Public Media Arts Hub

Why these 2 houses, now open to the public, are key to Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: The Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, is where you will find two homes designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright on the same street, a rarity.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston brings us the story of how these homes, now open to the, public came to be. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: On a New Hampshire street dotted with traditional New England homes, there are two very different ones built more than 60 years ago. When the neighbors cried, there goes the neighborhood, at least it was going to architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Kurt Sandstorm, Senior Curator, Currier Museum of Art: There was quite a stir at the beginning. They referred to it pejoratively as the chicken coop, but, today, they have embraced it.

Jared Bowen: It is the Zimmerman House, built for a married couple in 1950, and echoed just a few houses down, in a home built for the Zimmermans' friends the Kalils five years later. Both mark a moment when the aging Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America's most celebrated architects, believed he still had much to say.

Alan Chong, Director, Currier Museum of Art: He was influenced by prairie architecture, but also by Japanese architecture.

Jared Bowen: Alan Chong is the director of the Currier Museum of Art, which inherited the Zimmerman home fully intact in 1988. It purchased the Kalil House in 2019, the first time it had ever come up for sale.

Alan Chong: We regard these two houses as works of art, so they're technically part of the collection. We maintain them for the public for the future.

Jared Bowen: Both couples, busy childless professionals working in the medical field, wanted homes that would be modern, but also feel warm. So they reached out to Wright. Then in his 80s, he was reengaging in residential design.

Kurt Sundstrom is the Currier Museums senior curator.

Kurt Sandstorm: He saw this opportunity after World War II, with people buying homes, the -- getting out of the Depression, that there was an opportunity to create beautifully designed homes for the middle class.

Jared Bowen: Even if, from the front and to the neighbors' chagrin, it didn't look that way.

Kurt Sandstorm: If we look at the street view, the facade of this building, it's like a militaristic building. It very much keeps the privacy of the individual.

But then, when you look outside, you have this magnificent open glass wall that leads on to these beautifully designed gardens. And those colors integrate beautifully with this building. So, what is actually a small home feels expansive in this environment, but also very protective from the outside world.

Jared Bowen: In all elements of the home, Wright and his design team were all in. Surviving letters reveal the couple gave the architect free rein, right down to their stationery and a music stand for the music lovers.

Kurt Sandstorm: He designed everything. For him, it was the whole rather than, I will just build the house and then you guys can furnish it whatever way you want.

Architecture in a building like this was a complete work of art. You can see, even in the woodwork, the level of detail is extraordinary. This is Georgia cypress. He takes planks, and the planks are married when they turn a corner, so they're the same piece of wood.

Jared Bowen: Wright designed both the Zimmerman and Kalil homes while also working on the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. All three projects are similar, in that they adhere to his philosophy of organic architecture.

Kurt Sandstorm: These houses are of the earth. The house almost seems to rise out of the landscape. And you will see in both houses certain areas of the house go below grade. So that integration right into the landscape is essential for these homes.

Jared Bowen: The houses were also studies in simplicity, or at least they were supposed to be. As the Currier's Andrew Spahr explains, they were designed under a system Wright called Usonian Automatic.

Andrew Spahr, Curatorial Affairs Director, Currier Museum of Art: Well, Usonian was sort of his play on the United States of America, and Usonian was his philosophy for building these houses and villages, cities.

And automatic was intended to imply that the owner could construct the house.

Jared Bowen: By way of builder's road, map not unlike LEGOs.

Andrew Spahr: There are approximately 12 or 13 different, distinct blocks that were designed to construct this house. There were only seven of these houses built, ultimately, and the owner or the contractor would construct molds, and would then cast these concrete molds to make the blocks.

And you would do a tally as to how many of which kind of blocks you needed to construct the house.

Jared Bowen: To be clear, both the Zimmermans and Kalils hired builders. And for the subsequent decades they lived in their homes, the couples kept them just as both they and the architect wished, so that two of Frank Lloyd Wright's final projects could also be lasting ones.

Kurt Sandstorm: Their home, they recognized they were only temporary owners, and that it needed to be passed on. It's the way you buy a work of art. Someone, a private person buying a Rembrandt, you're just a temporary custodian. And that's why the Currier is so fortunate to have two homes showing two different aspects of a similar type of home that he was designing.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
+
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.