As Frank Lloyd Wright Turns 150, A ‘Small Jewel’ In Virginia Shares Lessons In Simplicity
June 8, 2017 marks 150 years since of the birth of acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and events are taking place all summer across the country. Known for famous buildings like Falling Water and the Guggenheim Museum, Wright also experimented with more affordable housing. One of these "Usonian" homes in Virginia was almost demolished by the state. For Virginia Currents, WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more on the family that commissioned the home and the woman who saved it.
Learn More: Find details about the Pope-Leighey House, including events to mark the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's birth. Architect and author Steven Reiss will give a talk titled "The Small Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright" Saturday June 10th at the National Building Museum and lead a technical tour of the Pope-Leighey house Sunday June 10th, 2017.
In 1939, Loren Pope had an acre and a third of wooded property in Falls Church. And, he had a dream, says architect Steven Reiss.
Steven Reiss: His focus was to have a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The 28-year-old journalist spent almost nine months crafting a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright. It was six pages long.
Reiss: He wrote it, rewrote it, and he told me that he did at least 12 drafts of it.
Pope provided detailed descriptions of the property, including its slope and prevailing winds. He wanted the house built “under the shade of a tulip poplar.” And he wrote, “We’d like to have the outside and the inside on the same level, so when one asks ‘Where does the garden end and the house begin?’ even you can’t say.” “Many another architect might be able to plan or design a house,” wrote Pope, “But only you can create one that will become for us a home.”
Reiss: As Loren said years later, it was a letter no person with a normal ego could say no to and Loren knew exactly what he was doing. He once told me with a little twinkle in his eye that he knew that Wright would eventually get back to him because he felt so much of his soul had been poured into the letter he wrote to Wright.
A few weeks later, a response arrived. Wright said yes.
Reiss: He would walk over to the East Falls Church post office and see if a letter came finally a small envelope with a little red square logo in the upper left hand corner came and Loren ripped the letter open and it said “Dear Loren, of course I’m ready to give you a house. Signed Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Wright had just been on the cover of Time magazine. He recently finished the Johnson Wax headquarters in Wisconsin and the pricey home known as Fallingwater in rural Pennsylvania. But he also had an interest in affordable housing.
Reiss: It actually started quite early in Wright’s career. He had always been fascinated by developing smaller houses that the average family could afford. During the Great Depression Wright had very, very few design commissions. So he started to plan the ideal city which he called Broadacre, and within Broadacre each lot was one acre in size and within that acre he promised that if you came to him with an acre of land, he would give you a unique, affordable house. So that was in 1929 and it stayed in Wright’s mind and soul for years and years, and finally in 1935-1936, he had a chance to test his theory up in Madison, Wisconsin with the first Usonian house.
Reiss wrote a book about the house Wright designed for the Pope family, which is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Usonian style was meant for middle income families, but used many of Wright’s signature elements.
Reiss: If you look at the arc of Wright’s career and the buildings he started designing really at the turn of the 20th Century, you can begin to see even then components of the larger houses he carried over to the smaller houses. So there’s a vocabulary, there’s a grammar that Wright remained very consistent with as he designed both his larger and smaller houses: the open floor plan, the fireplace as a central meeting point, the amount of light, the clarity of the inside, these houses were all built on grids. All the houses, whether the large or the small ones, adhere to those same precepts.
Loren Pope traveled to Wisconsin to tour Wright’s first Usonian house and meet with the architect at his home and studio. While the planning took place, Pope tried to secure a loan. But like many Usonian homeowners, the Federal Housing Administration refused. Reiss says it considered Wright’s designs too experimental.
Reiss: He went to a number of banks in the Northern Virginia, Washington DC-Falls Church area. One of them specifically, Loren remembers, said that the house was white elephant and the bank could not provide any funding for it.
A solution came through Pope’s employer, the Washington Evening Star.
Reiss: The newspaper had just started program where they were actually loaning employees money to build a house which was quite amazing when you think about it today, but they were encouraging employees to stay in the area and they wanted them to live in houses of they could afford it. So the Washington Star loaned Loren enough of the money, in addition to a small down payment that Loren had saved, to begin construction of the house. Loren signed an agreement that he would pay back that loan at $25 a month. It was for approximately $5000 at that point. So really without the Washington Evening Star’s program in loaning money, the house probably would not have been built.
Construction began in July 1940 and was complete nine months later. Total cost was about $7500.
Susan Barron: So this house is the Pope-Leighey House.
Volunteer docent Susan Barron points out the Usonian aspects of the 1200 square foot house.
Barron: Wright wanted them to be affordable to build and affordable to maintain. So one of the ways he made them affordable to build was to limit the variety of materials used in the construction. This house is built of concrete, brick, wood and glass. There’s no paint or plaster anywhere in the house, there’s no drywall. When we get inside, you’ll see there’s no vertical or horizontal trim. All those things reduce your building costs and then simplify maintenance.
The L-shaped structure has a flat roof, there’s no attic, basement or garage. Less storage space means less stuff and homeowners could simplify their lives. The low cantilevered carport provides some shelter for a vehicle. But it’s also uses an architectural technique called compression and release.
