Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 13, 2017
Steven M. Reiss Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. 216 pp.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780813934976)
Thumbnail

What is it about a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house that inspires some owners to endure hardship to see it built and overcome obstacles to prevent its destruction? It is a question implicitly asked and answered by Steven M. Reiss in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House, a skillful retelling of the complex history of a 1,200-square-foot Usonian house (originally known as the Pope House) built in 1941 in Falls Church, Virginia. The book, which is organized into three chronological sections, begins by relating the commission and construction of the house by financially strapped young clients. The second section describes its near seizure and demolition by the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as the efforts of its widowed second owner to rescue and move the house to a secure location. The final section documents the need to dismantle the house—once again—and rebuild it a mere thirty feet away. The last leg of this journey makes the house the only building designed by Wright to have been moved and rebuilt twice.

In addition to chronicling the physical history of the house in all its incarnations, the book also reflects on broader topics including changing social attitudes toward housing in the postwar years, the nascent yet evolving preservation movement in the United States in the early 1960s, the appeal and adaptability of Wright’s Usonian house plans, and the Herculean effort and collaborative action that can be required to ensure the survival of one’s home.

Reiss, an architect and former docent at the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia, also examines and interprets the many technical challenges that faced the original construction team who labored to build Wright’s innovative (incomprehensible, to some) house based on only six pages of architectural drawings. He then looks at the even greater challenges confronted by the teams that moved the building in 1965 and 1996 to two subsequent locations in nearby Alexandria. Additionally, Reiss rigorously analyzes site issues, from Wright’s original planned placement of the house to the failures to properly orient it during the reconstructions in Alexandria. Marjorie Leighey, the second owner of the house, summed up the consequences of one of those oversights as “particularly regrettable” (109).

The story of the Pope-Leighey house begins, as do the stories of many Wright houses, with young, idealistic clients of modest means, in this case Loren Pope (a copy editor for the Washington Evening Star who would go on to serve as education editor for the New York Times) and his wife Charlotte who, when exposed to Wright’s radical rethinking of the design of affordable housing for the American middle class, become fervent converts to this new architectural ideology. As Pope later explained—in near worshipful terms—when he read Wright’s autobiography in 1938, “Long before the book was finished, the light had become dazzling and I was a true believer” (9). He likened Wright’s “basic truths” to those “expressed by Jesus, by Emerson, and by Tao,” and embraced his conviction that “a building, like a life, should be a free and honest expression of purpose, done with all possible disciplined skill but without sham or pretense” (9).

Wright dubbed this new program “Usonia,” reputedly an acronym for “United States of North America.” Wright’s aim in the Usonian house, the concepts of which he began to explore in the early 1930s in his utopian plan for Broadacre City, was to invent a flexible planning and building system that would produce residences more conducive to a simpler, less cluttered lifestyle. Usonian houses simplified by removing any unnecessary spaces or features (attics, basements, garages, shutters, window boxes, and applied ornamentation), and by eliminating finishes that required maintenance (paint, wallpaper, or stucco). He laid out each Usonian house on a gridded plan, each based on a geometric module (square, rectangle, hexagon, triangle, or parallelogram). Plans were easily adaptable to a range of sites and terrains, as well as families of varied sizes. Wright also challenged conventional methods of construction by rejecting wood framing and utilizing, instead, a prefabricated “sandwich wall” system in which non-structural wood and glass walls could be inserted on site between the structural masonry piers that supported the roof. Although Wright’s methods were scoffed at as unbuildable by some contractors and rejected as unfinanceable by many lending institutions, they were in demand by prospective clients. Usonian houses, which prefigured the ranch houses that would proliferate in America at mid-century, proved to be so successful that Wright continued to design them until his death in 1959.

