David & Gladys Wright House
December 13 2015
Nestled among ranch homes and McMansions in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix, Arizona, the outside world is noticeably absent on the two-acre campus of the David and Gladys Wright House.
Sixty years into his architectural practice, the home and its guest house were built by Frank Lloyd Wright as a gift for Wright’s oldest son, David, and his wife, Gladys. Since its construction in 1953, it was very much the private residence of David and Gladys, who tended to the surrounding citrus orchard and its brightly colored interior, until it was inherited by their granddaughters in the late aughts.
For the last three years, the David and Gladys Wright Foundation, an Arizona non-profit, has continued to restore the home, providing tours and education along the way, and plans to reopen the house as a museum in mid-2016. Orchestrated efforts by the foundation maintain a feeling of serenity even as a total landscape restoration is underway.
A product of Wright’s Usonian Automatic style, the home is at once a study in affordable materials such as concrete block, Philippine mahogany, and glass, and an embodiment of the architect’s organic sensibility. Inspired by desert rock found throughout the Grand Canyon state, this little “castle in the sky” is supported by columns and stands in the center of the campus. It has the ceremonial feel of a temple, a relic of a recent time in an area that values new developments.
A winding curve, akin to that of Wright’s Guggenheim, leads visitors across the campus and around the building in a slow spiral towards the concealed second-story entrance. This hidden passage feels like a door found on a theater stage. Eaves in the form of dragon’s teeth line the roof of the structure in a similarly mythical and understated fashion.
Concrete fills the space between neighboring blocks and visually stretches the exterior, an effect felt inside the home. Each room expands and contracts between curved walkways and mahogany ceilings that flow like circular currents. There’s a particular sense of tempo felt here. From the home’s main room is a view of Camelback Mountain, not permitted by those in the guest house, a reflection of Wright’s sense of behavioral molding.
From the wooden chairs and window-bound seating to the living room rug, reproduced after the original was sold at auction; to the use of indirect light, the kitchen or workroom being one of the only with an overhead source; every detail is designed and each purpose is predetermined.
Part of Wright’s dream was more Usonian Automatic homes, less grandiose, but similar in materials and approach: focused outward into the surrounding elements as much as the inhabited interior. Many homes today boast right angles and layouts with the familiarity of weeknight sitcom sets. The rote sequence of front door, foyer, stairwell, and living room all make this house more of a wonder. To think that only three years ago it would face demolition, erasing a dream and the little “castle in the sky” that represented it.
We spoke with Mellie MacEachern, the Project Assistant at the David Wright House about the history and future of the property.
The David and Gladys Wright House was intended as a private residence. How did the idea of the home-as-museum come about?
It’s a sort of natural transition because it was specifically designed and intended for the lifestyle of David and Gladys, and it holds a great deal of historical relevance to the architecture in the city of Phoenix and the life story of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s only logical that it should be a resource for education and be open to Phoenix as a source of history – something that this town severely lacks. Sarah Levi, the great-great-granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright, and therefore the great-granddaughter of David and Gladys, wrote her master’s thesis as a feasibility study on opening the house to the public as a museum. It really sparked the development of this idea and it’s snowballed from there. The current owner, Zach Rawling, has a vision for this place to be an inspiring learning facility for people–especially children–to be inspired, learn and create.
How have neighbors received the news?
Mostly well. There are a number of neighbors that understand the value of having a resource like the David Wright House in their neighborhood. Of course, there is opposition to making the home public – what some call “commercial” – and they fear that traffic or noise from the house will impact their way of life. We want to be a part of the community and therefore we are accommodating those requests with a goal of being invisible and inaudible to the neighborhood. We’re doing a number of traffic, parking, and sound studies to make sure that we have little to no impact on the lifestyle of the Arcadia neighborhood. We’re always open to meeting with the neighbors, further discussing, and hopefully rectifying their concerns. That’s the most official way that I can put it. Someday, everyone will relax and laugh that they were ever worried in the first place.
With the recent reopening of Wright’s Hollyhock house in LA, were there other home-museums that influenced the opening of this Wright house?
You might not realize it, but the vast majority of museums are small and individually owned and operated. There is a huge and marvelous legacy of preserving and opening historical homes as museums. Even in an intellectually dry and historically void city like Phoenix there’s precedent: Taliesin West, it’s a residence for the Fellowship as well as a school, but a residence none the less; the Rosson House in Heritage Square in Downtown Phoenix; Tovrea Castle, and so on. House museums are a direct and personal way to have a specific and illustrative educational experience. By merely existing, house museums give validation to the history of the places or towns where they are located. The David Wright House validates and preserves a facet of Phoenix’s architectural history as a uniquely mid century modern town.
What do you hope visitors take away from their visit?
That houses don’t have to be rectangles. Seriously. Weird looking but functional buildings broaden a person’s imagination. If houses don’t have to be rectangles, does anything have to be anything else? Ideally, I would like people to learn a number of things when they visit the house, but boiled down to it’s most basic, that’s it: that houses don’t have to be rectangles.
I want people to understand another facet of the life of a man that most people think they understand. Frank Lloyd Wright lived a long and complicated life and was multifaceted. But people often forget that eras in his lifetime overlap. Just because he married someone else doesn’t mean his first family disappeared, and this house tells the visual story of a father and son collaborating and coming together decades after that experience. It’s a story of family and redemption and it’s truly compelling and rather beautiful. I hope that visitors walk away having learned something new and personal about the American Icon, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The foundation has restored much of the residence including a reproduction of that iconic carpet. Are there plans for further restoration?
We’re restoring the orange groves. The citrus trees that originally surrounded the house in every direction literally shaped how the house is structured: it’s elevated on a second story to fully take advantage of the 360-degree view of the mountains around the house. We still have a long road ahead in terms of restoration and preservation. It’s not all set in stone either, I know that the plans fluctuate from replacing certain things to not replacing them, or replacing them with something else. The conversation surrounding the restoration process is very fluid. And then on top of that, when the house becomes preserved as a Historic Landmark, that will dramatically affect what we can and can’t do in our restoration process, so I guess we’ll find out more after that happens.
While on tour, we learned about the scholar-in-residence program. How did that come about?
Even though it’s a valuable community resource, it’s still also a house and should be treated as such. Therefore, we want someone living in it, learning from it, and being inspired by it every single day. That’s what Sarah’s doing right now as our very first scholar-in-residence. Her insight into the project and where we should take the museum is magnificent. It’s one thing to work somewhere, but to live somewhere means that you have a clarity and perception about the place that no one else has. And that perspective will continue to be valuable as we move forward, so to keep it intact it was decided that we need a scholar or artist living at the house.
You spend a lot of time in this house. How has working here impacted your outlook on homes elsewhere?
It’s weird that you ask that because the impact of being in a home like this only struck me last weekend. I had to go to an event in Surprise and I nearly had a panic attack because every house is functionless, takes up the space of the entire lot, and all of them look exactly the same. I’ve always been bothered by stucco houses in subdivisions where every house is exactly like the last, but recently I have been much more affected by places that exhibit an intentional lack of architectural ingenuity or inspiration. The idea of living in a place that is made of chemicals and altered materials is really weird, now. I obsess over the function and utility of space in houses and buildings. I like the idea of brick and wood more than drywall and stucco, places to put your books instead of buying a bookshelf, and a home that reflects its surroundings and the person living within it.