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FLLW Pope-Leighey House

In the 1920s and 1930s Frank Lloyd Wright (FLLW) began to look seriously at the way the common man lived. He wanted to design a series of affordable houses that were beautiful, streamlined, suited for their site and used local materials.  What he came up with was the USONIAN.

USONIAN houses were typically built as a single level dwelling. The houses had two wings. The public wing had a living and dining room. There was a  hearth wall that separated this formal area form the work area of the kitchen, “service core” of the house.  Then the house would bear off to a private wing for the bedrooms. FLLW’s goal was to build a USONIAN for $5,000 including the Architect’s fee, but, as with most  of his projects they tended to come in over budget. According the Wright foundation only 60 USONIAN homes were built.

One of those houses is the Pope-Leighy House in Virginia.

Loren Pope was a writer and copy editor for the Washington Evening Star when he approached Wright about building the house in 1938. He was  making $50 a week at the newspaper when he began to dream about owning a USONIAN home. Pope had a love for architecture and had read Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio (a two-volume set of Wright lithographs with line drawings and schematics of his early buildings). He met Wright  at a DC event and convinced the architect to design him a USONIAN by writing him a letter.  He appealed to Wright’s desire to bring his artistic aesthetic to the common man (AND appealed to his ego) “There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life. Material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is for a house created by you…. Will you create a house for us? Will you?” Wright’s answer was magnanimous “”Dear Loren Pope: Of course I am ready to give you a house.” 1

The Evening Star financed a loan of $5,700 for the 1200 foot house. (Down from Wright’s original proposal of 1800 ft.)

Floor plan of the Pope-Leighy house

Some of FLLW’s houses were build on octagons, but the Pope house was based on a 2 x 4 foot rectangular grid. There is radiant heating in the floor which was made of concrete and painted Cherokee Red (a favorite color of FLLW.)  Other favorite Wright materials are used as well, Tidewater red cypress, brick and glass. The exterior vertical mortar on the brick work was tinted red to match the red of the brick, while the horizontal mortar was left natural cream. That gave a strong horizontal feeling to the walls, and made the house look longer that it really was.

You approach the house from a shady cantilevered carport. This is the “Public” side of the  house Most of the walls on this side lack windows, except for a clerestory at the top. This allowed the family privacy. Wright created a unique clerestory design each house.

Our tour guide opens the front door to the Pope-Leighey house for us.

The ceiling of the carport and the entrance hall are low, but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. You can see the living room directly opposite the front door and Wright used a sense of compression and release to encourage visitors to go through the entrance into the more important area of the house. The LIVING room was for living, after all. He brings you down a short set of stairs while keeping the ceiling line constant and suddenly the space feels massive. The ceiling height here is 12 feet.

Living room as seen from the entrance.

The living room is warm and lush. The wood, which has been allowed to weather (as FLLW intended) to a stately silver on the outside is waxed to a wonderful rich orange inside. The light from the clerestory windows, the dining room nook to the left, and a screened in porch to the right wash this peaceful room with calm. The room is furnished by period pieces designed by Wright  some of which are original to the house (as well as a few reproduction chairs that visitors are allowed to sit on.)

The house from the garden. The dining nook comes right out into the garden area blurring the line between indoor and outdoor space.

FLLW strived to blur the line between the inside and the outside. When the floor to ceiling windows of the dining room are open he accomplishes the goal. Diners are both in the dining room and in the garden at the same time. The corner window opens completely — with no center sash — to give an uninterrupted view (A concept he borrowed from Fallingwater.)

The kitchen is small according to modern standards, but it was typical for the time. The tall ceilings make the room feel a little larger than it really is. There is a long skinny window  at the end of the kitchen, and FLLW created an herb planter just outside. All Mrs. Pope had to do was open the window and reach out to pluck a few herbs to add to what ever she was cooking. There is also a small utility room off the kitchen.

