The Public Humanist

Thoughts on Architectural Preservation 2

It is 1975. I nose mycar slowly into the mouth of a winding driveway in the mountains above Salt Lake City. My companion and I are in search of the onlyFrank Lloyd Wright building in the state of Utah,a hunting lodge built in the 1930’s for a U.S. Steel executive in the town of Bountiful.

Immediately, we encounter a printed “No Trespassing” sign;below it is a crude, hand-lettered addendum: "Survivors will beprosecuted." We are frightened, butbeing young and feckless, also thrilled. We continue. After twisting for almost a quarter mileuphill through a dense woods, we come into a clearing. There is the house, more of a cottage, really.

There is no other vehicle there. We emerge cautiously from our car and arebeginning to circle the house, when we hear an engine. A pick-up truck pulls in behind us, blockingour car in. A burly young man steps out,visibly angry; there is a rifle in a rack silhouetted in the truck’s rearwindow.

“Can you read?” he asks.Scared, I throw out a flood of words: me and my girlfriend arearchitecture buffs on the way from Bostonto the coast stopping wherever possible to see examples of FLLW’s work of whichyour house is a beautiful example and we’ll be happy to leave immediately sorryto disturb you&

Strangely, he softens, and within minutes he is showing usaround the interior, telling us his sad story.He had bought the cottage, which was run down, to use as a base forhunting. He was handy, and immediatelystarted to “fix it up.” In his case thisinvolved, among other changes, “flocking” the ceilings, and re-doing thefireplace with a flagstone hearth. Wordgot out, apparently through the building supply house, and he was descendedupon by a delegation of architectural students from the University of Utah, whotold him bluntly that his attempts at “improvement” were doing irreparable harmto a work of art, and that he must cease these bogus improvements immediately,and instead should “restore” the cottage to its original condition. “One of them even called me a ‘barbarian,’ hesaid, utterly bewildered. “"I never heardof Frank Lloyd Wright; I was just trying to make it better. Now, I wish I had never seen this place."

Though I was also shocked bythe flocking, I found myself feeling genuinely sorry for the owner. My parent’s had built a Frank Lloyd Wrighthouse some years before. Because theyloved Wright’s esthetic, the irony the Bountifulhouse revealed was masked. The truth is,although you may buy or build a Frank Lloyd Wright house, you never really ownit; rather, you are its “curator,” which is very different, and you musttherefore stifle any impulse to“improve” it. Indeed, in order to ensurethat no subsequent owner could “improve” my parent’s house in the future, mysiblings and I spent a considerable amount of time and money getting a“conservation easement” on the house and grounds, which lowered the value ofthe property by legally specifying that no changes to the interior or exteriorof the house or grounds could be made without the approval of the Frank LloydWright Building Conservancy, backed by the Sate of Maryland. That done, mysister and I sold the house to my brother Tom with pleasure. I loved it too, but had no wish to become itscurator, or the curator of anything else from the past, however innovative andlovely it might be. I liked to tinker, to change things. My brother did not, which made him an idealsteward.

FLLW’s Lewellyn Wright House, courtesy of University of Wisconsin Engineering Dept.

But this memory makes me think about how strange the wholebusiness of architectural preservation and “improvement” really is. Especially in the case of Wright, whoconstantly revised and changed his own elaborate residences, and foughtbitterly with those trying to conserve the ways of the past.

Despite a designcareer that lasted for sixty years, Wright spent little time or effort topreserve his own work. When asked whathis favorite of his buildings was, he always replied “my next.” And he called his architecture “organic,” bywhich he meant “living,” and implicitly, therefore, destined to die.

There is in fact a school thought that argues that the“transitoriness” of the building is intrinsic to the intent of the builder andmust be honored even if it ends ultimately in the complete decay of thestructure. This notion starts in the eighteenth century with the fetishizing of“ruins’ as sublime examples of beauty, and continued in the nineteenth centurywith Ruskin’s hymn to architectural “weathering” as Nature’s finishing touch toany architectural structure.

This brings us up short, and reminds us of how distinctivearchitectural art is. No one, after all,wants to look at a “weathered” film, or listen to a “weathered” symphony, orlook at a “weathered” painting.

