Frank Lloyd Wright in Alexandria: The Pope-Leighey House

December 1, 2013

The Pope-Leighey House came with a carport, chosen by Frank Lloyd Wright to prevent the storing of excess stuff a garage brings. (Len Spoden)

Welcome to Usonia, a new and improved America dreamed up by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (“U.S.-onia,” get it?) In this perfect world, the middle class could afford tasteful, high-quality dwellings. No one would accumulate junk, because garages, attics and basements wouldn’t exist. And everyone would have the same furniture.

Wright’s 27 Usonian homes are still around, and one of the few open to the public is in Alexandria. The Pope-Leighey House, like its fellows, has big windows, a low profile, a natural setting and minimal storage. Its spare beauty represents a way of life free of clutter, choice and reality shows about hoarding.

Backstory: Loren Pope, a copy editor at the Washington Star, idolized Wright, who was famed for buildings that harmonized with their environments, be they city, suburban or rural. Heard of Fallingwater? That’s him.

In 1939, Pope wrote the architect a letter asking him to design a home for the Pope family, and Wright agreed. Completed for $7,000 in 1941, the 1,200-square-foot Falls Church house changed hands in 1946, to Robert and Marjorie Leighey. When Virginia condemned it to make way for I-66, the National Trust for Historic Preservation moved the structure to the grounds of Woodlawn, an 18th-century plantation in Alexandria.

Inside: Wright intended the house to manipulate its occupants. (He would have liked “The Sims.”) The train-car-narrow hallways and galley kitchen drive families into the spacious, high-ceilinged living area; the technique is known as “compression and release.” Other tricks herd residents into the main room: The shelf above the master bed, for example, is too low to allow one to sit up comfortably beneath it.

Wright’s obsession with detail manifests throughout in thoughtful ways. One exquisite touch: a tiny window in the kitchen that opens directly onto the herb garden. He also insisted that all the furniture be his creations, though Pope cheated and built a few dressers. It’s nice furniture — sleek and sturdy.

Outside: Admire the carport, which Wright popularized and, he asserted, invented. Say, “I love how the grooves on every screw head are turned parallel to the grain of the wood” to stun the tour group with your powers of observation. Follow up with, “I’m a native of Usonia, you see.”

Gift Shop: Finds include the detailed $10 Pope-Leighey House coloring book and the $14 Pope-Leighey House cross-stitch kit.

Did You Know?

Loren Pope, sick of journalism and D.C., moved his family to rural Virginia, where he took up hog farming. He eventually returned to journalism, specializing in higher education.

The house was actually moved twice. The second journey was just 30 feet, away from the bad soil that had caused structural problems. The house was completely restored at the time and reopened in 1996.

The kitchen’s under-cabinet lighting is another invention of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, he claimed.

Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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Beth Luberecki · December 1, 2013