Exterior of the bedroom wing looking to the front of the house. This public side of the house offers a lot of privacy to the inhabitants, with only clerestory windows (above eye level) for light and air.

Looking from the end of the bedroom wing to the crux of the building and the dining nook. The garden side of the bedroom wing has large, hip to ceiling windows.

Back up the stairs and to the right is a door that leads to the bedroom wing of the house. A long, very narrow hall with a run of clerestory windows  leads first to a small bathroom (the only one in the house), to the master bedroom and to the children’s bedroom. The hall is very skinny –about as wide as a passage way in a Pullman railway car — so large furniture had to be brought in through the windows.  The children’s bedroom is especially light. With a wrap around window and two additional clerestory inspired at the far wall. Built-ins, like a child’s desk and cantilevered bookshelves make this room a delight.

At the far end of the bedroom wing the children’s bedroom has it’s own cantilevered roof and special windows.

A room to the right of the entrance, opposite the bedroom wing was Mr. Pope’s Sanctum, his study, until the growing family converted it into a nursery for their child.

Loren Pope wrote an article about the design and construction process on the house and it was this article that inspired other middle income families in the mid 20th Century to turn to FLLW and seek out a USONION. The Popes had hopes that FLLW would build them a new, large home, but by the time the could afford one Wright was in the middle of building the Guggenheim. They only lived in the house for 6 years.

In 1947 The Leighey’s bought the home. They lived there happily until 1961 when they received notice that expansion of Interstate 66 would be going right though the property. The house would need to be moved or it would be torn down. After Mr. Leighey’s death in 1963 Mrs. Marjorie Leighey made a deal with the Trust for Historic Preservation and the house was moved to the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation by flat bed truck. (The masonry and concrete foundation are not original, as those could not be moved and were lost when I-66 was expanded.)  Mrs. Leighey continued to live in the house at it’s new location and gave tours on the weekend.  This first relocation proved to be troublesome as the house had been placed on an unstable marine clay foundation. So it had to be relocated a second time in 1995. Although this second relocation site is only 30 feet from the first is much more stable.

Now the house is situated on a piece of land that is very similar to the original plot. It faces almost the same site lines so the sun peaks through the windows just as it did when the Popes and Leigheys lived there.

Wright was delighted with the house. He thought it truly embodied this ideals of USONIAN design.

Motif detail for the Pope-Leighey’s clerestory. Looking from outside the living room toward the front door.

The house is open for tours Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) from 10-5pm. Tours are limited to 16 people at a time and cost $8.50 for adults. If you are visiting Mount Vernon the Pope-Leighey House is a short drive away and well worth the addition to your plans. (See the National Trust link below for more information)

Other pages you’ll like on the Pope-Leighy House:

•The National Trust Historic Site  Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighy House page

• Peter Beers’s Pope Leighey House, 2003: Mount Vernon, Virginia page. This page has some wonderful interior photos, something we were not “allowed” to take on our visit. All my interior shots are taken from open doors and windows.

1 Pope and Wright correspondence, 1939, reprinted in The Pope-Leigh[e]y House (Washington DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1969), pp. 12-15.


Winterthur Museum and Garden

“In beauty may I walk…with beauty before me…with beauty behind me…with beauty above me… with beauty all around me… may I walk…”— Navajo saying

[found on the stones of the labyrinth in the Enchanted Woods]

Winterthur was Henry Francis du Pont’s (HF)  masterpiece. He was born to a live of privilege on the estate in 1880 and began to supervise the gardens when his father, Henry Algemon du Pont (HA), went to Washington to serve as a Senator. HF and his wife Ruth had houses  in South Hampton, Long Island and Boca Grande, Florida, and an apartment in New York City, but he was never away from his beloved Winterthur for more than a few weeks at a time. He died there in 1969.

Oil painting of Henry Francis du Pont as a young man.

