We Built Our Own Frank Lloyd Wright Designed House

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Photo by Karl Staley
Learn how one couple had their house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright just for asking.

Many visitors have asked us how we got Frank Lloyd Wright, supposedly a “rich man’s architect,” to design our low-cost house . . . especially when we planned to build it ourselves. The simple truth is that we just asked!

Of course, we were a mite nervous about making the request. But we had seen a picture in his book, THE NATURAL HOUSE, (Horizon Press, 1954), which showed the Jacobs home — near Madison, Wisconsin — and which bore the intriguing caption: “cost in 1937: $5,500, including architect’s fee.” Two other simple (and simply beautiful) houses had also caught our attention: the $10,000 Willey place in Minneapolis, and the $9,500 Winkler structure in Okemos, Michigan. These homes seemed well within our budget.

We had already ruled out constructing from the $5 to $50 builder’s plans available in most “home” magazines because we knew too many folks who’d come to grief using them, and because we knew that a good architect would save us his fee and then some just with advice on materials and techniques.

So, after visiting the Wright-designed Weltzheimer house in Oberlin, Ohio, and Wright’s own “summer school of architecture,” Taleisin — in Spring Green, Wisconsin — we worked up the courage
to write him. I can still remember the first sentence of the note. . .

Dear Mr. Wright: The sumac is right pretty in our wood lot. But we have no home of our own.

On impulse, I enclosed a sprig of bright-red sumac.

Some months later, on another visit to Taleisin, Mr. Wright’s secretary told me that “when Mr. Wright opened your letter, the sumac fell to the floor. He picked it up, admired it, and dictated an immediate reply.” That reply read:

Mr. Wright has asked me to send you the enclosed folder concerning his services. He would like to know how much money you would be able to put into a house in these times of high building costs.

With some trepidation, we replied . . . and Frank Lloyd Wright agreed to design us a 30′ x 140′ home complete with carport and shop!

It took us three years to build that house and there are now three buildings on our “expanded” three acres: a boathouse, our home and — smallest of all — a garden house. We started the garden house first …

The Shack

We had rented a house about a thousand feet from our building site, and the thought of lugging tools and building materials that distance every day was discouraging. . . so we decided to build a three-sided, open shed near the construction area in which to store the implements. We reasoned that — once our house was completed — we could always use the shack for a garden house. . . and we decided to try to keep the structure’s design harmonious with the main house that would follow. (Imagine. . . a Frank Lloyd Wright toolshed!)

We found the ideal building in Dan Beard’s fine book, SHACKS, SHELTERS AND SHANTIES, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932). It was an Adirondack camp 12′ long and 8′ deep, with a sloping roof 6’8″ high at the ridgepole and 3’6″ high at the back. One feature — the Pike (for Pike County, Missouri) notch used to join the shanty’s side and back logs — made the shack especially interesting as a study in simple backwoods construction. The notch is formed by cutting a 120-degree “diamond” into the upper surface of each log and a matching 120-degree “V” into the lower surface of the cross-log immediately above.

As suggested by Dan Beard, I made a scale model — complete with notches — of the Adirondack camp before I started the real thing. The model was 12 inches long, 8 inches wide, 6-2/3 inches high at the front and 3-1/2 inches high at the back. I built the little model with a scout knife and hacksaw. . . and thus learned to make the Pike notch — and reaped a pleasant glow of accomplishment — even before I cut a single full-sized log.

Our neighbor to the north, from whom we later bought an easement strip down to the lake, OKed our felling two or three poplars between our properties (we were afraid the trees might someday fall on the main house we planned to build) … and the timbers were just the right size for the construction of our camp.

Mr. Beard’s book didn’t say how to fasten the side logs to the two uprights at the open front of the building. We thought of wooden pegs, which would have been in keeping with the pioneer nature of the structure. . . but eventually weakened and “toenailed” the horizontal timbers to the vertical logs with 6″lag screws.

The most notable feature of our shed — its roof — just kind of happened. It started out as tar paper. . . then we added some asbestos shingles culled from a neighbor’s discards. Once the shingles were in place, we decided that they seemed rough enough to keep a layer of rocks from sliding off. We tried it and the idea worked!

As the primary material for the walls of our future house would be natural stone, we decided to get our masonry baptism by erecting an altar fireplace in front of the toolshed/Adirondack camp/garden house. An “altar” fireplace is one step up from a fire on the bare ground. . . starkly simple to build, but still treacherous enough for beginning masons like us. We mixed the mortar too wet, the gooey mess squeezed out and ran down the sides and the heavy stones sagged out of line.

First Principle: mortar must be the right consistency. Too wet, and it runs. . . too dry and it crumbles as it sets up.

To “furnish” our shed, we built two storage boxes of 6/4 (1-1/2-inch) random plank lumber cut from the same poplars with which we constructed the building. One box was built seven feet long (for rakes and similar equipment) and the other to a length of five feet (for the storage of cooking pots and canned foods for an occasional meal on the site). The storage chests were topped with hinged covers constructed of three-inch-wide sawed-out half rounds.

To Build or Not to Build

All was not rosy, however. On our first approach to Mr. Wright, we had taken samples of river stone from our property . . . knowing his penchant for using native materials in his designs. He approved the idea right away, and designed our house to utilize the stone.

Local builders, however, didn’t approve the idea at all. Mr. Wright’s design was too complex for them, his techniques too radical.

