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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Getting It Wright?

Restoring Frank Lloyd's House

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It's the great irony of Frank Lloyd Wright's career: his mission to build aesthetically pleasing, low-cost housing resulted almost entirely in homes for the wealthy. Perched in the Hollywood hills, the Freeman House is one example of a dwelling built from ostensibly affordable materials (concrete blocks set in a steel frame) yet expensive in execution. If all buildings suffer decay over time, Wright's are especially vulnerable from his practical blind spots as a designer (planters without drains?) as well as the uniqueness of his concepts.

Jeffrey M. Chusid provides a case study in Saving Wright: The Freeman House and the Preservation of Meaning, Materials, and Modernity (W.W. Norton). The Cornell University professor of historic preservation first encountered the house as a student looking for a cheap room. Harriet Freeman (her husband Sam had already died) rented him a jerry-rigged apartment, one of many modifications the Freemans had made to their home over the years—often with the aid of architects trained by Wright. After Harriet's death and the damage caused by a 1994 earthquake, the problems of repairing the already shopworn structure became acute.


It was no easy task, as Chusid recounts, bringing the Freeman House up to code while preserving the integrity of the building materials—not to mention fixing the bowing and cracking caused by the quake. And then there was the question of what era to “preserve” in a home whose function had evolved alongside its owners. Money was scarce. USC inherited the structure, but was hard pressed to maintain it in the face of tight budgets. “The ideal solution will always be elusive,” Chusid concludes. Victory, however compromised and incomplete, has been achieved. The building remains standing and capable of being occupied.
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