HF worked with the formal gardens that were already established on the estate and created his own. And he planted the March Bank. The March Bank was designed so guest and family members would see thousands of flowers in bloom from their bedroom windows every morning. As seasons changed from early spring, to late spring, to summer, etc the rooms would be transformed. Rugs, curtains and other color accents would be swapped out to match the show outside.

Du Pont considered the natural topography of the land when planting. He was a naturalistic gardener. His woodlands were composed of ground cover, shrub, small and large trees. When he planted azaleas he didn’t just pick one shade of pink or purple, he used gradations of the colors to create his “masterpiece of color.”

Looking north from the bowl of the Quarry Garden.

HF began his Quarry Garden when he was just 22 years old. A short hike down the slate stairs brings the visitor to a hidden gem of color and cool solitude. It is the perfect place to sit and relax on a hot summer day.

A more recent addition to Winterthur is the Enchanted Wood. This fantasy garden delights children of all ages. This fairy-tale inspired  garden delights children of all ages with its misty mushrooms, troll bridge, thatched roofed Faerie Cottage, tulip poplar house, May pole, labyrinth and a story circle that feels like a miniature Stone Hedge.

The estate was a working farm with a prize winning herd of Holstein-Friesian cows before it became a museum. While on a  trip to Vermont to visit the Webb dairy operation in 1923 HF was smitten with the antique American furniture he saw on display. He was attracted to the color combinations of pink porcelain  against the pine cabinetry. It was an “ah-ha” moment, and it started him on major trek in his life. When he got back to Pennsylvania he went antiquing in Chester County and purchased his first American Antique, a 1730 chest of drawers.

The house at Winterthur was originally built by  HF’s great-aunt and uncle the Bidermanns in 1837. It had a mere 12 rooms. Eventually they sold it to Henry du Pont, HF’s grandfather. Henry gave it to HA who added a wing and upped the room count to 30, brought in the cows, and added a railway station.    But Winterthur really blossomed under HF. At its peak the estate employed around 300 people, and had a post office, fire station and its own baseball team.  The house expanded too.  He needed room for his growing collection of American Antiques. He recycled facades and interiors from houses slated for demolition. The magnificent spiral stair case in the entrance hall was rescued from a Southern Plantation that was about to be torn down.  When he was through the mansion had tripled in size and had 175 rooms.

HF had the spiral staircase installed while the family was on vacation. It was a surprise for them when they got back to Winterthur.

If you were a guest at Winterthur when you pulled your car up to the entrance they (the du Ponts or more likely their staff) threw the front and back doors open so the first thing you’d notice was the gardens.  And They kept meticulous records. Guests never ate off the same china or saw the same flowers on the table.

In the formal dining room guest were expected to only speak to the person to their right or to their left (never across the table) so Mrs. du Pont manipulated the conversation at dinner.

Guest usually arrived in the afternoon in time for tea which was sometimes taken out in one of the gardens and was following by a game of Bridge. The best way to curry favor with Mrs. du Pont was to play bridge with her. In fact if you didn’t play bridge, you probably wouldn’t be invited back anytime soon.

Visiting Winterthur doesn’t require an invitation nowadays. The museum and garden are open to the public Tuesdays thru Sundays from 10-5 excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas. For details on planning your trip go to http://www.winterthur.org

The Chinese Room at Winterthur. HF found rolls of elegant wall paper with a seamless Chinese image (with no repeats) and knew he wanted it for his home. The only problem? When they unrolled it the room wasn’t tall enough. To solve the problem they curved the top of the walls to meet the ceiling and were able to extend the wall paper to its full height.

A hallway on the sixth floor of Winterthur.

Wooden eagle is one of the thousands of pieces of American Art that graces the halls of Winterthur

RitaLOVEStoWrite and her husband enjoyed their trip to Winterthur. I hope you enjoyed this blog and will be inspired to travel to the Brandywine Valley and see the magnificent house and gardens in person. In the mean time please LIKE the blog or follow me (at the top of the page.) 🙂


Frank Lloyd Wright

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This article originally ran in Mason-Dixon ARRIVE magazine.

