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STRUCTURES : Summer Cottage in Montecito Has the Wright Stuff : The Stewart house, built in 1910, was the architect's only Prairie-style dwelling west of Nebraska and his first in California.

July 29, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A structure such as Frank Lloyd Wright's George C. Stewart house, built as a "summer cottage" on five acres of Montecito property in 1910, epitomizes what is fascinating about architectural appreciation.

It's not just that Wright's design survived the test of time and gained a burnished patina of elegance. Nor is it merely that it enjoys a vital place in Wright's ouevre, being his only Prairie-style house west of Nebraska and his first in the Golden State.

The Stewart house also has that ineffable aura of artistry that comes from being an all-American original. Good architecture is, more or less, forever.

After establishing himself as an architectural pioneer, whose Prairie-style concept asserted a keen balance of form and function, Wright came west to build the Montecito house at 196 Hot Springs Road. But events in his life took precipitous turns immediately after he completed it.

In the summer of 1909, after Wright had finished work on the Stewart house, he traveled to Europe, where he produced the "Wasmuth portfolio," which helped cement his reputation abroad as a premiere American architect. On a more personal--and publicly notorious--front, that European sojourn also represented Wright's estrangement from his wife and family to be with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client.

Wright thought enough of the Stewart house to include a drawing of it in the Wasmuth portfolio, although it was mistakenly said to be in Fresno.

Basically, there have been only three owners of the house in the past 80 years, but at present, the house is for sale--the asking price is $995,000--and for view from 2 to 5 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. As real estate agent Bill Sloniker, an avowed Wright aficionado, explained during a recent tour, "What you find with Wright houses is that most owners get carried out of them."

The current owner embarked on an extensive restoration of the house, which had fallen into some disrepair. Except for the generic fixtures of the new kitchen, the house has been affectionately preserved.

Almost everything about the house impresses the first-time visitor, from the warmth of its redwood exterior to the cruciform symmetry of its overall form, to its seamless integration into the tree-filled setting, to the light-sensitive openness of its interior.

Wright created drama through space and light, while also attending to the business of creating an efficient machine for living.

You enter the house through a door tucked away at an angle to the front walkway. The ceiling height changes from the low embrace of the wings to the east and west of the house, to the grand vertical sweep of the two-story living room.

The room's orientation is toward the tall, south-facing picture windows looking out onto the trees, which suggest the edge of a forest. Lush vegetation surrounds the house, supporting the illusion of being in another space and time, and giving the entire house the feel of an extravagant tree house.

Centering the composition is the fireplace/hearth, snugly situated in the crouching nucleus of the interior. A second-story landing leads off of the upstairs hallway, off of which are small bedrooms. In the design scheme, all roads and sightlines lead to the central living-room space, a symbolic gesture of socialization rendered concrete.

Upstairs, two cozy, cantilevered outdoor sleeping porches--common in the Midwest, where most of the Prairie houses exist--are folded discreetly into the composition, with a third having been enclosed in the 1920s to create an extra sewing room off one of the bedrooms.

A unifying, vaguely Oriental motif graces 87 pairs of windows in the house, giving a subtle decorative air to the house's otherwise bold organization of masses.

Despite the seeming symmetrical logic of the structure, the experience of the Stewart house is a many-sided affair. Because of its placement on an ungraded, fairly sloping lot, the view from the front is vastly different than from the rear, where the house rises sharply from a ravine.

A wide, red-painted staircase leads, almost majestically, up from the rear, echoing the horizontal bands of the exterior. Looking at the house from behind, its organic sense of harmony with its environment becomes clear.

When Wright returned to California to work, he had moved away from the Prairie style, working on such noted pre-Columbian-inspired works as the Hollyhock house (finished in 1920) and the concrete block suburban temple in Pasadena, La Miniatura (1923).

Wright watchers in California are well-advised to consult David Gebhard's fine 1988 book, "Romanza: The California Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" (Chronicle Books), which serves as a guide book to significant Wright structures around the state.

There is, for instance, a small but intriguing medical center in San Luis Obispo, a handsome, ground-hugging structure nestled over the creek, which runs through the heart of town.

In terms of architectural history, the Stewart house seems to have settled into a state of grace.

It veers sharply away from the Victorian excesses that Wright loathed, and which helped propel him toward a new architectural ideal. But it also exudes a kind of humane warmth and ergonomic functionality missing from the later Modernism, with its cerebral encroachments and leaner geometries.

A parade of different attitudes has passed since the Stewart house went up, but the passage of time has smiled on Wright's memory.

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