Frank Lloyd Wright house in Bethesda now belongs to architect's grandson

By Nancy McKeon
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 21, 2010; E01

It was just the kind of building site that Frank Lloyd Wright loved to tackle: The steep piece of land in a heavily treed corner of Bethesda was generally thought to be unbuildable. The driveway, a nearly straight drop from the wooded road above, was daunting. In addition, the only flat area was small, certainly not enough for a big house.

Wright visited the site in the 1950s and spoke with the lot's owners. The husband was a lawyer with the Justice Department; he and his wife had come to Washington during the second Roosevelt administration.

Some time later, Wright sent them a color rendering of a possible house. The message on the drawing: "Dear Llewellyn & Betty et al. How's this? Dad."

The house Wright suggested for his son Robert Llewellyn Wright and his wife, Elizabeth, was oval with pointy ends, plopped atop a curved pedestal, somewhat like a layer cake sitting on a footed stand -- or the mushroom-like columns in Wright's 1939 building for Johnson Wax in Racine, Wis. The prow-like end of the house was cantilevered over the ravine below and stared straight across to the trees on the other side.

But the house in the sketch wasn't to be. The design was too costly, and so the man who wanted to create modest homes for people on middle-class budgets adjusted his vision to meet his son's financial limitations. Away went the pedestal; the almond-shape house was planted firmly on the ground, a modest cantilevered balcony off the master bedroom a reminder of the original plan. The house was completed in 1958, the year before the famed architect's death.

Today Thomas L. Wright, the architect's grandson, lives in the house with his wife, Etsuko Saito.

The face the house shows a visitor is a formidable one, all cut-concrete block trimmed with Philippine mahogany. The house arcs away from the paved parking area, the curve interrupted on the right side by a chunky round tower that rises above the home's two stories. The only relief in the fortress-like facade comes from the front door and from small windows that could just as easily be a medieval castle's arrow loops.

The payoff is inside: The far wall of the living/dining room is a band of picture windows, many of them floor to ceiling, still looking out over the trees but at a lower, and less expensive, elevation. The windows make a grand curving sweep across the open floor plan and give onto an open concrete deck. The greenery outside tempers the bright sun; on cloudier days, the interior becomes moody.

As Wright, 74, shows a visitor around the residence, his reverence for his grandfather's legacy is apparent.

"He wanted building materials to be visible," Wright says, "no paint, no wallpaper." And indeed, the interior wall displays the raw concrete block, just like the outside.

The house has amenities that were coming into vogue in the 1950s. There's a powder room next to the front door and a half-bath en suite with the master bedroom. A full bath on the second floor serves the other two bedrooms. The scale of all of these rooms is tiny -- how else would a living room, dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and assorted baths fit in only 1,800 square feet? But it's also the scale of another era and another mind-set: Frank Lloyd Wright's bedrooms are famously designed for sleep -- in a modestly proportioned bed -- and little else.

The house's curving shape and the pointy ends accomplish an interesting visual trick: The individual spaces, Tom Wright points out, are on the small side, so the house feels quite cozy, but because of the curve, you can't see the whole area at once, giving a feeling of more space just beyond view. In addition, the living room is open, making it seem more spacious.

The tower seen from the front of the house encloses an unusual curved kitchen, complete with semicircular counters. There's no dishwasher here -- and no fantasies of creating a trophy kitchen. Wright is a righteous custodian of his grandfather's vision, pointing out typical touches such as a clever wood table that slides into the lower cabinets when not in use but can serve as a table or an additional work surface.

The other half of the tower forms part of a large round fireplace in the center of the house that marks where the living room segues into the dining room. The eating area is an elongated sliver in one of the pointy ends of the oval. A half-round dining table is against the window wall, with chairs ringing it so everyone can look outside.

The home's unusual shape also lays a foundation for Frank Lloyd Wright's renowned built-in furniture. At the pointy end of the living room, a banquette of slim proportions hugs the curved wall to offer seating (although there are freestanding chairs in the room as well). The children's bedrooms have small built-in desks and trundle beds.

Not built in but original to the house is the lozenge-shape coffee table in the middle of the living room surrounded by six upholstered stools that mimic its contours. Tom Wright points out original lamps that provide task lighting in various rooms. And he had a master craftsman in Hawaii re-create a famous four-sided music stand designed by the architect for string quartets that performed at Taliesin, his estate near Spring Green, Wis.

Also dotting the room are Japanese textiles and trinkets, contributed by the Japanese-born Saito, 62. She and Wright married in 2003. There are probably more objects displayed in the house than Frank Lloyd Wright would have sanctioned, but the architect was quite influenced by Japanese design and the Japanese use of space, so he might been sympathetic.

The most striking spot in the house is arguably the stairway to the bedroom level. The stairs curl tightly around a mahogany wall to the left and severe concrete block on the right, bringing to mind a medieval tower. The effect is only enhanced by the light glimpsed from tiny windows high above.

Tom Wright did not grow up in this house. His parents lived in a series of rented houses in Silver Spring while they saved up to build. By the time the house was finished, he was in his 20s and completing the studies that would steer his career with the U.S. Geological Survey as a volcano specialist. He spent a good portion of his adulthood living and working in Hawaii and Japan, where he met Saito. He returned to the Washington area in 1993 to help his mother, who was in failing health.

The house has health issues of its own. After several attempts at repair, Wright thinks the flat roof is now sound, but the concrete blocks that form the big round chimney have taken on water over the years, and a serious renovation is required.

"I would need to spend at least $100,000 to do the things I need to do to the house," says Wright, who lives on a government pension. Organizations such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust do not provide funds for properties that remain in private hands, so Wright tries to use preservation tax credits and his own savings to underwrite repairs.

His grandfather "was very irresponsible with money," Wright says, acknowledging the architect's famously prolifigate ways. With a laugh, he adds: "We're a downwardly mobile family."

But it's a family still interested in preserving its famous forebear's legacy: Tom Wright's son and daughter are both married and live in the Washington area. He consults with them when discussing the needs of the home, "because it will affect them." And both of them, he says, have expressed a willingness to take over the house -- and the legacy -- when the time comes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company