Barron: He wants you to feel a little compressed, he wants you to notice it’s kind of low so that when you go into the house in these rooms with taller ceilings and all the windows, your sense of release is exaggerated.
Inside, down a short flight of stairs, you feel that release. This is the “public wing,” a bright and airy open concept design. Walls of windows that open up to the outside. Look up, there’s a geometric band of light, an architectural element that’s called a clerestory.
Barron: It adds a physical lightness to the ceiling, it makes the ceiling feel as if it’s suspended on glass, floating on glass.
The clerestory windows also open up.
Barron: In the Spring, you’d get up on a ladder, push those segments open, there were pegs to hold them in place, there were screens that go over that. By having them all open, your hope is the hot air circulates out of the house and it’s something that Wright called gravity cooling. Gravity because the hot air is lighter, it’s going to rise up there and your hope is it gets blown out of the house at that level.
And there’s another purpose for these windows, each set uniquely designed by Wright for the Usonian homeowner. As the sun passes through the glass, it casts shapes of light on the floor and walls.
Barron: So you get this wonderful sense, almost like stained glass with just using natural light and the cut out patterns exaggerate the light. Loren Pope called that his ribboned pattern of light.
Like other Usonian homes, the kitchen or "workspace" is small but functional. Bedrooms are also modest.
Reiss: Wright’s intent was very simple and very deliberate and very well-documented, he wanted the family to come together, read books, sit by fireplace or simply just talk to each other.
Wright designed homes with sustainability in mind. He’d study the property’s orientation, latitude and longitude to determine how to shield the house from the hot summer sun, but let it shine through in the winter. The Pope-Leighey house was built with red tidewater cypress, impervious to bugs and water damage. And he used radiant or gravity heating.
Reiss: One of the things that Loren loved about the gravity heat of the house that Wright had included, Loren once told me he loved it for many reasons, it was inexpensive, it was clean, and it eliminated the need for radiators. But he said most importantly, it kept the dog off the furniture because the dog loved sleeping on the warm floor.
The Pope family loved the home, but they decided to sell a few years later. They befriended Wright and always intended he build them another home on their new property in Loudoun County. The next owners, Marjorie and Robert Leighey had been living in Richmond. When they saw an add for a Frank Lloyd Wright home, they moved quickly.
Reiss: It was late at night, she called up the realtor and convinced the realtor to meet them at house that evening.
Robert Leighey wasn’t a modernist, says Reiss. But this Usonian home moved him.
Reiss: Because the the Pope-Leighey house, like many of Wright’s houses, has a unique, fascinating glow to it at night, it’s almost like a small jewel. So all the lights were on, lights were coming through the clerestories, it was very quiet. And Robert walked into the house and as Marjorie said fell in love with it immediately.
Loren Pope believed the couple would love the home as much as he did and the sale went through quickly. He was right, says Steven Reiss. His book, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope Leighey House documents the multi-year struggle to save the home. After the Leigheys lived there nearly two decades, Virginia’s Department of Transportation wanted to seize the property to extend Route 66. Now a widow, Marjorie Leighey put up a fight.
Reiss: She made a determination that she was not going to give up, sell or see the house destroyed. And there’s no question, looking back at the history of the house, that if it had been anyone else but Marjorie Leighey, there’s a good chance the house wouldn’t be here anymore.
Marjorie Leighey spent two years trying to save the house, one of just three Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the state. She talked to a lawyer and refused to pick up the condemnation letter, sent via registered mail. The National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the fight. Leighey was even interviewed by Susan Stamberg on WAMU’s “A Biography of a House.” Finally, she decided to write US Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
Reiss: And she basically said this house can not be destroyed.
Udall was a preservationist. The letter caught his attention and he brought state and federal officials to the house for a tour and meeting.
Reiss: And there’s some wonderful photographs of all of these guys in living room and there's somewhat slight Marjorie Leighey just listening and watching and waiting to see what the verdict would be.
The verdict, says Reiss, was that they’d have to move the house. But it would be saved. With the help of Udall and the National Park Service, they found an appropriate site to relocate the home - the Woodlawn property in Alexandria owned by National Trust for Historic Preservation. Leighey would live in the property until her death in 1983. Her work to save the home had a larger impact too, says Reiss.
Reiss: If we go back to 1965, there was no National Preservation Act and in fact the Pope- Leighey house is considered one of the key reasons that the Preservation Act for protecting historic houses came to be.
Reiss’s book quotes an oral history from Marjorie Leighey: “From the time I was five I can remember wanting a house that was right even with the earth (just like me). Long before we had read magazine articles saying ‘Bring the outside inside and make nature one,’ and all that, it was what I dreamed of for a home.” Reiss says Wright understood that nature was essential to humans. When he meet with Usonian home owners, he would say “you must find a simpler way of life.”
Reiss: And what he was saying is that living in that house will result in you simplifying your life. It will cause you to liberate yourself from all of things that we typically think are necessary, but which really aren’t. So going back to 1935 [and the first Usonian house] and fast-forwarding more than 80 years today, I think the message is the same: that to live a simple life is to live a good life and that one is not sacrificing anything with that simplicity.
For Virginia Currents, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.