The Original “Starchitect”

The word “pilgrimage” is apt when talking about my recent visit to two Frank Lloyd Wright houses in western Pennsylvania — Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Two quite different homes, a few miles apart, reflecting very different points in the career of America’s most famous and revered architect.

Wright embarked on his own practice in 1893 after leaving the office of Louis Sullivan in Chicago. He went on to design many homes in what he called the Prairie Style, seeking to upend the traditional notions of house planning and design. Larger commissions ensued and his business flourished. However, a series of scandals, tragedies, and profligate spending, along with his notoriously abrasive manner, landed Wright in the position of a tarnished reputation and financial difficulty. Wright managed to restore his image following a series of prominent exhibitions of his work, but commissions for new work were slow coming. In 1932, he founded a school at his home in Taliesin, Wisconsin. One of his students was Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the son of a wealthy department store owner in Pittsburgh. Edgar convinced his father to hire Wright to design a family vacation home on a site along a stream.

The waterfall is not visible from the house, only the sound. This image clearly shows the expansive cantilevered terraces, the source of many troubles ahead.

Completed in 1937, Fallingwater is perhaps the most iconic and recognizable modern building in the world. Noted for its dramatic forms cantilevering over the waterfall, the house was immediately revered and published internationally, and kickstarted Wright’s comeback as an architectural star.

It’s easy to wax poetic about the design of this extraordinary home, but something that intrigued me on the tour was the telling of the relationship between the architect and his clients. Wright had a reputation for being dogmatic, not open to compromise.

“Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility.

I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” Frank Lloyd Wright

Yet in fact, the Kaufmanns asked for various changes in the original design, and Wright was apparently receptive to their requests. Access to certain rooms was re-arranged to suit the family’s lifestyle. Wright had designed groundbreaking corners windows into the design which were meant to be operable. The Kaufmanns, being familiar with the land, asked for screens so that they could have windows open without inviting in the array of bugs that would surely invade. Wright said they would detract from the view, but relented and designed them into the project. On the big issues though, he was more difficult. The builder and the client’s advisors were concerned about the structural integrity of the design of the extensive cantilevers throughout the house. Wright was convinced his design would work, but the clients decided to hire structural engineers to review the design. They determined that additional steel was required, Wright wasn’t happy, but the clients directed the builder to follow the engineer’s suggestions. In the mid 1990’s it became clear that deflection in the cantilevered terraces was still a problem, and engineers determined that even the additional steel that was added was insufficient. In 2002, floors were dug up so that new post tensioned high-strength steel cables could be installed in several areas.

A famous Wright quote that all architects chuckle over:

“A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

This structural mistake was not one that could be fixed with vines!

Corner windows with screens.

Kentuck Knob

Low horizontal forms with large roof overhangs were features of Usonian homes.

Friends of the Kaufmanns, the Hagans visited Fallingwater often, and purchased land nearby in 1953, where they wanted to build their primary residence, and wanted Wright to be the architect. By this time, Wright was 86 and world famous, and the Hagans weren’t sure he would take on this project for them. They wanted a more modest home and were enamored with Wright’s Usonian houses they had seen published. These were Wright’s version of middle class homes that shared distinctive design features. They traveled to Taliesin in Wisconsin, and were interviewed by the master- he agreed to take on the project. Wright said he could “shake the (usonian) designs right out of his sleeve,” at that point in his career. Kentuck Knob was one of the last homes Wright ever designed.

Wright’s Usonian homes were designed to be “affordable” for the middle class, this home was upscaled both in size and luxury of detail. The house nestles into the hill and presents a modest presence on the landscape.

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

In this project, the clients requested some big changes from the original design, and perhaps because of his age and no longer needing to prove his point, he apparently went along with the changes graciously. Many rooms were enlarged, the original kitchen design was barely functional.

“Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.”

The skylit and ornamented balcony roof was a reflection of the upgrades to the standard Usonian design.

Wright’s original design called for the Cherokee Red concrete floors that were typical of the Usonian homes; the Hagan’s thought it looked like a warehouse and wanted the large scale slate floors they had seen at Fallingwater. Wright famously designed bedrooms as low ceiling spaces, the Hagans were tall and insisted on high ceilings in these rooms, and got them. The Hagans also got screens on their windows. The angular dining table Wright designed didn’t appeal to his clients, and they replaced it with an organic shaped table by George Nakashima.

“I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contacts with my own furniture.”

A bit of honest humility to balance the arrogance.

I’ve always found on my projects that design changes to accommodate the needs and sometimes whims of my clients has generally improved the end result. This then pushes me to incorporate those into the project in a way that doesn’t compromise, and usually improves the design. Perhaps even FLW ultimately felt the same way.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.