Cabin On The Rocks – Walker House, Carmel, CA…

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1952 Della Walker Residence. We visited on two dates in 1971, April 4th and 8th. The first visit with foggy conditions. April 8th was sunny.

With a triangular stone wall rising from a promontory along the coast of Carmel, the 1952 “Cabin on the rocks” built for Della Walker is a jewel in the Frank Lloyd Wright portfolio and among his best Usonian designs.

The most dramatic element of the house is the prow-shaped wall built of Carmel Stone, jutting into the Pacific Ocean. The hexagonal-shaped living room space, framed in stepped horizontal mullions and glass, rises out of the stone prow providing a panoramic view of the surrounding ocean and beach scape.

The Walker Residence is the only Usonian design completed by Wright in a coastal environment. He previously had clients owning coastal sites but those plans were never built. Wright found the Carmel beach site compelling, and at a time in his career when he and the Fellowship were exceptionally in demand, he personally supervised this project from beginning to end.

 The hexagonal living room space framed by seemingly seamless bands of reverse-stepped glass panels. The design not only provides a distinct look, but had a unique functionality – there are vents under the windows which are opened and closed with sliders allowing for air but not stiff wind or ocean spray.

Timelessly at the ship’s bow, ‘Undine’ the mermaid stands duty. A Robert Boardman Howard sculpture.
Window detail on a foggy day

Luckily this architectural treasure remains in the family. Della Walker was still residing here when I shot these photos. While my memory isn’t perfect either her or another family member were very accommodating of my photo project, allowing me a second session a few days later under sunny skies.

Della Walker passed away in 1978 at age 100.

Della Walker’s great grandson Chuck Henderson took a passion for the house, is a dedicated preservationist, and has spearheaded extensive restoration of this National Register Historic Site. When the house was designated, the report pointed the prow wall needing significant work to stabilize the structure and site.

“The primary condition issue is undermining of the Carmel stone ship’s prow wall by wave action. This condition needs to be addressed to ensure preservation of the building.”

Doing that was no small feat, but thanks to Mr. Henderson the job got done.

I believe my interest in Wright was ahead of the curve, so to speak, of today’s significant public interest in the architect. I would say my visit in 1971 was rather welcomed or at least well tolerated.

Nowadays, I imagine with Wright’s legacy becoming more popular and his work better known than ever, it is a somewhat different story. To better manage the convergence of public curiosity with private property rights, once a year the house has been open to the pubic every June” – this is in conjunction with the Carmel Heritage Society (https://www.carmelheritage.org/).

Hidden cameras have caught people climbing from the beach onto their garden to get a better look at the house. “I have a photo of this lady, just dancing in my garage,” said Henderson.

The Walker House is a private residence, Please respect the owner’s privacy. Today very visible signs indicate that it is private property / no trespassing and that there is video recording going on.

Best option for viewing is to contact Carmel Heritage Society for specific dates and times the organization will host tours. https://www.carmelheritage.org/

 

As I recall this is the entrance to the kitchen. Wright objected to the notion of having any visible trash cans sitting outside the door of his masterpiece. In fact he didn’t originally want to have a kitchen door to avoid that. Finally a compromise was made to provide that door as long as the trash cans were out of view.

Firewood for the home’s fireplaces. In view, the smaller chimney. But the home’s star fireplace is the tall one in the hexagonal living room.

Henderson says it “really cranks.” 

He also noted that firewood is no longer stored at this spot, but rather in a wood shed along the fence.

The Alliance of Monterey Area Preservationists, AMAP, awarded Chuck and Kit Henderson as preservationists of the year for their general care of the house, which remains essentially unchanged, including an original Thermador oven. “I think it’s an honor to be able to be a steward of such a unique place on Earth,” Henderson said.

As so often the case with a Wright project the street view is the most discrete elevation of the house. When I visited the gates were open. But when closed, there are few site lines of the house from the street.

To provide adequate privacy, Wright had the lot lowered four feet to enable the house to melt into the landscape, and planted a cypress hedge for privacy along the south property line that runs down Scenic Road. 

Among the restoration work on the site – replacing and replicating the redwood fencing and Wright designed gate doors.

An asphalt driveway leads from Scenic Road down to the house. 
Gotta love the Mercedes parked in the carport!

You know it’s a Wright when…

The Walker House property is a 9,170 sq. ft. triangular lot located north of Scenic Road, approximately 1\4 mile west of Martin Way.