In 1939, Pope employed his journalistic skills to craft a letter to Wright he later described as being “one that no man with a normal ego could say no to” (14), in which he asked the architect to design a house for a wooded lot he owned in Falls Church. Pope cited the $5,500 cost and L-shaped plan of the 1936 Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin—the first of Wright’s Usonian designs to be built—as a model for the home they desired. Like many Wright clients, the Popes were turned down repeatedly for conventional construction loans as many banks viewed flat roofs and sandwich walls as experimental and feared Usonian houses would be “white elephant[s]” (33) when it came to resale. Construction moved forward only when Pope’s employer, the Washington Evening Star, gave him a loan toward the roughly $7,000 it would cost to build the house. One of Wright’s Taliesin apprentices, Gordon Chadwick, supervised the construction of the house, which local master carpenter Howard Rickert crafted.

The Pope’s lived in their house for only five years, decamping in 1946 to a large farm in Loudon County, Virginia, where they hoped to, but did not, build a second Wright-designed house. Pope recalled that “at least a hundred people” (69) expressed interest in buying their “white elephant” of a house. Ultimately, they sold it to Robert Leighey, a patent attorney, and his wife, Marjorie, a teacher, for $17,000—a tidy profit on their initial investment. Had they not, it is doubtful the house would stand today as Marjorie, unquestionably, was its savior.

From this point forward, Reiss shifts the book’s narrative to the house during the Leigheys’ residency and the events that would lead to the battle for its very survival. Shortly after Robert’s death in 1963, Marjorie received the first in a series of notifications from the state advising of the impending seizure and demolition of her house, which stood in the proposed route of Interstate Highway 66. She was given sixty days to vacate. Marjorie chose to fight and soon found herself at the helm of a grassroots effort to save her house and property. When it became clear that the only way to rescue the house was to move it, she contacted U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall and implored him to intercede. On her behalf, Udall negotiated the political waters and brokered a deal in which Marjorie donated her house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1965, it was moved to the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation, once part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, in Alexandria; Leighey was given life tenancy, and her home renamed the “Pope-Leighey House.” In a contemporary interview, she said, “I could have accepted the cash from the State and let them have it, but the house is a thing of beauty that oughtn’t be destroyed” (93).

As extraordinary as Leighey’s efforts were at the time, they are even more remarkable in hindsight when considered in the context of the historic preservation movement (or lack thereof) in the early 1960s, an era characterized by little local or federal protection for nationally significant properties, let alone small private residences. Significantly, the house was saved without the clout of the National Historic Preservation Act, which was not signed into law until 1966.

However, as Reiss explains in the final section of the book, the house’s troubles were not over. According to a National Trust report, “inadequate adaption of the house to a site which was notably different than that upon which the original construction occurred” (118), and the flat-out failure to recognize the instability of the soil on which it was reconstructed, resulted in the necessity of a second dismantling and reconstruction at Woodlawn in 1996. The price tag for the final thirty-foot journey of Wright’s “affordable” little house was approximately $700,000. As National Trust sites, both the Pope-Leighey House and Woodlawn, designed in 1800 by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, are open to the public. Considered together, they offer an informative counterpoint of American architectural styles.

The book’s black-and-white photographs and drawings effectively complement the text and work well to visually document the history of the house. But an opportunity was missed to include more photographs of interiors—color images in particular—that would help readers better imagine the experience of inhabiting the house. Without the aid of color, it is difficult to fully appreciate the tone of the Red Tidewater Cypress and red brick walls, the warmth of the light patterns that play on those surfaces, or what it was about living in the house that so captivated its owners.

As a writer, Reiss is not a sensationalist and has no interest in deifying or demonizing Wright, a trap into which too many authors of similar volumes have fallen. Instead, Reiss writes from a professional’s point of view of the give and take between architect and client, the often unsung but critical role skilled craftspersons play in realizing a quality work of architecture, and the bargains that must be struck when dreams and realities clash. By telling the story in full, he reminds those among us who have ever built, or dreamed of building, a house of one’s own of the universal desire to do so.

This aspiration was best summed up by Pope in his essay, “The Love Affair of a Man and His House,” which appeared in House Beautiful magazine in 1948. Of his own Wright-designed residence, he wrote: “Everyday [sic] this house reminds us that the true elegance that lifts the spirit and pleases the soul in is not a function of size or cost but is open to all who are able to see it and desire it. It is within your grasp” (137).

Jane King Hession
former president, Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.