architecture. But he could appreciate it.”