finally meeting up with Frank Lloyd Wright

It feels like only a billion years since I studied architecture as a college undergrad. And from that time to now I had never seen, in person, a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Never really wanted to. But I’m older now and, well, time changes people. Hopefully.

Wright, if you don’t know (how could you not know?), is America’s most influential architect. At least that is the history as taught and told. But if you experienced the profession from my perspective, well, you just might understand my hesitation. As a student, I was never into Wright. Of course, I knew his history and most famous works, but I always consciously stayed away. For juvenile reasons really. I watched too many of my classmates “discover” Wright, or some other famous architect for that matter, and then proceed to channel said architect in their next studio project. I simply wouldn’t attempt such flattery. Why be Wright when I was in school to be me? I didn’t want to funk up my me-ness.

Last week, I finally met Mr. Wright. Or more accurately, one of his designs – Wingspread, otherwise known as the H.F. Johnson house in Racine, Wisconsin. Built in 1937-38, Wingspread is one of Wright’s largest residential designs. Today, it functions as part of a wonderful conference center retreat maintained by the Johnson Foundation. I read up on the conference facilities about a week before the trip. I’ll admit my interest peaked when I saw the center features one of Wright’s designs. I arrived early Sunday afternoon with a couple of hours until the event agenda kicked off. So, me being me, the first thing I did was make a beeline toward…the cruiser bikes parked outside the guest house. One must have priorities and mine said Mr. Wright was just going to have to wait. The one I picked was sweet – silver frame with black wheels, spokes, handlebars and seat. I set about touring the grounds. Crusiers provide a special vibe that I hadn’t felt since I last rode one along the boardwalk south of Atlantic City, New Jersey. That was a long time ago. But so much fun, the memory has remained fresh. Upright position, cushy, slow ride and the all important coaster brake! Coaster breaks always make me feel like I’m kid again. The best part of the ride was on a gravel road through a wooded area at the rear of the property. I just love the crunching sound of fat bike wheels rolling on a gravelly path. The air was moist with a light breeze and sunlight filtered through the tree leaves. I saw a While-tailed Deer and her fawn. It was great.

On to Mr. Wright now that important business was out of the way. Wingspread is classic Wright. The house, at over 14,000 square feet (1300.6 m²) is big. But because of the low, horizontal way the house hugs the ground, it appears much smaller than its size. I was most interested in the details. For example the painted steel posts at the outdoor patio. They had little nodules along them that to me looked like rosebuds. I also liked the canted, overlapping wood facia boards at the eaves. Probably the most striking outside elements of the design are the glass enclosed crow’s nest atop the stepped roof and the cantilevered wing that housed the Johnson’s daughter’s bedroom. Apparently, Wright wanted the house to have a nautical feel (the center offered guests a guided tour the following evening) and it does. I could go on about the house but I’ll stop here. In short, Wingspread is Wright throughout. And all what I expected. You can easily find plenty more about it online. Below, I’ve included a few photos of the details that caught my eye.

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Although it took me forever to finally meet up with Mr. Wright, I’m glad I did. Have I become a Wright-ophile? Hardly. But, I did leave with a greater, personal appreciation of his talent. Sometimes it just takes time to appreciate certain things. And that, my friends, is the sort of growth I will always cherish.

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