It's like walking through a haiku. It feels as well made as custom cabinetry, mortared and mitered and tight. These nearly six decades later, the cypress of its board-and-batten walls has turned a kind of gleaming butternut, so the effect is a little like being inside a jack-o'-lantern.
And it's about that big, too.
You won't find many closets in the Pope-Leighey House. Frank Lloyd Wright didn't believe in a lot of closets and storage space for the common man. Like Thoreau, like Jesus, he thought too many material possessions an unhealthy thing. It may have been the only thing he had in common with Jesus.
You won't find many nails in this miniature marvel; the bulk of it is put together with wood screws.
There is one bathroom. There are two utilitarian bedrooms. There's a carport. (Did you know Wright invented the carport, believing garages too costly and unnecessary?) There's a tiny kitchen, which, in the lexicon of functional Wrightian one-family houses, is properly referred to as "the workspace." There's a Lilliputian office or den, which is known as "the sanctum." And of course there's the epicenter of family life: the high-ceilinged living room with its plate-glass windows and great brick hearth and uncanny ventilating systems, with their signature geometric designs. It's the one space in the house where everything soars, opens out onto nature.
Frank Lloyd Wright believed deeply in the hearth and family life, never mind his divorces, his celebrated infidelities.
This vest-pocket symphony of wood and brick and glass, its form so perfectly following function, is 1,200 square feet. Originally it had been planned for 1,800 square feet -- but the Depression-era Washington newspaperman for whom it was designed couldn't afford such vastness. In 1940-41, when the house was being built, and when a lot of folks were convinced the thing would cave in on itself in the first snowfall, the cost to the owner was roughly $7,000 -- and this included the Wright-designed interior furnishings.
The flat-roofed L-shaped abode sits now, not on its original site, but about 16 miles away, in the elbow of a lovely hill at Woodlawn Plantation near Mount Vernon, having cheated death at least twice and outlived the bulldozers of Interstate 66 and all the naysayers of earlier, disbelieving times.
That it exists at all, able to be toured, able to be touched, has a lot to do with the faith and will of latter-day preservationists and of its second owner -- but this fact has nothing to do with how and why it came into being in the first place. That is an even greater story of faith and will.
It came into being because of a six-page letter a $50-a-week, 29-year-old copy editor at the Washington Evening Star mailed on Aug. 18, 1939, to a world-famous architect at a world-famous place called Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis.
The letter writer was a husband and father who regarded himself as a New Deal liberal possessed of Thoreau-like impulses. He was rich in everything except money. He loved books, classical music, the outdoors. He saw something of his own face in Wright's celebrated common-man ideal. And he was, like the visionary himself, a native Midwesterner, indeed a Wisconsinite. The newspaperman worked on his letter a long time, composing drafts during noon hours on long sheets of cheap white copy paper filched from his newspaper. These were his opening words:
"Dear Mr. Wright, There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life. Material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is a house created by you."
The letter went on for 10 more paragraphs. It was signed: "Sincerely, Loren Pope."
The writer took it to his local post office in East Falls Church just off Lee Highway opposite the streetcar tracks.
Two weeks later came a buff envelope with a bright red chop and small black lettering. Inside was an opposite sort of missive from the one he'd sent, extremely functional, two sentences, dead to the point, fewer than 40 words total. It was dated Sept. 2, 1939. It began: "Dear Loren Pope: Of course I am ready to give you a house." It was signed: "Sincerely, Frank Lloyd Wright."
How could the improbable dreamer, who opened that letter on that iconographic Washington morning 57 Septembers ago, have known what he was in for? He would have never written a letter if he had known.
"Joyous fulfillment," says an elderly man with hearing aids, sitting in warming winter refracted sunlight, having suddenly recovered his emotions.
"Unbearable grief." A Dream Design
The Gypsies have a curse: May your dreams come true. In some ways, that's what this tale is about. But it isn't all that it's about. There's a warming twist. For if Loren Pope experienced the curse in the bitterest way, he was also determined to survive it. The unbearable grief was the loss of his first child. And the house, or at least the move there, had everything to do with it.