The 1952 painted metal roof was replaced with copper in 1956. It was replaced again, well after this photo, in 1997 to the same 1956 specifications.

Another significant site character defining feature is the Thomas Church-designed landscape consisting of large stones, raked gravel and Coastal plants.

References include the article by Dave Weinstein, and the National Register of Historic Places Registration Report Also thanks to Chuck Henderson and Kathryn Smith. Their input is much appreciated.

Guggenheim Turns 60

Wright was hired to design the museum in 1943. He wanted to break all convention with this signature work of his, but it took 16 difficult years to bring his ideas to fruition. Wright passed-on before opening day but still saw most of his work to completion.

The 1924 Samuel and Harriet Freeman House By Frank…

I was barely 16 in March of 1972 when I met Harriet Freeman. She was gracious about not only letting me see her home inside and out but to photograph it as well. This collection includes shots from a later visit in September 1972 as well.
The Freeman House was the last of four Frank Lloyd Wright concrete block houses built in 1924
March 1972
The street view of many Frank Lloyd Wright homes is often the most understated and minimalist part of the home.
September 1972 – Pepper Tree de-branched. Samuel and Harriet Freeman had long ago divorced. But the love for house lived beyond their marital bond. They continued to living in the house after divorcing.
Upper level room.
Photo from March 1972. Rudolph Schindler designed the furniture and other interior fixtures. Mrs. Freeman expressed a fondness for Schindler she didn’t necessarily feel toward Wright himself. While intellectually she admired Wright, it was Schindler she felt in-tune with. She credited him for making the residence “feel like home.”
March 1972
Harriet told me Greta Garbo stayed at this house when the German actress first came to the U.S.
View of Highland Avenue and Hollywood
The horizontal sweep of mullions supporting planes of glass that meet in a clear mitred corner – the corner window. A character defining feature in Wright’s catalogue, appearing here for the first time without the aid of stiles to support the horizontal mullions between the panes of glass. That distinction alone qualifies this house as being among the most important historic sites in California. Having said that, sadly, the home under purview of USC is crumbling to dust and is in shockingly dire condition.
The “front door” to a Wright house is frequently discrete.
March 1972

For sure, there is a ton of questions I should have asked. But at age 16, I hadn’t honed my interviewing skills whatsoever. Nor did I take notes as I’m sure Mrs. Freeman shared with me a lot more information than I remember now. Harriet Freeman lived into her 90’s, passing away in 1986.

Frank Lloyd Wright In San Diego

What about the idea of a Frank Lloyd Wright designed Theatre in Balboa Park? That was perhaps on somebody’s mind when he was invited to speak here in 1955 when the idea of building a new civic theater was first being considered.

Frank Lloyd Wright was no stranger to San Diego over the years But the region has nothing to show of his work. This story written by Carol Olten fills in the details of that story.

I had the chance to work with Carol in 2008 as I did research for my documentary film “Four Decades of Historic Preservation in San Diego County.” She’s just the person to talk to about La Jolla History. And about the time Frank Lloyd Wright spent there and in the San Diego region.

Click on article and images to view full size

Click on the image to view full size

The Sturges

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Historic photo of the 1939 Sturges House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Wright’s photographer Pedro E. Guerrero, 1947. It is always interesting to find a photo where you can compare and evaluate the contrast between Wright’s timeless design and the bygone style of cars or fashion.
Image source: enriquedlcm.tumblr.com

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Image source: The Guardian

The home was owned for long time by actor Jack Larson, who lived here until his death not long ago. He was famous for a role that accounts for only a small part of his overall career – playing Jimmy Olson in the TV version of Superman.

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My Kodachrome slides of the Sturges House, Brentwood, CA from June of 1970.  It is an example of Wright’s Usonian design principles outlined in his books “The Natural House,” and “The Living City.” Wright preferred to say Usonian when the context was specific to the United States. The word American should never exclude Canada or Mexico,  being they are also part of America. And not to forget South America.

The historic designation of this house points to the fact it is the only structure in Los Angeles representing his midcentury Usonian style of design and construction.

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Most angles of the house show a windowless mass of either brick or shiplapped redwood. The stairs lead to a rooftop sunning deck. Carport is on the right.

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Here is the side of the home with the broad redwood balcony that really opens up to let the outside in.
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Peering down to the balcony from the rooftop sunning deck. Note the cut out at the top left where the stairs lead up from the driveway area seen in the earlier photo.
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Full view of the rooftop deck.

