September-October 2009 | Home & Garden

The Wright House

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a West Bethesda house for one of his sons.

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Early one morning, Robert Llewellyn Wright awoke to the sound of sawing in his West Bethesda home. Downstairs, he found his father, renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, busy cutting the back legs of a chair he had crafted years ago that now was among the furnishings of the house he had designed for his son. When the son asked about the alteration, his father replied, “I’ve thought about that chair for 20 years, and this morning I realized why it isn’t comfortable. The back legs need shortening.”

That constant refining of ideas, with every change edging closer to perfection, defined the man the American Institute of Architects declared “the greatest American architect of all time.”Wright gave his son the ultimate gift: blueprints for a house. “Most fathers leave their children money,” Llewellyn, as he was known, was quoted as saying in Patrick Joseph Meehan’s 1991 book, Frank Lloyd Wright Remembered. “I’d rather have this house.” It is a stunning piece of modern art reflecting the brilliance of its creator.

Born in 1903 at the family home in Oak Park, Ill., Llewellyn was the youngest of six children from Wright’s first marriage. That same year, his father, working on a residence designed for a neighbor, Edwin Cheney, tumbled into an adulterous affair with his client’s wife, Mamah. The two carried on scandalously in public for years, igniting a firestorm of moral indignation. The Chicago Tribune called their relationship “an affinity tangle unparalleled even in the checkered history of soul-mating.” Wright’s wife, sure that the attachment would fade, deflected the idea of a divorce. The public, however, was not so forgiving, and the relentlessly negative reporting nearly ruined the architect’s career, sending Wright and Mamah into refuge in Italy in 1909.

Within a few years, after the turmoil had subsided, the couple returned to the United States, settling into a new home and studio that Wright was building on family land in Spring Green, Wis. Dubbed Taliesin, the complex seemed to grow organically out of the brow of a hill, a reflection of the architect’s evolving design philosophy that buildings should be one with their natural surroundings. Then, in 1914, just as Wright’s career was regaining its luster, horrific tragedy struck. While Wright was away from Taliesin, a deranged servant set fire to the living quarters, positioned himself at the building’s lone exit and, as the inhabitants attempted to flee the inferno, chopped them down with an ax. Seven people were murdered; among the dead were Wright’s lover, Mamah, and her two children.

Despite the sensational affair, the abandonment and estrangement, Wright remained an affectionate father to Llewellyn, “the deserted child,” as he called him. When Wright went to Chicago on business, the young boy would stay with him in his room at the Congress Hotel, “bringing his mandolin to play for me,” Wright recalled. “It gave me pleasure to see him fold each garment neatly and put it carefully on a chair when he went to bed. And I would tuck him in.”

By 1930, Llewellyn had graduated from law school, passed the bar and established a practice in Chicago, where he met and married Elizabeth Kehler in 1933. Post-World War II found the couple living in Washington, D.C., where Llewellyn pursued a successful legal career, including a stint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

After years of beseeching by Llewllyn, Frank Lloyd Wright drafted plans for a new home for his son in 1953. The two-story, earth-tone, concrete block and natural wood structure dismissed the rectangularity of his earlier work—best displayed in Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania hillside house built for Pittsburgh department store mogul Edgar Kaufmann in 1939. Instead, Llewellyn’s house was designed using intersecting and concentric segments of circles, or “hemicycles,” as the architect called them.

On the original plans, two intersecting arcs composed the exterior shape of the house, a configuration with no right angles along the roofline, its form reminiscent of a ship’s hull. A wide fascia, running around the entire building just below the roof ’s edge, was covered in overlapping bent boards of Philippine mahogany, accentuating the curve of the walls. A two-story cylindrical tower rose to the right of the centered main entrance, breaking through the roofline, its verticality emphasized by long, thin windows. A curved galley kitchen was on the first floor of the tower. A decorative band of alternating small and large windows pierced the curving concrete block along the second floor of the front façade, lighting the upper hallway leading to three bedrooms. Meanwhile, the rear of the house was a huge expanse of plate glass, bringing the outside in and admitting an abundance of sunlight. Glass doors off the open and connected living and dining areas led to a semicircular terrace; above, a cantilevered, almond-shaped balcony seemed to float from the second-floor master bedroom.

Wright had begun experimenting with circular architecture in the 1920s, first fully realized in an ambitious complex designed to be built atop Sugarloaf Mountain, the solitary summit rising just across the Montgomery County line in Frederick County. Gordon Strong, a wealthy Chicago businessman who had amassed a fortune in real estate, had bought the whole mountain and a surrounding 3,000 acres with the idea of creating a nature park, a picturesque destination for pleasure motorists. He envisioned a building at the mountain’s peak that would provide a scenic overlook and be an attraction in itself, complete with restaurants, gift shops and a dance hall.