And yet “weathering” has its limits in architecture. Yes, itshould inspire us, but it needs to keep the rain out, too. Wright’s houses didnot always do that. Many of his roofsleaked from the beginning, in some cases because his ideas were ahead ofexisting technologies. He even joked about it.One client is said to have telephoned him, distraught over a leak in herceiling allowing water to drip onto the horsd’oevres at her house-warming party.“What should I do”, she wailed.“Madam, your house is a work of art and should not be left out in therain,” he replied.

By the time he died, at age ninety-two in 1959, most of theart world agreed. His work was generally acknowledged to be of great importancein the history of art and therefore worthy of preservation.

But how do youpreserve “organic” architecture? Thesame way you preserve anything else: by trying to arrest natural processes.Think of time as a river, and the built environment as all the material in itschannel. As time goes by, the rocks inits bed are tumbled, smoothed, thrown up on its banks, which change constantly.But eventually, the rocks will become sand, will become something entirelyother.

But in many human societies, ours among them, certainfeatures of the stream bed are felt tobe too important to be allowed to decay.So we strive to armor them against the ravages of time, even as thestructures around them change, evolve, die. And we particularly disdain thosewho, like the Bountiful hunter, wish to be“creative” with these special structures.

Interestingly, this impulse to preserve is intrinsicallyconservative, in many ways the opposite of the impulse to create, particularlyironic in the case of trying to preserve the work of a rebellious, rulebreaking innovator like Wright.

Can it be done? Yesand no, I think. There are now manyorganizations and individuals
devoted to this effort, and in some cases they have beenbrilliantly successful (many examples are to be found on the website of theFrank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy at www.savewright.org.). But can buildingsreally be immunized against the passing of time, no matter how scrupulouslythey are restored?

Of course not. DusanMakavejev, a brilliant Serbian filmmaker, once remarked that “over time, everyfiction film becomes documentary, and every documentary becomes fictional.” Hemeant that even though the film was preserved, its meaning changed. Think, for example, of an episode of the highlyscripted television show “I love Lucy.” Looked at in 2007, it becomes adocumentary about how people dressed in the sixties, what they thought wasfunny, etc. Something akin to thathappens to architecture. A pioneering, rule-breaking structure becomes overtime a “classic,” in the course of which you see its commonality with otherstructures of the same time period against which it was rebelling. We can preserve the structures, but ourthoughts about them, and our perception of them, are constantly evolving.

An example: my wife and I live in a late Victorian cottagebuilt in 1898 in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.It is in many ways typical of the houses against which Wright wasrebelling in his first great creative period.Yet one of the reasons we bought it was it nostalgically reminded me ofthe home and studio Wright built in Oak Park for his growing family at aroundthe same time. Time does that. Therebels and the authorities turn out to have much more in common than theythought. They are both, after all,Victorian.

Renovated Victorian Kitchen, Jamaica Plain, photo by Tim Wright

Are we ardent conservationists of our Victorian gem? Hardly. Spurred by my innovative wife, Karen,and helped by several designers, we have torn out walls, plastered over doors,made one large room out of two smaller ones, created a new bathroom and a newkitchen. Much of what we are doing, withgreat delight, is in fact “bringing it up to date,” transforming a nineteenthcentury house into one that better serves our twenty-first century needs.

Are we accused of artistic desecration by gangs ofarchitectural students for so doing? Notat all. Unlike the poor Bountiful hunter, peoplewe show it to praise us for the energy and the ingenuity of our adaptations. Isthis fair? I don’t know. Our house hadan architect, but few people know his name, which gives us our license to“improve” his work.

In the case of Wright’s work, the Bountiful hunter’s “mistake” is unlikely tobe repeated, given the spread of Wright’s fame.Unfortunately, that same fame means that living in his houses is nolonger affordable to the kind of people who built many of them.

As far as preservation goes, the truth, I think, is that ourculture needs both types: stewards like my brother Tom, to help preserve theiconic expressions of architectural modernism, and also people like Karen andI, modernizers of the antique, even as all of us, structures and people, driftinexorably toward antiquity ourselves….

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