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Diagram showing the massing required to carry the weight of this bold cantilevered home. Wright’s apprentice assigned to help build this home was John Lautner who became one of the Century’s important Frank Lloyd Wright trained architects.

There are a number of design ideas that Wright returned to over and over in his career. This type of dramatic cantilevering was explored by Wright most famously in his “Falling Water” house in Pennsylvania.

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Sturges House interior view. Source: sdrdesign.com

From the Historic Designation report, City of Los Angeles. 

Dog House

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Lucky was the dog that got his own Frank Lloyd Wright designed dog house. It is at the 1951 Frank Lloyd Wright designed Robert Berger House in San Anselmo, CA. The house is unique in a couple of ways. First it was a “do-it-yourself” construction project. From the years 1951 – 1973 Robert Berger built his own Frank Lloyd Wright house by hand, so to speak.  And Second, it features the above custom designed dog house.

Source: http://babysharkminorityreport.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/the-doghouse-that-jim-built/

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I got to meet Mr. Berger and his wife in April of 1971. They generously allowed me to photograph the house, and they enjoyed sharing information.  He told me although the work could be physically demanding he had no difficulty following Wright’s plans and instructions even though he had no previous house building experience. It was designed so it could be built in phases. It began as a one bedroom house, then became three bedrooms with the addition of another wing.

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Wright utilized a number geometric layouts for his Usonian homes. The Berger House is based on a diamond module. 60Ëš and 120Ëš angles.

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Character defining features of Wright’s work. Generous use of rock, wood, and glass. The broad overhang. The mitered window corner.

The rock walls are made with wood forms. Desert rocks piled into the forms, and concrete pushed in to ooze between the rocks.  It’s a technique Wright devised in the desert of Taliesin West.
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As so often the case with a Wright home, you enter through a low passage way and enter a larger expansive space within. The cut out pattern windows are a Wright signature design feature.
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A peek within. “The Hearth” was always a focal point of Wright’s living areas.  When construction was finally complete, it include Wright designed furniture.

Springbough

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Welcome to Springbough. Beyond the FLLW designed gate is the Frank S. Sander House in Stamford, Connecticut. Source Dami’s Findings

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Springbough was completed in 1955. I had a chance to visit in August of 1980. The home since then went through a period of decline. But in 1996 was lovingly restored by Anne Del Gaudio.

It is a 2,200 square foot Frank Lloyd Wright designed home on 2.3 acres of land. Ms. Del Guadio bought the house after the death of her husband, a Scarsdale dentist. Buying this home was a new life for her.

Wright’s design, built onto a rock outcropping, makes her feel “connected to the earth,” she said, adding, “As a widow I need that grounding energy.”

Ms. Del Gaudio spent several hundred thousand dollars replacing 14 skylights and restoring all of the exterior mahogany to its original amber finish. She also repaired extensive water damage to walls and ceilings. “Wright never built a roof that doesn’t leak,” she said.

She made the house glisten. But in 2003 she put the house on the market.
“I babied the house,” Ms. Del Gaudio, 65, said. “Now it’s someone else’s turn.”

She enlisted the help of the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy to help find a sympathetic owner. Source NY Times

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A sky-lit living space cantilevers over a rock outcropping. Wright was close to 90 years old when this house was built. It was also the most prolific period of his long career. “I can’t shake them out fast enough,” he said, demand for his work was that high.

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Springbough, detail. Brick and Mahogany.

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Springbough entrance. WoodDance studio has a story to tell about the restoration of these doors. It’s a bit scary!

“Not too long after I started working on a Frank Lloyd Wright home here in Connecticut I was asked to fix the front storm door because it was badly warped and one of the screws holding the handle in place had stripped out, leaving the handle a bit loose.

After altering the door in my shop I brought it back to the residence and set it outside. I left it leaning there against the stone wall in the carport while I worked on the jamb and passive side. I replaced the passive side and left for the night.

The next morning at 5:30am the garbageman stopped to collect the trash and for some reason, took the door as well.

When I showed up at the job site, just a few hours later, and couldn’t find the door, panic set in. We raced to phone the sanitation company. They said the door had been taken, dumped at the transfer station and had by now been driven over by large debris moving caterpillars. The original Frank Lloyd Wright front storm door was destroyed!

While working on this home, I removed some large boards of mahogany from the deck area. Every piece of this Frank Lloyd Wright original that I removed, I labelled and stored neatly in one of the out-buildings. I brought a few pieces to my shop and reconstructed the door using that material from the site.

