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It’s a rare privilege to step inside a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright, the preeminent 20th century American architect and interior designer. Wright designed hundreds of beautiful, original homes, commercial buildings and other structures, among them western Pennsylvania’s “Fallingwater”—one of the most recognized private homes in the world—and the landmark Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, a rather unmistakable creation itself.
But to be able to actually purchase a home designed by the world-renowned architect, who died in 1959, is a stunning opportunity. Wright's influence more than 50 years later is still profound, perhaps even more so as the green movement re-energizes compact planning initiatives that he championed. New office towers bear his mark, as do multi-million dollar beachfront homes. His touch can be seen at mainstream-level retail, too, in a pretty knockoff Mission sconce at Lowe’s or some of the elegant offerings at Restoration Hardware; perhaps even in the clean lines and functionality of Ikea furniture.
But that opportunity to buy is here, in Ardmore, right now, at 156 Sutton Road.
Though some two dozen such houses were planned, only four of Wright’s minimalist, three-story “Suntop” homes were built in 1939, where Sutton meets Spring Avenue, two blocks in from West Wynnewood Road. Over the decades, the homes—which feature multiple pieces of interior furniture and fixtures that were also designed by Wright, an abundance of exterior space, and a spectacular blend of materials—have become available only occasionally.
The house has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small basement, several decks (befitting the “Suntop” name) and is listed at just over 1,600 square feet of interior space—though it feels much larger once inside. Though it is one of a cluster of four (think of a rowhouse, cubed), the other three are barely noticeable while in the house or on its grounds.
The asking price? As it happens, the housing crisis has affected even genuine, livable works of art, so like everyone else, the sellers have had to lower their original number. The upshot is that the current price is rather like the house itself: scaled-down, relatively modest (given its pedigree), but also very modern, even robust, for what is supposed to be a middle-class enclave: $429,000.
An Ardmore Experiment
After discovering the sale, Patch got a chance to take a tour of the home last week, courtesy of local Realtor and listing agent Craig Brand. “It’s garnered a lot of interest among those who understand Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Brand, earlier this week. “There’s a buyer out there, it’s just going to have to be a very special one that understands the whole concept.”
That concept is “Usonian,” Wright’s philosophy of the interaction between public and private spaces. Born of the Great Depression years of the mid-1930s, Wright and a handful of contemporary architects and builders were at the forefront of affordable housing, particularly in the suburbs, where the desire was to combine economy with style, comfort and privacy. The planned group of six Suntop homes were also known as the “Cloverleaf Quadruple Housing Project,” commissioned by the Federal Works Agency as a low-cost alternative to the sort of cookie-cutter suburban development happening in places like Levittown, and outside of Chicago and Los Angeles.
Wright’s preferred name for the homes here, typically, was more straightforward. He called it “The Ardmore Experiment.”
Brand said the house has been on the market for about three weeks now, but the current sellers had also tried to sell in 2010 at a higher price.
For our tour, we brought along an Ardmore architect, Jack Burns, who jumped at the chance to see a gem that is largely unknown to locals, even to many lifelong Ardmore residents. It was during one of those recent, stiflingly hot days, yet none of us was in much of a hurry to leave, even after 45 minutes, as detail after detail revealed itself.
Moving from one room seamlessly into another, inside a house aproned with patios, gardens and balconies, natural light was directed, bent, refracted, and in certain places, held at bay, just so. Strips of windows appeared at the highest point of several walls, up stairwells, and spilled down the sides of doorways—even on the inside of a closet, or above the shower in the master bathroom. Shelves, sconces and benches, all drawn by Wright’s hand, were suddenly right before us.
“There’s not one accidental move in this entire place," Burns said, as he studied every angle.
Wright’s design called for four individual Usonian dwellings, arranged around a central point, with each stacked vertically to allow for outside space—a yard and gardens—for each of the four families. He then made the four units asymmetrically oriented, meaning none of the homes had a view of any of the others.
Jake Hokanson, an architectural designer for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP in New York City, said he has studied the Suntop concept and considers the homes to be terrific examples of creative, dense, compact housing, “while still creating a private home in a natural setting where you are hardly aware of your neighbor.”
Ultimately, the Ardmore Experiment failed, as only one of the planned six structures was built. Evidently, high design and accessibility can only come so far within reach of one another. Hokanson had an interesting insight on why that might have been so, with Wright.
“Most of his career, Frank Lloyd Wright was a residential architect, but tried pretty hard to get out of just doing houses,” Hokanson said from his Manhattan office. “That said, he created many designs that were commercial or institutional, and some were built—like the Guggenheim and the Johnson Wax building. But most of these were at the end of his career.”
Like many artistic geniuses, Wright’s flaws were legendary, even on the professional side of the equation, Burns agreed. “The difficulty was that he had this idea that he could build houses for the working man, and then it was two months’ worth of carpentry work on the interiors, which he could not part with.”
Wright’s exacting demands on craftsmanship, in other words, were sometimes the enemy of his intentions, and in the case of his “cloverleaf” homes, drove prices through the figurative roof.
In effect proving his point, Burns paused at a closet door by the main entrance, with a distinctive V-shaped pattern in the veneer woodwork. “There’s a seam right here,” Burns observed, moving his hand along the surface. “All this lumber came sequentially out of a tree with the intent of being on this wall, next to each other. It was never just a stack of wood laying around. They would cut these veneers, then lay them out as they came off the logs, so that the wall would look like this—with this nice flame pattern.”