You look at the man, and somehow you instantly see the house, even though he hasn't lived in the Pope-Leighey House for half a century. Like the house, he's small and compactly made. But also like the house, there seems to be something deceptively sly and expansive about him. You get the unconventionality right off. You also get tinges of the Wrightian ego.
"Two years ago, I was doing 50 push-ups every morning," he says. "Now I have some arthritis in my wrist and so only do 20." He walks three miles a day. He'll be 87 in July. But the mind is mortared and tight. He has black horn-rims and bristly brows and long sideburns and great curls of flowing white hair.
He's crouched on a sofa in his living room, as if set to spring. He's got on walking shoes and a jaunty tweed coat, though what he really seems to have on is his curiosity.
His house is on a side street of Alexandria, most distinctive one on the block. It's not a Wright house, but it's beautiful. "Very Japanesey," he says. "It's sort of second-generation Wright. You could say I've been aesthetically monogamous all my life." The kitchen could hold about four kitchens of the Pope-Leighey design. Among other things, Pope is a gourmet cook.
His third wife is in the back room, reading. Her name's Viola. They intend to take in a play this evening.
He has supported himself for many years as an educational consultant. He advises high school students and their parents on how to choose the right college. He's got persnickety opinions, but he's fine company.
He's trying to pinpoint when the name "Frank Lloyd Wright" first entered his consciousness. Probably one day at lunch in the mid-'30s, courtesy of an old news boss at the Washington Press Service. This was before he found work at the Evening Star. (Before the Star, the city's dominant afternoon daily, he'd stopped for a cup of coffee at The Washington Post; he was on the copy desk in the sports department.) Then, in January 1938, the journalist saw Frank Lloyd Wright's picture staring off the cover of Time. Inside was a lengthy piece about an architect who had been internationally famous since at least 1910 but who was still largely ignored by the conventional architectural world; who'd developed the low-slung Prairie style of houses in the Midwest; who'd built the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo; who'd just completed a work of genius and audacity called Fallingwater, which was a residence cantilevered in concrete slabs over a waterfall in western Pennsylvania. The article also told of Wright's belief in "Usonia." It was his name for the U.S.A., and he'd taken it from the writings of Samuel Butler. The word represented his utopian vision of affordable, beautiful housing for the common man in a democratic America. The Usonian house, the article said, quoting Wright, "may help to indicate how stifling the little colonial hot-boxes, whether hallowed by government or not, really are."
After that, Pope remembers going to the library and getting out Wright's autobiography. It's titled "Autobiography." Pope: "I read the first chapter three times. I read the second chapter three times. And then I read the third chapter three times. By then it was past my bedtime, and the next day I went to Brentano's and got my own copy."
He still has his original hardback; the clothbound cover has gone soft as a family Bible.
"I mean, that was Holy Writ to me. Is there a stronger word than seduction?"
So a bargain was struck. So some architectural renderings were begun. A Home Takes Shape
On the hallway walls of Loren Pope's home, beautifully framed, are letters from Frank Lloyd Wright. You look at these letters, and you start to get a sense of some of the heartache that had to be endured before the little house in East Falls Church got built. You also get a sense of the friendship that grew between two like-minded men outside the mainstream.
Nov. 28, 1939: "Dear Loren: Plans herewith with thanks for the check, articles and everything. I hope we come out as well as we begin."
The copy editor earning $50 a week could secure no mortgage from any of the local lending institutions. At the Arlington/Fairfax Building and Loan Association, they tried not to hide their laughter. "A man there told me, Loren, this house would be a white elephant.' "
The plans were absurd: three-inch no-stud "sandwich" walls to be screwed into a plywood core. Heating pipes to be encased beneath the red slab concrete flooring. Colleagues at the Evening Star would see him coming down the hall and start talking about "the hot-foot principle."
