Thursday, August 16, 2007

House for sale: Wright for you?

Yes yes! Only it would require relocation to Minnesota--and a lot more than that. Sotheby's is offering this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house for $3.75 million.

The Don and Virginia Lovness estate in Stillwater, Minnesota sits on 20 acres of lakefront property located 15 minutes east of St. Paul. The home has two bedroom wings separated by the living spaces that include an immense fireplace built of hand-cut Wisconsin stone. A glass window wall faces views of the lake. The property includes both the main house, known as the studio, and a smaller home, the cottage, which is also made of Wisconsin stone. The homes have been maintained by the family since the mid 1950s and the built-in furnishings, designed by Wright for the homes, go with the property. There are also Wright designs for three additional cottages.

Designed in the mid-1950s, this house is in Wright's "Usonian" style. That's a word he apparently made up:

Some suggest that Wright came up with the name during his first trip to Europe in 1910, when there was some discussion about referring to the USA as "Usona" in order to distinguish it from the new Union of South Africa. (In those days, as for much of the century, it's easy to see how the two nations could be confused.) Wright once said he took the name from Samuel Butler's utopian novel Erewhon. But no one's been able to track it down there. . . . Most likely it was a joke. After all, read in a mirror the title of Butler's novel is Nowhere.

Usonian houses were small, "organic" in design and choice of materials, and accommodating.

"We can never make the living room big enough, the fireplace important enough, or the sense of relationship between exterior, interior and environment close enough, or get enough of these good things I've just mentioned," Wright wrote in a 1948 issue of Architectural Forum. "A Usonian house is always hungry for the ground, lives by it, becoming an integral feature of it."

As John Sergeant writes in his excellent 1976 book on Wright's Usonian houses,

They had no "sense of the grand," but were designed for the celebration of the family coming together. They were not formulated for servant-help, but were planned for ease of maintenance with a central kitchen from which conversation could be maintained with guests.

But, Sergeant continues, Wright came up with this revolutionary idea "in post-Depression America at a time when an organic architecture in which each person was free to express his or her needs was clearly impossible." For that and many other reasons--Wright's own politics being among them--his hoped-for revolution in housing design for the masses didn't happen.

The price wasn't the problem. Usonian houses could be had for $5,000 to $10,000. But for other reasons, the revolution didn't happen. Instead, the precious few intact Wright designs that come on the market, like the Lovness property, go for millions. Who is going to buy this house? Never mind the credit crunch. What kind of person with that kind of money is going to want a home of a mere 1,875 sq. ft., with no room for a Jacuzzi in the master bath?

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