Having the opportunity to affect repairs on what I consider to be an important structure, at times, holds more meaning to me than to the client. The work I do, in a way, can be a personal interaction between myself and the original Architect, Builder and/or carpenters. I have my hands on things that homeowners never see; the guts of a house. In a forensic sort of way, I can get a feeling for the job as it might have been for the crew putting it together.

Using wood that came from the house was important to me but furthermore I wanted to use wood that Frank Lloyd Wright likely had set his own hand upon.

Frank Lloyd Wright began using the red square symbol as his signature mark around 1904. This home was built in 1952. In this image we can see the original signature block on the left hand side.

Thank the lucky stars we didn’t leave that door off too!”

Source: http://wooddance.com/

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Springbough, driveway, carport. Wright preferred a carport, not a garage.

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Springbough, driveway, carport.

La Miniatura

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Photos from March 1972

In the early 1920’s Frank Lloyd Wright sought to create a new architectural vocabulary for California. One not based on Spanish Colonial, Mission, or Craftsman. Wright almost never pointed to inspiration for his designs, but one can certainly have a hunch he tapped the ancient Mexican and South American civilizations for the look of his concrete textile block homes in Los Angeles in 1923 and 1924.

The first of these homes was the Alice Millard House in Pasadena, 1923.

This was the second home he designed for this particular client. The previous one was done 17 years earlier in Highland Park, Illinois, for her and her late husband. Wright said he was proud to have a repeat client. “Out of one hundred and seventy-two buildings this made only the eleventh time it happened to me. So, gratefully, I determined she should have the best I had in my portfolio.”

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Indeed it is regarded as one of his best. Brendan Gill wrote “La Miniatura is assuredly among the most beautiful houses to be found anywhere in the world, regardless of size.”

Gill questioned, however, the wisdom of the site chosen for the home. It is an arroyo. “For obvious reasons (it is) not thought desirable as a building site. So Mrs. Millard was able to acquire the arroyo property at a low price. Flying in the face of conventional prudence, Wright and she decided to build at the bottom of the arroyo, where a small pool would be dug to reflect the house.” All four of the textile block homes Wright built in L.A. in 1923 and 1924 had water damage issues. Gill may well have a point. But clearly both client and architect loved where the house was built.

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“The interior is as exquisite in its shapeliness as the exterior and has a plan of remarkable ingenuity, comprising three full floors and terraces at four levels, with easy access to it surroundings and to the street.”

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The concrete block as a construction material was not new in 1923. But Wright’s construction method was unique. As well as his attention to design pattern. He envisioned this becoming a low cost way to build elegant homes–a design goal he remained interested in decades after these first experiments. Unfortunately the textile block homes of this period all went over-budget and proved to be very difficult to build. They are imperfect works of great art.  But as works of art they are very important in history. The effort to save these homes has been a challenging cause, if not heroic.  The fate of the Millard house has been uncertain for years. One investor wanted to move the house to another site. I suspect it was determined to be infeasible, and would have been a disaster. From what I can tell the house is currently for sale. Here is the agent selling the home–providing some great interior shots for us to see.

http://millardhouse.com/

Image Source Architizer, Scott Mayoral

Mr. U-Haul, a Wright Desert Home, and Unsolved Mysteries.

The H.C. Price Residence, Phoenix, AZ, 1954.

Frank Lloyd Wright began his never ending love affair with the Arizona desert in 1925. His first camp there was called “Ocotillo,” and was located near Chandler, AZ. He built his own home, studio and school of architecture–Taliesin West–later in Scottsdale.

The desert is sprinkled with some of Wright’s most inspired work as a result of this landscape having captured his imagination.

This house was built for H.C. Price who was one of Wright’s great clients. Wright’s tallest building, the Price Tower in Oklahoma, is an important building in Wright’s legacy. Wright also built homes for the Price children.

This residence is the length of a football field and has 4,781 square feet of floor space.

It was a gorgeous Spring day in April of 1972 when I came a knockin’ at this Wright masterpiece. The gentleman who answered the door was Sam Shoen. He  told me he was head of the U-Haul company–a multibillion dollar cooperation he started on a shoestring just after World War II.

With 11 children Shoen utilized all ten rooms, five master bedrooms and two servant’s rooms.

