For most people, it probably starts with an image, either of an eye-catching Wright design like Fallingwater, or perhaps more likely, a photograph of the man himself with his keen, self-confident regard, white mane of hair and distinctive turn-of-the-century attire. Not for me, though.
The first time I heard the architect’s name was when my father announced we were moving to a different house, one that was “Frank Lloyd Wright styled,” and made of exotic California redwood—all pretty uncommon in Janesville, Wisconsin. The house had also won a state architecture award, whatever that meant, as evidenced by the yellowed newspaper clippings we inherited with the house. I was ten.
As it turned out, I had trick-or-treated at the place the year before. It was a sprawling abode at the dark end of the street, with a woods behind it. My friend told me a witch lived there as we opened the heavy, wooden gate and headed down what seemed a very long walk toward a huge front door with a knob that was triple the size of any I had seen before. When we moved in, I had to use two hands to turn that doorknob. And I got lost inside the house.
The things I could understand were special about it at that time are different from what I appreciate now. Then, the first thing I showed people was that there was a whole separate ‘kids’ wing’ with its own playroom, bathrooms and bedrooms, and a door separating it from the rest of the house. The second was the built-ins in my room: the bookcase that ran the length of the wall beneath the solid row of windows; the drawers and shelves in my closet; and the crown jewel—a desk that was flush with the wall. It was like doing a magic trick to turn a latch and let it open out from the wall of maple wood to hang by chains, lit by a lamp mounted above.
It was, in a way, mind-bending—or mind-expanding—to have a dresser and desk that were not pieces of furniture cluttering the room, and have no corded lamp to be plugged in and tripped over. These were indications that more planning, design and creativity had been brought to bear here, in ways that made living in that house cooler, easier and more fun than anyplace else. Everyone always wanted to come over.
These days what I love about the place, where my parents still live, are the walls of windows, and how having wings of rooms instead of one solid mass means there is more natural light everywhere, and no areas that feel like awkward accidents of space. I love the orientation of the home toward the woods instead of the street, with a large screened-in porch that is detailed to appear like an extension of the living room, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor space. I envy the radiant floor heating beneath a concrete surface that is warm to the winter foot, and where I used to lie and read, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the woods.
All of these things I love about that California ranch home in southern Wisconsin are ones that can be credited to Frank Lloyd Wright. He died before I was born, but he changed my life–especially by showing me there can be a better way than how everyone else has been doing something all along.
End of Part I