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The back story behind the buildings

Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide Thomas A. Heinz Northwestern University Press, $39.95

April 13, 2006|Bettijane Levine

This paperback guide may be titillating for trivia and history hounds, whether they're fans of Wright, or even of architecture in general. Styled like an old-fashioned travel Baedeker, it's a compilation of every residential, commercial or civic structure designed by the inimitable architect (about 500 of them), including those that never were built, and those designed for Iraq, India and Japan.

The book, arranged by geographic location for easier trip planning, allots one page to most built structures, with a small photo, a map, driving directions, GPS coordinates, information on whether the building is visible from the street, and times (if any) when it is open to the public.

So far, so good. But the really dishy stuff is buried in the brief and necessarily spare text blurbs devoted to each house and to those who sought out Wright to design it for them -- descriptions that sometimes leave a yearning for entire chapters on the individuals and emotions involved.

The house in L.A.'s Brentwood Heights, for example, must have given quite a fright to its owner, George D. Sturges, and his family. Heinz writes, "As a result of the innovative wood roof and canted walls ... the house leaked so severely on its completion that Sturges, an engineer for the Lockheed Company," was forced to install a series of rain funnels, which later had to be reinforced by metal flashing.

Worse yet, the living room ceiling was so low that the 6-foot Sturges had to stoop when he walked through it.

The author further explains, with no winks, that the family soon asked another architect, a woman, to design a larger house for their growing family. She replicated Wright's design for the living room, "but with a higher ceiling."

The architect's client list seems to have included a fascinating array of both the well-born and well-heeled along with more middle-class, middle-income types -- almost all of them concerned about cost. In those days, $40,000 was often considered way too high a price to pay to construct a house, even one by Wright.

The architect himself was no slouch in the leap-taking department. For those who haven't studied his life, it may come as a surprise that he left his wife of 20 years, Catherine, and the six children they had together -- an event that scandalized society in that uptight era -- in order to "start anew."

He set up housekeeping at Taliesin, the Wisconsin house he designed for his divorced inamorata, Mamah Borthwick, and her two children. According to the author, a possibly disgruntled servant set fire to the dining room of that house in 1914, killing Borthwick and both children. Wright was away on business at the time.

Los Angeles has quite a few Wright-designed homes. But none were designed for Hollywood types, although one of Wright's grandchildren was the actress Anne Baxter.

-- Bettijane Levine

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