Not for the first time, Burns was incredulous.
Though the listing says 1,600+ square feet, the interior may be smaller than that, and Brand said couples with (or intending to have) children often leave disappointed, after seeing the two small bedrooms. In fact, that’s part of the reason the house is for sale—the sellers have two kids who are growing fast.
Priscilla Robinson, who moved into the home on Dec. 31, 1999 with husband Jim Gee, said she’s happy to see her kids grow, “but we’re very sad to leave the house.”
Robinson and Gee put a lot into the home during the past decade. In 2004, the Lower Merion Historical Commission and Historical Architectural Review Board honored the couple for contributing “significantly to historic preservation in the Township.”
“Anybody who owns that home, you’re living in a part of history, and you’re going to want to keep that history going,” Robinson said this week. “Maybe it’s a silly dream, but I feel that whoever owns that house should maintain something—they should give back to it.”
Asked what it was like to live for years in such a unique home, Robinson admits that it is still difficult to verbalize. Recalling her first night there, “it just has a very different feel from anything I ever slept in before. It was, in a way, cozy, like living on a boat. There’s the very compact design ... but there’s also this color to it, because of the wood in there, and the brick walls.”
Like everything in the house, the nautical logic is subtle, but unmistakable enough that even a first-time visitor feels it, too, especially after ascending to the second floor kitchen area, where the sensation of being on water is twofold.
First, it is a classic galley kitchen, in size and function, with Wright-designed fixed seating around a sturdy wooden table. Overhead is a lamp that is hard-fastened to the ceiling—the thought of a hanging lamp or chandelier in its place seems criminal. Of course, it’s not just any old lamp, but rather a sexy assemblage of six frosted, rectangular panes of glass, stacked atop each other and held in place by wooden brackets fastened to the wooden ceiling. The light has more of an Art Deco aspect to it than Wright’s better-known lamps in the Arts & Crafts or Mission styles.
Second, half of that galley is actually an indoor balcony, hanging over the living room. To stand there and look over, one’s eye is allowed to stretch beyond the walls of the house, through the large glass panels, into the gardens and pathways, the fence near the sidewalk, the street, and even the sky.
You feel as if you are standing on the bridge of a yacht.
“You don’t understand the design until you’re living in it,” Robinson said. “In the first year we were there—sometimes it just hit you, and [we’d] say, ‘Now that’s a really intelligent way to have designed the house.’”
Robinson said a perfect example is the way the house is juxtaposed with the living quarters of the one that adjoins it: “To have the daytime quarters have a shared wall with the nighttime quarters, so that you don’t have the sound go through the wall … You don’t realize that until you’re in there.”
Likewise, the house is situated on a dense block of Ardmore. “But if you’re up on the sun-top part of it, and the neighbors are on their sun-tops, you wouldn’t see them. Again, very intelligent, and the height of the wall is low enough to let the environment in, yet high enough to have privacy. It’s a perfect height, and you think, gosh. As you live there, you keep finding these little surprises.”
The Butterfly Effect
Robinson’s listing agent said something similar on our recent walk-through: “Every time I come in, I notice something else,” Brand said. At one point, he observed, “There’s just nothing round in here.”
Something else perhaps not noticeable right away are two glass doors leading from the living room to the terrace, and the panes immediately above them, which can be opened—up almost 20 feet. Combined with the house’s natural air flow and its several clerestory windows (a clerestory is a high wall with a narrow band of windows along the very top, rising above adjoining roofs), summer heat rises quickly, moving up and out, lessening the need to crank the air conditioning. In winter, the floors’ radiant heating warms the house efficiently, and cost-effectively. Where there are radiators upstairs, Burns noticed that Wright even designed their wooden ventilation covers.
Suntop, then, is also a house with no need for curtains or floor coverings. A snowfall can be observed in bare feet. Blazing August heat is battered about by angled glass and louvered into submission.
As if that’s not enough to get a 21st century architect’s mind whirling, on the way back down from the sun decks and bedrooms, Burns spotted something he had hardly ever seen in textbooks, let alone in use in a modern home. It was an angular, dovetailed, wooden “butterfly joint,” holding in place stairway molding at a 90-degree angle.
A butterfly was common in 18th century joinery. Not so much in the 1930s. But it was typical of Wright’s knack for “taking the utilitarian and making it a show piece,” Burns said.
Mt. Sinai, North of Philly
Elsewhere in the Philadelphia area, Wright’s work can be found in Cherry Hill, N.J. and, notably, at the Beth Sholom Congregation, a synagogue located in Elkins Park, just north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County (near Jenkintown). It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007, with particularly vivid language: “The glazed glass pyramidal tower, built in the 1950s, reflects two dominant metaphors—the tent and the mountain—to convey the sense of a collective sacredness.”
Not known for his modesty, Wright himself called the steep walls and roof, made of glass and translucent plastic, a “luminous Mount Sinai.”
From certain angles, the synagogue looks like an ancient, extinct bird about to take flight. Compared to the Ardmore homes he designed on Sutton Road, it appears to have come from another planet.
From the Pleasantville-Briarcliff Manor Patch (N.Y. state): “Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Vision is Alive and Well in Pleasantville” (April 19, 2011).