Visit  https://www.facebook.com/mdarrive to learn more about the magazine and community.

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Discovering America’s Architect 

In Our Own Backyard 

Nestled among the woods and rocks of Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands are two amazing Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Fallingwater, with its cantilevered balconies and waterfall, is perhaps Wright’s most famous house. Seven miles away and high above the Youghiogheny River Gorge is Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s Grand USONIAN designs.

When Anna Lloyd Jones Wright came home from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition she brought her young son, Frank, a box of Froebel blocks. Froebel invented the blocks to teach children how big shapes were made up of smaller parts, and Frank learned that these simple geometric shapes could be used to make any thing. A few years later when Frank was sent to help at the family farm he developed a love of nature, and was often amazed to find the simple shapes of his blocks in the lush green landscape. Wright drew on both of those formative experiences when he designed Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob.

In the midst of the Great Depression Frank Lloyd Wright found it difficult to land interesting commissions. The bureaucrats in Washington were the only ones doing any building, and they preferred a more classical approach over Wright’s “Organic Architecture”. So Wright busied himself with his school, Taliesin. One of his students, Edgar Kaufmann, jr. (Edgar, jr. never capitalized the “j”) invited Wright to his family’s vacation cabin in the Laurel Highlands. As they walked along Bear Run Wright was enchanted by a waterfall crashing over the rocky ledges. It was one of the Kaufmanns’ favorite gathering places, and he decided then and there to locate their new home on the spot.

“Fallingwater was built from 1936 to 1939 so Wright was 67 years old. He was in a fallow period in his career. He’d just written his autobiography and he wanted show that he could design something dynamic.” Says Cara Armstrong, Curator of Education at Fallingwater, “He went on to do some of his biggest projects, including the Guggenheim, in the decades after designing Fallingwater.” Armstrong advises visitors to “Keep your eyes open and you’ll be rewarded by seeing things differently. Wright used the same ideas on multiple levels.” For example, he used the concept of the cantilever on both the bookcases and the floors of the house.

Because the house is cantilevered “the support is only on one side. So one side is mostly stone and one side is mostly glass.” The large banks of window offer an amazing vista of the woods surrounding the house. Originally Wright wanted to cover the concrete with gold leaf to reflect the changing landscape and the natural setting. That was considered too extravagant by the Kaufmanns, so he painted the concrete instead. The color of the concrete is based on the back of a fallen rhododendron leaf.

He used two of his favorite architectural tricks, darkness to light and compression to release, to direct occupants to the more public areas of the house, like the living room and the balconies. He would repeat these techniques to make smaller homes feel much larger.

So what about the waterfall? The Kaufmanns were surprised that Wright planned to locate their house, not facing the fall, but on top the fall. A set of steps lead from the living room down to the natural rock platform at the top of the falls. With the windows open the house is filled with the soothing sound of water rushing over the rocks. Fallingwater, says Armstrong, is a “very spatial experience, you’d never get the same feeling from a book or the web site.”

With an annual operating budget of $4 million Fallingwater is a major tourist attraction in South West Pennsylvania. Albert Einstein was a guest of the Kaufmanns and celebs such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have toured the building. Reservations are strongly encouraged. The House is open mid-March through Thanksgiving, but is closed on Mondays. Beyond the regular tour you can also take a special Family Tour (perfect for children 5 and up), a two hour in-depth Tour, or a Sunset Tour that ends with light hors d’oeuvres served on the pottery terrace. Call 724-329-8501 for more information or to make a reservation.  http://fallingwater.org/

Dining Room at Kentuck Knob

The Kaufmanns were friends with another prominent Western Pennsylvania business family, the Hagans. I. M. Hagan owned Hagan Ice Cream, now a division of Kemps Ice Cream. The Hagans visited Fallingwater several times, and when they purchased an 80 acre parcel of land nearby they hoped that Frank Lloyd Wright would design their home too.

