Frank Lloyd Wright and Us
Having their house designed by the 20th centuryÂ¡Â¯s greatest architect was an exciting experience for Roland and Ronny Reisley Â¡Âª and one that continues to enrich their lives
Text and photographs by Roland Reisley
Ronny and I were married in 1950, and we lived in a small apartment in New York City. On weekends we drove around the suburbs looking at houses, but found nothing we liked or could afford. Then we heard about Â¡Â°a cooperative community in Westchester building affordable homes, supervised by Frank Lloyd Wright.Â¡Â±
We decided to have a look. For Usonia Homes Â¡Âª A Cooperative, Wright had laid out circular one-acre sites and narrow serpentine roads. A few of the intended 50 homes were to be designed by the architect himself, the rest by his apprentices or disciples (subject to his approval). We liked the people, the place, and the concept, so a $2,500 wedding present, intended to be used for a European tour, went instead for our membership and site.
We thought Wright was surely out of reach as our architect until David Henken, the founder of Usonia, suggested that if Wright liked our site (and us), he might want to design our house. Henken told him about us and showed him our land; Wright expressed interest. Later I spoke with him by phone, and we were Â¡Â°hooked.Â¡Â±
In October 1950, we sent Wright Â¡Â°the letter,Â¡Â± a soul-searching attempt to define ourselves, our needs, interests, and the lifestyle we anticipated. In response, he invited us to visit Taliesin, his famous Wisconsin home and studio, for a weekend. That November, we did Â¡Âª driving 1,400 miles each way. Arriving at Taliesin was unforgettable. Seeing the great, graceful structure so comfortably nestled in the hill, reaching the parking court and ascending the broad stone staircase, following the narrow passage that opened dramatically on the main courtyard of the house Â¡Âª it was all spine-tinglingly beautiful.
In February 1951, the preliminary drawings for our house arrived. We had many observations, five pages worth in fact. They were all functional, not stylistic, changes: a reminder of the need for book space and a broom closet; interest in built-in furniture; a request for a long sink in the bathroom to facilitate bathing babies; and the inclusion of a darkroom, workshop, laundry, wine cellar, and maidÂ¡Â¯s room. In the final drawings, Wright accommodated all of these requests. (So much for his reputation of being disinterested in clientsÂ¡Â¯ wishes.)
That spring, Wright spent several hours with us at our site discussing plans for the house. Ronny was amazed that, at 84 years of age, he could bound up the hill so quickly. We mentioned that we thought the house would be at the top of the hill. Â¡Â°Oh no,Â¡Â± he said, Â¡Â°that would just be a house on a hill. To experience the hill, be of the hill, you must build into it.Â¡Â±
During June and July, we wrote and telegraphed Wright, urging Â¡Â°Rush drawings. Korean War is causing materials shortage.Â¡Â± Davy Davison, one of WrightÂ¡Â¯s senior apprentices, was our contact during this phase. He wrote: Â¡Â°Mr. Wright…has taken great interest in your house…and redrawn it four times. However it is a little jewel Â¡Âª a diamond, roughly speaking…an Â¡Â®original original.Â¡Â¯ Still a weekÂ¡Â¯s work to be done…bear with us.Â¡Â± And later: Â¡Â°Drawings sent. House has received exceptional work and thought, particularly from Mr. Wright. ItÂ¡Â¯ll be quite a thrill [sic] building.Â¡Â±
By August, we received the working drawings. We had questions about materials and costs, but we loved the design and were determined to proceed. We sought bids, found them ridiculously high, and decided to go with David Henken (who had been building other homes in Usonia). Our original $20,000 target had grown to $30,000, and we were thinking that we might manage $35,000. At the time, that was a lot of money Â¡Âª and for a small house.
