Building Wright Now

Questioning the appropriateness of executing Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt plans

The Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, Wis.

Credit: Monona Terrace

For a price, you can still have a new home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, even though Wright died in 1959. Through its Legacy Program, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation has sold building rights to about 45 of a select group of 200 of Wright's drawings, according to Arnold Roy, the foundation's vice president of facilities and an architect with Taliesin Architects, the firm Wright founded. Since the early 1960s, Wright's designs have been posthumously built to the buyer's specifications in collaboration with Taliesin Architects. But are these structures truly Frank Lloyd Wright projects?

Supporters say Wright's unbuilt plans for a gas station, mausoleum, and boathouse, all planned or already built in Buffalo, N.Y.; the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, Wis.; residences in the building permit stages in England and Ireland; resorts in Hawaii and California; and dozens of other projects present opportunities that are not to be missed. However, some architecture critics and Wright scholars strongly disagree with the principles behind the Legacy Program.

William Allin Storrer, author of the definitive Frank Lloyd Wright Companion, explains that "the foundation, in desperate need of cash, decided to license unbuilt Wright [designs] and charge extra high premiums." Arnold Roy confirms that licensing fees, both from the Legacy Program and product lines, are a major source of foundation funding, as are donations and tours of Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis. Both properties served as Wright's personal residences, studios, and campuses for his architecture schools.

Roy explains to clients that the Legacy Program "is a long, drawn-out process, and it is very expensive." Added construction costs are to be expected, he says, because building a Wright structure--with its labor intensive processes and without the use of drywall--is more expensive than building a traditional house.

The foundation charges a $1,500 fee to search for designs deemed appropriate to a buyer's request. If construction begins, the foundation's fee is about 15 percent of the construction costs, plus a charge for the intellectual property rights to the design.

The Blue-Sky Mausoleum in Buffalo, N.Y.

Credit: Buffalo City Cemetery and Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau

How original are new Frank Lloyd Wright structures? That depends. If the foundation certifies a building as "an original design by Frank Lloyd Wright," it means the only alterations were for fitting the structure to the present site and bringing the plan up to current building code. The other foundation designation is "based on an original Frank Lloyd Wright design," meaning the buyer requested changes, which the foundation considered minor, to meet modern needs.

Storrer believes a design can only be called Wright's if it is built on the same site as originally intended, with Taliesin supervision and exactly according to the original plan, including the same materials. According to Storrer, the only exception would be for bringing the building up to current building codes, and those modifications should be hidden. "I am opposed [to the Legacy Program]," he notes, "because it is not what Wright intended. It invalidates the claim to call it [the structure] Wright." For example, he notes Monona Terrace was never intended to be a convention center and that Wright never completed designs for the project. He believes Monona Terrace isn't truly a Frank Lloyd Wright work and calls it "Tony Puttnam's masterpiece," referring to Anthony Puttnam, the lead architect on Monona Terrace who completed the project in 1997.

Puttnam, who works with Taliesin Architects and studied under Wright in the 1950s, has a different opinion. "The challenge is to do the best of what you anticipate Frank Lloyd Wright would do," he says. He calls what he built "Monona #8" and says the first five were done in Wright's lifetime. Every time a new mayor was elected, he recalls, Wright would change the designs to satisfy the new administration. "Changing the function in the building was no problem [to Wright]," says Puttnam. He adds that "technology has caught up to the design," because Wright's concepts were ahead of their time.

An unbuilt Wright design for a boathouse, soon to be executed in Buffalo

Credit: Frank Lloyd Wright Rowing Boathouse Corp. and Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau

Buffalo has five Frank Lloyd Wright residences that Wright built during his lifetime, including the Darwin D. Martin House Complex, considered by many scholars to be a masterpiece, which is undergoing extensive renovation and reconstruction. Soon Buffalo will also be home to three of Wright's newly developed designs. Wright's Blue-Sky Mausoleum was constructed in Buffalo's historic Forest Lawn cemetery in 2004, but the exact intended site could not be used. It was instead constructed on a nearby location overlooking a spring-fed pond in the cemetery.

Although Wright's design called for white marble, Puttnam says, because of the quality limitations of locally available material, white granite was used instead. Puttnam relates that such details do not matter to those who enjoy seeing the structure in its park-like setting.

The two other unbuilt Wright structures in the works include a rowing boathouse originally designed for the University of Wisconsin. The second is a gas station, planned five blocks from its intended Buffalo site. Howard Zemsky, immediate past president of the Darwin Martin House Restoration Corporation, believes that these unbuilt Wright designs, in combination with the Martin House restoration and reconstruction, "will benefit Buffalo and are being done at a really high [quality] level." Community leaders and local officials have predicted that Buffalo will have added appeal to visiting architecture fans and scholars and to other tourists as well.

Tobias Guggenheimer, a New York City architect and author of A Taliesin Legacy: The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright's Apprentices, says he is skeptical of building Wright now. His book, he explains, features those Taliesin architects who trained under Wright but then went out on their own and found their own creative style.

Guggenheimer believes building Wright's designs is not in good architectural taste but notes, "As a marketing idea [the Legacy Program] is brilliant because I understand the foundation is in terrific financial trouble." He recognizes the "big responsibility" to maintain the architecture school, the archives, and both Taliesin buildings, but believes the Legacy Program "undermines originality" and eschews the work of today's architects.

Some people building today would rather search the archives of Frank Lloyd Wright than search for a living architect who is today's equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright. There are strong opinions for each option, and unfortunately Wright can't be here to solve the controversy.

Maria Ceraulo is a freelance journalist based in Buffalo.

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