Wright created this atrium, a large shaded area with a cooling fountain. The “floating” roof captures breezes. It floats two feet above the walls on narrow steel pylons atop massive concrete block columns which end short of the ceiling and taper toward the floor. Wright’s timber burning fireplace keeps the area warm in winter.

The Master Architect’s beloved low horizontal lines blend peacefully with the desert.

Wright lavishly furnished the home–every detail is of his own design. Here are lounge chairs before decorated doors and screens.

Detail of a Frank Lloyd Wright custom table.

The living and dining room.

Built-in seating. This room, which opens to the atrium, can host a massive party.

Atrium lounge chair and door panel detail.

This silhouette visually defines the floating roof.

I won’t even begin to try and tell the story of Sam Shoen and his family. The Phoenix New Times News states “The story of the Shoen family feud is complex and twisted. There is so much intrafamily violence, it could be the basis of a Eugene O’Neill tragedy.”

It even made an episode of TV’s “Unsolved Mysteries.” A family of murder and mayhem! My day there in 1972 revealed none of that. Shoen was patient and friendly while I invaded his privacy with my camera.

I read a blog recently of someone trying to take pictures of this house and was NOT warmly greeted. The photographer lamented not being able to find any decent views of the home. Such a different world now than when I had this opportunity back in ’72. I doubt I would be able to get into very many homes like I did back in the day.

You can read more about the tragic Shoen family here:

http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1994-12-01/news/the-u-haul-tragedy/

Squeak, Squeak, Squeak.

I surveyed a number of Northern California Frank Lloyd Wright structures in April of 1971. One of my favorites is the Bazett House in Hillsborough, 1939. It is one of Wright’s finest “Usonian” houses. This is a category of house characterized by reduced building cost via simplified design.

Wright’s Usonia doctrine includes flat roofs. “Visible roofs are expensive and unnecessary.”

Carport instead of garage. Slab foundation–no basement. Simplified plumbing. Radiant heating.

This house was designed with a hexagonal grid or layout. Note the playful pattern this creates with the glass living room wall. Wright loved blending where exterior space ends and interior space begins. It is a common trait for the Usonian houses to be wide open toward the garden, but closed and private on the side facing the street. That closed side was often butted up along the street to maximize garden space and vista at the open side.

Wright utilized a cost efficient wall system known as “Board and Batton.”

“It is possible to build the inside and outside of the house in one operation,” Said Wright.
The system consisted of a plywood core with a moisture-proof membrane. Finished horizontal bands of wood were placed over the core inside and out, secured by screws.

Wright’s Usonian houses were not large. The most generous amount of space was devoted to the living area. The kitchen was galley like. Modest bathrooms. The Bazett House is 1,480 square feet.

The building was over budget. $7,000 was the allocation but projected costs were nearly $12,000. Yet the Bazetts by all accounts were enthusiastic owners.

Many of Wright’s over runs have been highlighted and widely publicized.

However Architect Bob Green, once an apprentice to Wright, offers some perspective on the subject.

“..It was said that all of the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright leaked, and all were over budget. Not true! He did many houses for teachers, college professors and people not highly paid and who did not have the money for the building to be much over budget. And as far as leaking roofs: maintenance must be done on buildings–as well as cars–or in time neither will not work very well.”


Sadly there was trauma for the Bazetts. The birth of a still born child. After only two years of residence, they moved out and lived separate lives.
The residents I spoke with were the second owners of this property. They were kind enough to talk about their life in a Frank Lloyd Wright house and allow me to take these photographs.
They said living in this house is a perpetual source of fascination. Every day brings some new light, pattern, glow, shadow or reflection they hadn’t seen before. From morning to night. From Winter to Summer. “The house always delights us with surprise and wonder. It is uplifting to live in this beautiful space. We’re as thrilled now as the day we moved in.”

The closed side of the house facing the street. The purpose of the patterned cut out window design is mainly decorative and for interior lighting effect.

The owner’s story I enjoyed most was about waking up early one Sunday morning to the sound of “squeak, squeak, squeak.” They went to look and viewed the unmistakable low brim hat, the flowing cape, walking cane hooked over an arm, and dapper attire of non other than Frank Lloyd Wright as he stood outside cleaning windows with his handkerchief.

Many a Wright owner I’ve spoken with had similar stories. Wright showing up with an object of art and knowing exactly where he wanted it placed. Wright coming in an moving furniture around, arranging things.
He liked to say his favorite design was “always the next.” It seems these unexpected appearances indicates he also he had old favorites as well.