For Purists, N.Y. House Is Just Not Wright

Joe Massaro's new home is based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design.
Joe Massaro's new home is based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design. (J. Gregory Raymond - Bloomberg News)

By Bob Ivry
Bloomberg News
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Frank Lloyd Wright, who called himself the greatest living American architect, can still kick up controversy 47 years after his death.

A squabble over his legacy pits Wright purists, a prickly bunch, against a retired sheet-metal contractor named Joe Massaro, who is building a home in Putnam County, N.Y., based on designs Wright sketched in 1950. The purists argue that any deviation from what the master architect intended means Massaro can't call his home a true Frank Lloyd Wright creation. And since Massaro is working from sketches, not blueprints, his project can't be legitimate.

"He says his construction is within two inches of Wright's design," Wright expert William Allin Storrer said. "Nuts to that! You design it exactly according to plan or you don't call it a Frank Lloyd Wright house."

Massaro disagrees. Wright meant the four-bedroom, 5,000- square-foot house to be built exactly where Massaro is building it, on the rocky tip of wooded, 11-acre Petra Island in Lake Mahopac, about 55 miles north of New York City. Massaro said he departed from Wright's design only to satisfy modern building codes and to make sure that the home's 25-foot concrete deck, cantilevered over the lake, doesn't fall down.

"I wouldn't have built it if I couldn't put it exactly where Frank intended it," said Massaro, who often refers to Wright by his first name. "They can pick it apart all they want, but in 25 years this will be considered one of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpieces."

A New Fallingwater?

The house is at least six months from completion, but one Wright scholar has already compared it to Fallingwater, probably Wright's best-known residence.

"It's one of the most dramatically sited houses Wright ever designed," said Robert Twombly, author of "Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture." "It's just a knockout."

An engineer named A.K. Chahroudi bought Petra Island in 1949 and asked Wright to design a masterpiece for his family to live in. Chahroudi couldn't afford the $50,000 home Wright drew up and persuaded the architect to blueprint a 1,200-square-foot cottage instead. The Chahroudi family lived there for nine years, according to Dod Chahroudi, A.K.'s son. Massaro is using the cottage as construction headquarters, and it will remain when the new house is finished.

Wright designed more than 1,000 buildings; about half were built. A dozen have gone up since his death at the age of 91 in 1959, including three now under construction in Buffalo. Those also have drawn criticism from Wright fans, some of whom say no structure Wright drew up should be built after his death.

Wright was notoriously fussy about his designs, going so far as to rearrange the furniture on visits to completed homes.

The design for the Petra Island "masterpiece" was site-specific; it incorporated a 12-foot-high, 60-foot-long rock, nicknamed "whale rock," to form the exterior of the house's entry and a long interior wall. A smaller "tail rock" is used as a bathroom and kitchen wall.

"It's not a house that can be built anywhere else," Dod Chahroudi said.

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