The 86 year old Wright was very busy at the time. He was working on the Guggenheim Museum and the Beth Sholom Synagogue as well as 13 other private residences. The famous architect never stepped foot on Kentuck Knob. He designed the house based on arial photos and detailed land surveys.

What he created was a 2,400 square feet Grand USONIAN. Lee Martin, a Kentuck Knob guide, explained that Wright believed you could have an “ascetically pleasing (house) for a price you could afford.” USONIAN houses were designed to on modest, affordable scale. USONIAN stands for United States of North American Nation (the extra “I” was added to make it easier to say.)

Like the approach to most USONIANs, the “public side” of the house is almost fortress like. The cantilevered roof puts all it’s weight on the stone core. Since Wright didn’t need the walls to bare the roof’s weight, he designed a unique wooden clerestory (a tall wall with a strip of small windows at the top). With the windows open, the wood screen allowed the family ultimate privacy from approaching guests, while still providing a cooling breeze.

The private side of the house is lined with floor to ceiling windows and a cantilevered wrap around terrace. Wright designed hexagonal skylights (the house is built on a hexagonal grid, there are almost no right angles) in the roof overhang to allow light into the sitting and dinning rooms. He carefully considered how the light would hit the top of the mountain during different parts of the year. The skylights let light in all year long, but they also bring a cozy warmth in the winter.

Another Wright innovation is an invisible window in the “corner” of the living room. Wright designed a large window set into the stone surround with out a sill or frame. Matching indoor/outdoor moss gardens create the illusion of a mirror.

“USONIAN houses,” noted Martin, “have a tall central core with a fireplace and kitchen, wings for living areas and sleeping areas go off in different directions.”  The bedroom wing’s hip to ceiling windows allow an up close and personal look at the abundant nature outside. Residents of the master bedroom would some times wake to see a deer nestled into the warm niche outside their window.

Using stone from a local quarry and Tidewater Red Cypress Wright created a warm rich interior that embodied his ideal of organic architecture.

The architect, who had seen too many of his houses burn down, opted to use copper for the roofing. It’s soft patina adds to the home’s welcoming feel.

Bernardine Hagan had both a sense of style and nerves of steel. She got her way with the notoriously rigid Wright several times. As a business woman in the food industry, Ms. Hagan wanted stainless steel countertops, as opposed to the traditional Wright Indian Red Clay. Wright allowed the change IF Mrs. Hagan could design it herself and find some one else to install the countertops. She did. Mrs. Hagan also requested and received a basement (something Wright abhorred) and an expanded dining room.

In 1986 Mrs. Hagan sold the house to Lord Peter Palumbo, an avid art collector and member of the British House of Lords. He opened the house to the public a decade later. The Palumbos have added an extensive Sculpture Garden that houses 35 major works of art. The house is decorated with a mix of original Wright designed furniture, including some pieces rescued from the Imperial Hotel in Japan, and Palumbo’s more modern art.

Kentuck Knob is open daily from March 31st to December 31st. Regular tours run Tuesday through Sunday from 10 to 4 and on Mondays at 12, 2 and 3. Other tours include an In-depth Tour and a special Sunset Tour on selected dates. Call (724) 329-1901 to make a tour reservation. http://www.kentuckknob.com/

Several nearby hotels offer Wright Packages. “The Wright Experience” at Day’s Inn covers admission to both houses, overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast. Mountain View Inn offers the “Classic American Getaway” with stops at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob and the Christian W. Klay Winery, Dinner, Breakfast and deluxe accommodations. If you are looking for the ultimate Wright weekend consider spending the night IN a Wright house at Polymath Park Resort, 30 miles away. The Resort features Wright’s relocated Duncan House and two houses designed by Wright apprentice, Peter Berndtson.

A weekend discovering America’s Architect will change the way you look at architecture and the world around you.


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