In 1924, Strong commissioned Wright to create something “striking, impressive and enduring, so that the structure will constitute a permanent and credible monument.” Wright responded with a bold and daring concept for a circular building rising out of the mountain, with a walkway spiraling upward to an observation deck at the top. Wright’s final design included a planetarium in the center, surrounded by a ring-shaped natural history museum.

Strong rejected the plans, and the “Automobile Objective,” as the structure had become known, was never built. Later, Wright resurrected the design and used its rings and spirals as the basis for one of his best-known works, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, completed in 1959.

As for Llewellyn’s house, years would pass between plans and construction. The delay was caused in part by a prolonged search for the right property. “Pick a lot that the builders won’t touch and you’ll be fine,” the father advised his son, and in 1956 they found the perfect site in West Bethesda in the Holly Hill community, a rocky and forested 2-acre parcel sloping into the Cabin John Creek valley. A developer had discarded the site, regarding it as too steep to build on, but the raw beauty of the untamed hill suited Wright’s organic approach to architecture. Like a ship plowing out of the waves of a green sea, the structure would adhere to Wright’s dictum that “a house be of the hill rather than on the hill.”Obtaining financing for the project, however, proved difficult. “We couldn’t get a bank loan on the design,” Llewellyn recalled years later. The peculiar curved lines, the exposed concrete block, the newness of the form was too shocking for loan officers who were more comfortable with the neocolonial houses that were de rigueur at the time in suburban Washington. The couple finally managed to borrow the construction money from friends, and Wright dispatched one of his apprentices, Robert Beharka, to supervise the construction. Llewellyn said in an interview about his father in 1975: “My father always had to send an apprentice to act as contractor because the workmen didn’t know how to build his way.”

Particularly puzzling were the glass corners at each end of the house, with two sheets of mitered glass butted against each other. “They always said those glass corners couldn’t be done,” Llewellyn said. The circle segments that defined the exterior became dominant features of the interior, as well. Lines following the curves of the walls were scored into the red concrete of the first-story floor. A rounded concrete-block fireplace restated the form. The furniture Wright specially designed for the house—built by cabinetmaker S. Brook Moore  of Sandy Spring—replicated the intersecting arcs, particularly a hull-shaped table and matching hassocks that floated through the living room like an upholstered armada.

Budget constraints forced a scaling down of the original design; the biggest change was in the circular tower housing the first floor kitchen. Wright had intended the kitchen to be open a full two stories above the ground level. Llewellyn opted to install an additional bathroom in the second story space, reducing the size of the windows and eliminating one entirely. “[Beharka] was shocked that my father would let us make such a major change in the plan,” Llewellyn recalled. For Wright, notoriously adamant about his buildings being constructed exactly as planned, such a change would only be allowed when the client was the son.

Frank Lloyd Wright made minor changes to the house after its completion in 1957,most noticeably in the dining area. When Wright saw the finished space, he thought the reduction in the size of the house made the area too cramped. As a remedy, he had wall-to-wall mirrors installed opposite the bank of plate-glass windows, reflecting the wider outdoors and giving the room the illusion of expanse.

In the spring of 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright passed away at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., not far from his winter studio and residence, Taliesin West. Llewellyn drove his father’s body through the night, nonstop, returning it to Wisconsin to be buried in the family plot, surrounded by grandparents, his mother and his murdered lover. The inscription on his monument was simple: “Love of an idea is love of God.”

Wright, however, would not rest in peace. In 1985, his gravely ill third wife, Olgivanna, summoned the attending doctor to hear her final wish: that her husband’s body be removed from its Wisconsin grave, cremated and the ashes mixed with hers within the walls of a memorial garden to be built at Taliesin West. After Olgivanna’s death, Iovanna, Wright’s only child with Olgivanna, signed the necessary documents and the architect’s body was quietly exhumed, cremated in Milwaukee and spirited back to Arizona—with little notification even to his children. When Wisconsin legislators learned that Wright’s remains had been taken out of state, they unanimously passed a resolution decrying the graverobbing and demanding that the ashes be returned. Their protestations were rebuffed—as were Llewellyn’s. When he objected to the “desecration,” the son who had cared for his father’s body, solemnly driving it across the country, received a brusque and dismissive telegram from Iovanna: “The heritage of Taliesin is not for the likes of you.”

Llewellyn died in 1986 and was buried in the family plot in Wisconsin. His wife, Elizabeth, lived until 2005. Today, the house remains in the Wright family, occupied by Llewellyn’s son Thomas Llewellyn Wright, its original form and features intact, a living monument to an American genius.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now residing in Olney.