We started construction in October. Over the next three months, there were many letters and several meetings concerning changes, design details, and costs. The memories of my meetings with Wright are only good ones. I particularly recall one session. Though determined to discuss my concerns, my demeanor was extremely deferential, Â¡Â°hat-in-hand,Â¡Â± a 27-year-old in the presence of God. Wright sensed this. Â¡Â°Roland, sit down,Â¡Â± he said. Â¡Â°YouÂ¡Â¯re the client. IÂ¡Â¯m your architect. ItÂ¡Â¯s my job to give you a design that satisfies your needs. If you are not satisfied, IÂ¡Â¯ll keep working until you are. But you must tell me. Otherwise Â¡Âª take what you get.Â¡Â±
Wright really wanted the roof to be made of copper, but acknowledged its prohibitive cost and unavailability. He finally agreed, Â¡Â°temporarily,Â¡Â± to use longitudinally applied red asphalt roll material. This would preclude the need for an embossed copper fascia, saving even more money. Â¡Â°Someday, Roland, when you have the money, put on the copper roof,Â¡Â± Wright told me. Â¡Â°It will make a gentleman of you.Â¡Â± We discussed some alternative fascia detail. I suggested a dentilated fascia and a means to mill it inexpensively. He re-vised the angles and di-mensions, and we used it. Many years later, I seriously contemplated Â¡Â°gentlemanly status,Â¡Â± but the copper roof would have required changing the fascia. Because it has become such a recognizable feature of the house, we decided to stay with it.
We pressed Wright to find additional ways of reducing costs. He pointed out that stone was expensive and suggested using concrete block, which, he assured us, could produce a very satisfactory result. But we loved the beauty of the stone and its sense of solidity. Â¡Â°Well, stretch yourself,Â¡Â± he said. Â¡Â°Building this house is one of the best things youÂ¡Â¯ll ever do. Stop for a while, if you must. I promise youÂ¡Â¯ll thank me.Â¡Â±
When possible, we tried to help with the construction. I put up the cypress siding on one wall, and sanded and applied finish to some of the wood. Ronny filled most of the nail holes with plastic wood. Together we stapled insulation between rafters. Everything was coming together.
Finally, in June 1952, we moved into our unfinished house. I wrote to Wright, Â¡Â°The house is slowly but surely getting into finished shape and, although living here during the building process is at times uncomfortable, it is nevertheless an increasingly beautiful experience to live here.Â¡Â±
A few weeks later, Wright visited us. Â¡Â°I was always nervous when Mr. Wright visited,Â¡Â± Ronny recalls. Â¡Â°What would I offer him to eat or drink, especially when the water was shut off? But he was always gracious and complimentary to me, telling me how I was taking good care of the house.Â¡Â± As he approached the house, Wright remarked, Â¡Â°Those chimneys are two feet short.Â¡Â± He was right. The masonry was very expensive, and Henken thought the chimneys were high enough. But Wright knew they should be higher than the roof peak. (We later added the two feet.)
Wright asked how the fireplaces worked. To our lukewarm response, he replied, Â¡Â°YouÂ¡Â¯ll want a grate to get the fire off the floor. We often donÂ¡Â¯t draw them, as it might make the house seem expensive.Â¡Â± In what has become a rather famous photo, Wright is seen drawing the grate at a plywood work table in our living room.
We had virtually no furniture at the time of WrightÂ¡Â¯s visit. Ronny bought a simple outdoor table and chairs at Gimbels and was apologetic that it was not fancier. Before leaving, Wright admired it and asked if we could get him some of the chairs. Ronny discounted the request as flattery. Six weeks later, however, he telegraphed, asking Â¡Â°Where are the chairs?Â¡Â± I sent him a dozen; years later, we saw photos of them at Taliesin West, WrightÂ¡Â¯s home and studio in Arizona. When wealthy clients who were building nearby asked about outdoor furniture, Wright told them to Â¡Â°see the Reisleys.Â¡Â±
From the outset, we asked Wright to plan a later addition for the building. In 1954, we received drawings that astonished us. While excavating for the original house, we had encountered large amounts of rock that had to be blasted. Henken had suggested rotating the house slightly, about 13 degrees, which would reduce the amount of blasting considerably. Wright approved Â¡Âª but apparently did not note it on his records. Without taking into account this change, the plans for the addition were rendered unusable. But eventually we received preliminary plans that met virtually all of our requirements. By rearranging the land a bit, in ways we had not imagined, Wright gave us exactly what we asked for.
Indeed, the house cost much more than expected, but we survived it. And, as Wright predicted, it repaid us with the beauty and quality of our surroundings. In 1959, not many years after its completion, Frank Lloyd Wright died at the age of 92. Though saddened, we also felt lucky to have known him and to have the home he designed. But it would take many more years to fully appreciate the impact on our lives of the timeless beauty of the environment he gave us. After 50 years here, I realize that there has not been a single day in which I have not seen something beautiful in the space around me. Â¡Ã¶
Roland Reisley is the author of Usonia, New York Â¡Âª Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright, published by Princeton Architectural Press.