In March 1940, seven months after he'd written his original letter (by now he'd made his own pilgrimage to Taliesin and had come to know Wright personally, and had even slept in a room beneath the seer's bedroom), Pope secured a $5,700 construction loan from his employer. The loan was to be repaid at the rate of $12 a week taken out of his wage envelope. He believed that free men ought not to be encumbered by loans from their employers, but he had nowhere to turn.
Gordon O. Chadwick, a Taliesin apprentice, arrived in suburban Virginia to begin taking bids.
From Wright, July 9, 1940: "Dear Loren: This placing of the house is much better orientation with sunlight and a less formal attitude -- throughout. More our stuff, I believe. The garden can be stepped down."
The great day came. The family moved in. It was March 1941. The Popes had one small child. His name was Ned. He was 3. Another child was due that summer.
Two months after they were in, on May 17, 1941, Ned Pope drowned in a neighbor's pond a short distance from the house. A Foundation Cracks
An old man is still hunched forward on the sofa. Winter sunlight is still warming the room. "Well, that was my day off. I was walking outside, digging on something. He just sort of got away. I wasn't paying attention, I guess."
He begins to square the edges of some stacked books on his coffee table. One of the books is titled "A Natural History of the Senses." Another is titled "Emerson: The Mind on Fire."
"Let's see. How can I talk about this? I haven't cried recently. I haven't cried for the last three or four years. I'm not sure why. Ned. What can I say? He was a lovely kid. Sweet and bright child.
"It was such a small pond -- if he'd been 5 or 6, he probably wouldn't have died.
"I blame myself for his going down there.
"I just instinctively ran to the pond. I was the one who found him."
Later he tells you: "I used to be driving home and see a telephone pole up ahead and just think I could plow right into it and end it all."
The child was cremated.
Did the death change everything about the house? Yes and no. The family stayed for another five years. Two more children were born, first a son and then a daughter. (The second son was born within two months of the drowning, and this was a godsend.) It's true the Popes eventually needed more room and felt they had outgrown the house -- this seems part of the explanation. But every history of unbearable grief is so layered and tangled, and probably not even now can Loren Pope make any real sense of what happened. Or why.
In November 1946, he and his wife placed a three-line classified ad that brought out about 100 prospective buyers. They sold the dream in about two weeks. "We sold it to the couple we thought would love it most." Their names were Robert and Marjorie Leighey. The Popes didn't have a lot to pack. A free-thinking man, who'd always had a restless bone, he had the idea that he'd make a clean break and become a freelance writer out in Loudoun County. He'd subsidize the writing by raising Landrace hogs. And when enough hogs had been taken to market, and enough articles had been sold to magazines, he'd again enlist the genius from Taliesin to design him "a pleasure palace in the country."
Pause. "It was a fantasy."
Well, they did move to a farm in Loudoun County. He did raise some hogs. He did till some fields and he did sell some articles. But eventually he needed money and he came back to the news business. He worked several places, including a brief stint as an education editor at the New York Times. After the Times he and his family relocated to Oakland University in Michigan, where he worked as an administrator.
There were long years when he thought he was done with the house in East Falls Church.
His first marriage of many years collapsed. His second marriage did, too. His second son grew up to an extremely troubled life, says his father. There were long years when the Pope family had seemed to cave in on itself.
Last year, Loren Pope wrote: "To me, this edifice with three lives is much more than a house. I have been away from it more than I've been in it, but spiritually I never left. It represented life across the spectrum." Out of Harm's Way
Three lives. The conjoining of a house that didn't die and the tale of a man who didn't let tragedy destroy him takes a brief swerve here. As Loren Pope has said on many public occasions: Without the foresight of the Leighey family -- and without Marjorie Leighey's generosity in particular -- there today would be no house for Wright-lovers in Washington to enjoy. Pope has often spoken of Mrs. Leighey as "the true heroine of the piece." She is deceased now, as is her husband.
