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A Home That's Just Wright for Him


Mark Gottlieb is as proud of his house in the woods as any son could possibly be.

Nearly a decade in the making, the long, low contemporary home wrapped around a hill in Fairfax County, Va., is "my joy," he says. "I always knew one day we'd have the perfect house and that my mom would design it."

Many famous architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, have produced homes for their mothers. But Lois Davidson Gottlieb turned the tables, creating a wedge-shaped, glass-walled showcase with sweeping views of trees and water for her son.

She drew on decades of experience as an architectural designer in California. She also drew on inspiration from a long-ago apprenticeship with Wright, which set her on the career path she has followed since.

Now 73 and still practicing, Lois Gottlieb is in Washington this month for the opening of an exhibition of the remarkable photographs she took 52 years ago while she worked and studied at Taliesin West, Wright's winter headquarters near Phoenix. The exhibit, sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation, will be accompanied by a steady stream of events, including a slide show and lecture about life at Taliesin plus a documentary about the construction of the house in Virginia, which will be opened Saturday for a public tour for the first time.

Gottlieb was an undergraduate in Stanford University's prearchitecture program when she saw her first Wright-designed building--the Hanna house on the university campus.

"It was as if I'd never heard a note of music before and suddenly heard a symphony," she says.

A professor suggested she apply for a fellowship at the 600-acre desert complex being constructed by Wright's apprentices.


After two years of studying with Wright, she went to Harvard's graduate design program, but her return to academia was "a terrible disappointment."

She moved back to San Francisco, her hometown, and in the career that followed, she has designed more than 100 residential projects, all reflecting her admiration for Wright.

The influence of America's premier architect is clear in the house she designed for her son and his family: the way it follows the lay of the land; horizontal lines and abundant use of glass; cantilevered terraces and balconies and deep, overhanging eaves; a massive central fireplace; large windows joined at nearly invisible mitered corners to bring the outside in; low, brick walls that double as planters; and built-in furnishings that echo interior trim.

Lois Gottlieb and her son walked the five acres overlooking the Occoquan Reservoir in 1991 to select the siting and orientation for the house--much as her mentor would have done. She spent the next two years designing it while Mark Gottlieb spent his weekends clearing the land just enough to ensure that the house could nestle into the brow of the hill and take advantage of water views.

Angled to follow the contours of the hill and built on two levels, the 10,000-square-foot house is 250 feet long and 24 feet wide with 4-foot overhangs on either side. The four-bedroom, four-bath house has 86 double-paned windows to capture the views. A slender skylight runs the entire length of the structure's rooftop.

Fallingwater, Wright's masterpiece near Pittsburgh, is built directly over a natural waterfall. Gottlieb's design incorporates two man-made waterfalls: one indoors, next to the living-room fireplace; the other, splashing down a rocky hillside into a koi pond across the driveway from the front door.

The leaded-glass front door is an artifact made by the master himself and rescued from the house Wright designed in 1912 for Francis Little in Wayzata, Minn., demolished in 1971. Lois Gottlieb bought the two glass panels from a San Francisco dealer who knocked off half the price "when I showed her how I planned to use them."

Mark Gottlieb, 43, was weaned on contemporary architecture. His wife, Sharon, an assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch before their marriage, is more of a traditionalist. One of eight children, she grew up in a colonial-style house and was accepting of the modern but still wanted brick as the basic building block. "If it isn't brick," she says, "it doesn't feel like home."

Says her mother-in-law, "I tried to give them what would fit in with her ideas as well as mine for a house of the 21st century. I didn't want it to look too peculiar."

Along with the masonry, she used alternative materials and state-of-the-art construction techniques: Trex decking made from melted trash bags and sawdust; blocks made from recycled plastic bottles as forms for concrete walls now camouflaged with brick veneer; ceilings built of structural insulated panels; Glulam posts and arched beams made of engineered wood to support the skylight and roof.

When planning for the house began, the couple had two children. In 1996, when they moved in, there were four. For now, the two boys share a bedroom as do the girls. But there's plenty of room to grow.

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