Further, we had expected supervisory help from one of Wright’s Taliesin apprentices . . . but the year we decided to build, Mr. Wright had so many commissions in process that he couldn’t spare us such assistance.

After vainly trying to oversee construction ourselves, we gave up and wrote Mr. Wright’s secretary the following letter:
Dear Mr. Masselink: Goodness knows you have given us plenty of time to reply to your inquiry about whether we wanted working drawings. We are pretty discouraged at this point. We don’t believe we can build the house in these times, although we like it immensely.

To build it in sections seems to offer a ray of hope, but our bank will not give a loan on an unfinished house plan, in fact they fine people 1-1/2% a month for not finishing a house within eight months.

The rough estimates we have collected indicate a total cost of $30,000 or more, rather than the $20,000 (we’ve reset) as our top limit. Without a Taliesin apprentice on the job, local people would have extreme difficulty mastering Mr. Wright’s unusual techniques. This could greatly increase building expense.

We suppose the next step is to return the plans, since, according to the agreement, they are the property of the Foundation.

Just then, then our project was at its lowest ebb, we accidentally learned that Mr. Maxwell Smith — a high school physics teacher in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan — was the owner of a Wright home that he’d built himself! We descended, unannounced, on Mr. Smith and poured out our story.

Mr. Smith was most cordial, showed us around his modest – but beautiful – Wright creation . . . and then stunned us by stating that he had built the entire structure with the assistance of only one student helper. “That’s the key,” Smith said, “students from an architectural school.”

It was a crucial turning point in our thinking. We immediately contacted nearby Western Reserve University and offered summer employment for six architectural students. The deal worked out even better than we expected: the school gave the students credit for the summer’s work and we got skilled help at very reasonable expense and with a few laughs thrown in (one lad showed up with a “rent me” sign around his neck). We were on our way again.

The Walls

We spent a good part of that first summer gathering our river stone. The technique was to individually load – to avoid undue scratching – the rocks into a barrow, transfer them one by one to a truck, drive the stones to the site and unload them carefully by hand. Besides being slow, the task produced two casualties: our youngest lad – in an excess of zeal – developed a hernia and we broke an axle on a borrowed jeep in the main intersection of Madison Village’s main street. . . on a Saturday afternoon!

Wright’s design called for many corners, inside and out. Since river stone doesn’t lend itself to shearing or cutting to shape – as a mason might do with cut stone – we had to find rocks with “natural” square corners. Amazingly enough, these proved to be fairly plentiful and we were soon staging exclusively “corner stone” excursions and piling the results separately to speed later work.

Incidentally, we soon learned that river stones lay in watercourse beds in natural horizontal layers. Our second year taught us that – once we’d removed one of these layers – the following spring’s thaws and high water would uncover another for the taking!

We were all mostly amateurs and eagerly sought sources of building information. Two books proved to be of tremendous help. The first, by Hubbard Cobb, had the unbelievable title, YOUR DREAM HOME-HOW TO BUILD IT FOR LESS THAN $3,500, (Wm. H. Wise, Inc., 1950). It gave detailed information on every part of the house, including electrical and masonry tips. Unfortunately for us, however, it was mainly about frame structures.

The second book, a real delight, was POUR YOURSELF A HOUSE, by retired architect Frazier Forman Peters (Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hili Book Company, 1949). One of the first lessons we learned from this excellent work was how to dig a trench. The illustration entitled “How to Dig and Spare the Back” is a classic.

Peters advocated the so-called “Flagg” method of stone wall construction, whereby a wooden form – including window bucks, etc. – is erected, with outside and inside surfaces separated by the thickness of the finished wall. The stones are then laid vertically in the form and braced against its faces with small sticks or rocks before concrete is poured in. When the mix sets up, the form is removed and whatever patching (pointing is the technical term) is needed is done. Many parts of the buildings at Taliesin were built in this manner, and they’re solid walls.

To gain official approval for our students’ summer work, we laid up two corners both ways – one with the stones placed vertically, a la Peters – and one with the stones horizontal, in courses. The second method won out as it was more suited to our “cavity wall” (each wall actually has an inner and outer surface with an airspace between to cut heating costs) construction.

In the final operation we built a vertical form eight feet long and four feet wide. We then placed a one-inch-thick layer of insulating material on each side of the form and laid up an outside section of the wall against one layer of material and an inside section against the other.

Once the walls had set up, we’d slip the form out. . . leaving a “sandwich” that consisted of (1) the outside thickness of stone and concrete backed by (2) one inch of insulation, (3) a dead air space in the middle of the wall (4) and a second inch.thick layer of insulation bonded to (5) the inside thickness of stone and concrete. We did learn to build our forms out of inexpensive lumber because (several times!) we let the concrete set so long that we couldn’t remove the spacing board.

Each four-foot-high section of masonry was topped with sloped stones and the surface of the walls was considerably enhanced by an interesting detail “invented” by Mr. Wright and now used widely. This detail (which we called a “stickout”) is an occasional stone which is allowed to protrude an extra two or three inches from the face of the rockwork.

It gave us a great deal of pleasure to attempt to place the stickouts for maximum artistic effect but we didn’t realize what a poetic touch they added to the house until snow built up on the little ledges the following winter. It was beautiful!

But that was later. For the present, our summer was drawing to a close. The students had to go back to their classes so we returned to our rented house to await the following spring. Behind us, the few simple walls we had erected – while only a promise of the house to come – already showed that touch of graceful magic that marks Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. Already, we were taking a strong pride in the fact that we had brought those walls into existence with our own hands.