MANCHESTER, N.H. - Some neighbors derisively called it "the chicken coop." Others likened it to a trailer because of its long, low-slung appearance.
But its new owners were ecstatic, calling it a "dream come true" and "the most beautiful house in the world."
Today, the Zimmerman House, designed by the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is one of New England's lesser-known architectural treasures. It's an immaculately preserved example of what Wright dubbed his "Usonian" design: compact, efficient, economical homes that were stylistically distinctive but also affordable for the middle class.
In 1950, however, when it was built on a residential street dominated by traditional Queen Anne and Colonial revival homes, the modernist structure was a jarring sight.
The horizontal, single-story, red brick house looks fortress-like from the street. A row of small windows, framed in pale yellow concrete and placed so high they almost touch the low-hanging roof, stretches across the front of the house like a belt. The clay tile roof is red, too, and resembles a runway with its wide eaves and irregular slope.
Inside, the ambience is strikingly different. The entry hallway is dark and narrow, but leads to a 13-foot-high room flooded with natural light. The rear of the house is floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a panoramic view of a wooded backyard, blending into the natural landscape.
Situated on a three-quarter-acre lot, the house is less than 1,700 square feet - enough space for two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining area, a large living room, and a narrow galley kitchen. The ceiling is made of golden-orange Georgia cypress, and the floor is brick-colored concrete. Earth tones also characterize the furnishings, including textiles, carpets, and artwork. Most of the cabinets, shelves, and seating are built into the walls.
Although it is nearly 60 years old, the house is remarkably well-preserved, largely because its only residents were Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman, who lived in it from 1952 until they died. The couple bequeathed it to Manchester's Currier Museum of Art, which took it over in 1988.
That makes it one of the few Wright buildings in the country owned and operated by an art museum, and the only Wright home in New England open to the public. It typically receives 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a year.
"I think of it as the largest and most important object in our collection," said Andrew Spahr, chief curator of the Currier, which considers the house part of its permanent holdings, "and it has the added challenge that it lives outdoors, so it comes with all the joys of home ownership."
The Zimmermans gave the house to the Currier because they wanted it to be preserved as a work of art. When the couple - he was a urologist, she was a nurse - were ready to downsize from their 13-room home in Manchester, they contacted Wright to ask whether he would build them a house that would be radically different from any other in Manchester.
In a letter to the architect, who died in 1959, they explained they wanted "a small, spacious, simple home . . . that would require the least housekeeping and which would allow for privacy and outdoor living."
Wright's Usonian style strove for just that: homes built with natural materials that required little maintenance, open layouts, flexible interior space, and standardized details. In an effort to make them affordable, he eliminated features such as basements and attics, and he substituted carports for garages. He used in-floor heating systems rather than vents or radiators to maximize usable space and eliminate visual clutter.
To say the Zimmermans were pleased with the end result is an understatement. "The Zimmerman house is Heaven," they wrote to Wright after the home, which cost about $50,000, was complete.
Wright also designed the furnishings and even made suggestions for the bathroom fixtures and kitchen appliances. But he never visited the property; one of his apprentices supervised the project, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Isadore died in 1984 and four years later when Lucille died she left the house - and everything in it, including the couple's dishes and clothing - to the Currier. The home, museum officials like to say, is "a total work of art."
The museum has initiated several major renovation projects at the house, among them a restoration of the roof and a reconstruction of the floor and plumbing beneath it. Currently, the museum is repairing the fabrics and replacing the foam in many of the chairs in the house because they had turned hard and brittle with age. The labor-intensive work is done in a conservation studio, and the furniture leaves the house piece by piece.
"We approach all projects not as home renovations," said Spahr, "but as conservation projects at a museum level."
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at email@example.com.