The Leigheys lived in the house for almost 20 years. In late 1963, the Virginia highway department announced its intention to seize the property under eminent domain for the construction of what was to become I-66.
Robert Leighey had recently died. In July 1964, Marjorie Leighey signed a contract with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in which she agreed to donate the house, its contents and the entire $31,500 condemnation fee to the trust in return for its guarantee to save it. The story gets a little complicated here, but the essence of it is that through the efforts of many people and organizations, including the Interior Department, the Usonian dream of Frank Lloyd Wright got moved out of the wrecking ball's path. They dismantled the house and moved it to a hillside on the grounds of a plantation where George and Martha Washington's granddaughter, Nelly Parke Custis Lewis, had lived in the early 1800s. In June 1965, at the dedication ceremonies, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said: "Now, as men and women of the centuries to come visit this historic place, they may entertain thoughts of two men -- George Washington and Frank Lloyd Wright -- who were in quite different ways Founding Fathers." The cost of dismantling and rebuilding was $48,000.
Inadvertently, the house had been set on a belt of marine clay at Woodlawn. At length the base began to warp and crack. There was nothing to do but take apart a jewel once more. In 1995, the ingenious American residence with such a troubled history underwent another disassembly. The preservationists turned it and moved it about 30 feet. According to the curator at Woodlawn, the cost of the latest restoration of what was once a $7,000 house totaled about $750,000. Frank Lloyd Wright must be hooting in Heaven, though maybe he's weeping -- at the way man must perversely and constantly inflate himself.
Last June 8, in commemoration of the 129th anniversary of Wright's birth, the house was reopened to the public. Pope is on the council that administers Woodlawn, and enjoys making himself available to give tours to foreign architects. Like an old man with stubborn insides, the Pope-Leighey House has survived what was threatening to crack it apart.
That old man is squaring stacked books on his coffee table.
"For a long time it was pretty painful to go back there. Ned. Of course Ned. Oh, it was pain and grief together. I'd remember what it was like when we first moved in, all that joy. And then I'd remember -- "
He almost cried, saying this part. But he didn't. Home Again
He's at the Pope-Leighey House. It's mid-afternoon and he's been talking for almost four hours. He is giving a private tour.
"I remember once Mr. Wright came out unexpectedly. We said, We can't offer you much. Will you please stay for dinner?' " They had an egg dish. Wright was charming and gregarious, though certainly an egoist. Pope: "He knew who he was, and there was no arguing it."
He walks up to the carport opposite the semi-concealed front door. "Our Studebaker Champion was right here!"
In the kitchen he puts his hand on a free-standing cabinet. "I made this piece of furniture. Mr. Wright approved of it." He made several pieces of furniture for the house. Mr. Wright approved.
"My daughter's high chair was there." He brushes his hand over a hulky black rotary phone. "My son, Loren -- that was the child born after Ned -- would pick it up occasionally. If he got there first, he'd always say, Newsroom.' " He goes over to a glass door that opens onto the brick patio. "We left these doors open 24 hours a day.
"We moved many trees up from the woods down there." It is a memory slip, a time bend, for the woods weren't here, of course. They were in East Falls Church.
On the way back up the drive, Loren Pope says quietly: "I used to have nightmares I might never have another Wright house. Well, I didn't. But I came back to this one." Then a free man, 10 years younger than this century, says: "You never know how the fabric of your life will work out." CAPTION: Sunlight streams through Frank Lloyd Wright's distinctive vents as Pope visits his old house, built in East Falls Church but relocated to Woodlawn Plantation near Mount Vernon. CAPTION: Loren Pope and the place he once called home: "My friends thought I was a little nuts, this idea of this great man building me a house." CAPTION: Loren Pope, who will be 87 in July, still gives tours of the house designed for him by Frank Lloyd Wright. CAPTION: The autobiography of Frank Lloyd Wright that drew Loren Pope to the architect. "It was a spiritual journey. A journey of values," Pope says of his interest.