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Frank Lloyd Wright house reflects his everyman ideal

By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright
Globe Correspondents / December 4, 2011
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MANCHESTER - “You had to be a special person to work with Frank Lloyd Wright,’’ Pam Harvey, our tour guide, said. “You gave up your own personal tastes and went with his philosophy of organic architecture.

“With Wright,’’ she continued, “you swallowed the Kool-Aid and then lived with it your whole life.’’

We were touring the Zimmerman House, the only Wright-designed home in New England now open to the public.

We had just learned that Wright not only designed the one-story house for Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman, but also designed the furniture; he picked out the colors of the upholstery, linen, and fabrics, the dishes; he even designed the Zimmermans’ mailbox and personal stationery.

“The Zimmermans had their wish list, but in true Frank Lloyd Wright fashion, they didn’t get everything they wanted,’’ Harvey said. “And once the Zimmermans moved in, before they could do anything different in the house, they wrote Wright to ask whether they could change it.’’

But who can argue with genius? The home, completed in 1952, is a masterpiece of function and harmony, one of about 60 Usonians that Wright (1867-1959) designed to be modest, energy-efficient, and affordable homes for the middle class. (Wright cited “Usonia’’ as referring to the United States of North America; and Usono is the Esperanto name for the country.)

Our tour began in the lobby of the Currier Museum of Art, where we gathered around a model of the Zimmerman House. The Zimmermans left the house and an endowment to the museum upon their deaths in 1984 (Isadore) and ’88 (Lucille). It opened for guided tours in 1990.

Harvey explained that, in 1949, the Zimmermans asked Wright to design a home for them that was “outdoorsy’’ and easy to maintain. When Wright finally agreed to do it, the Zimmermans followed up with a 10-page list of their requirements.

“Wright gave them some of the things they requested, but not a lot,’’ Harvey said.

Though Wright was never on site - he sent John Geiger, an apprentice, to oversee the project - he studied photos of the property, neighboring houses, and topography maps of the area.

“What you’ll see is a perfect example of Wright’s organic architecture,’’ Harvey said. “He brings the outside in.’’

We boarded a van for the ride to the house, located in a quiet residential neighborhood a few minutes away. A narrow driveway led to the low-slung, unexpected home.

“It looks like a glorified trailer,’’ someone whispered. Apparently, the Zimmermans’ neighbors felt the same way.

“The Zimmerman House was very controversial when it was built,’’ Harvey said. “The neighbors were offended by the house. They called it the ‘chicken coop.’ ’’

We agreed. The house was, at first glance, unimpressive, and totally out of place in this neighborhood of French chateau look-alikes and stately Colonials. It looked like a dark, squat ranch, with tiny square windows and a small attached carport.

We followed Harvey into the house, walking down a low-ceilinged, narrow hallway into the more spacious, light-filled Garden Room. It was our first introduction to Wright’s use of “compression and release.’’ The brick and wood-paneled room was instantly calming, nearly spa-like. Dappled sunlight came in from the bank of windows opening to the backyard.

“Notice there are no hard walls in the house, only soft curves,’’ Harvey said. “So, the eyes flow around the room instead of being stuck in a corner.’’

There were also no doors to impede our vision; we were able to see into the hallway on one side and into the dining area on the other. Planter boxes lined the bank of windows and were set at the same level as outdoor planters, creating a flow between the outdoor and indoor spaces. The wood paneling and tile floors also carried to the outside, breaking the boundary between in and out. “It was another feature Wright used to break the box,’’ Harvey said.

Harvey explained that everything in the house - the paneling, windows, tile floors, ceiling, hearth, built-in lights, and furniture - was built on a complex 4-by-4 grid, creating a restful, unified design. Even the doorknobs were all 4 feet off the ground. We noticed that the autumnal color scheme, soothing earth tones with a thread of gold, was also carried throughout the house.

“Wright loved the twinkle of light on brass,’’ Victoria Duffy, our second tour guide, explained. “There are 700 pieces of brass in this house. There’s also this use of gold thread that really draws light and livens up the warm pattern throughout the house.’’

We went into the dining “loggia’’ next; Wright liked to rename spaces to help liberate us from rigid concepts. It looked more like a hallway with a table stuck in it. The table and two chairs were very short, like elementary school furniture. Apparently, Wright, who was only 5 feet 3 inches tall, thought these were the perfect size. Across from the table was a row of floor-to-ceiling glass doors - in the 4-by-4 grid. “This was another revolutionary aspect of the house,’’ Duffy said. “The wall of glass doors provided the Zimmermans access both physically and visually to the outdoors.’’

The Zimmermans had no children, but liked to entertain. The furniture throughout the house, Duffy explained, was designed as a complete system. The dining room table can be carried to the Garden Room, and expanded by adding the two sides of the music table. Shelves can be attached to enlarge a buffet counter; the sewing machine drops down to form a work table. Wright thought of everything.

The compact kitchen, in the interior of the house, was a flashback to the 1950s, but revealed more Wright-designed elements, such as a rack for pot lids and covers, a hanging pot rack, and special cabinets for large platters and trays. While sitting at the dining room table, the kitchen clutter was artfully hidden, and when we stood at the stove and looked out, we had a pretty view of the backyard gardens (also designed by Wright).

The guest room and master bedroom were both tiny, with built-in cabinets for storage. It felt like being in a well-designed, luxury ship berth. “Wright believed that the bedrooms should only be large enough to sleep in,’’ Duffy explained. “He wanted to encourage family living and togetherness in lingering spaces, like the Garden Room.’’

As we walked back down the narrow hallway and out of the house, Dorothy Moir, a visitor from Florida, said what we were thinking, “It’s certainly calm, like a monastery, but I don’t think I could live there.’’

But were the Zimmermans happy with the house? They lived here for 36 years, and hardly changed a thing. In a 1959 interview with House Beautiful magazine, Lucille Zimmerman said, “The greatest experience of our life has been the actual living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. It’s a sensation you cannot describe; you have to experience it. We move so freely back and forth between indoors and out that our whole life seems to be spent under the stars and sun.’’

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@earthlink.net.

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If You Go

What to do
Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash St.
Manchester, N.H.
603-669-6144
www.currier.org
Zimmerman House tours are offered Mon, Thu, Fri at 2 p.m., Sat-Sun at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Adults $20, children ages 7-17 $8; prices include museum admission. Specialty tours, including focus on gardens, music, and design, are offered; check website for dates.
Where to stay
Radisson Hotel
700 Elm St., Manchester
800-967-9033
www.radisson.com
No surprises at this cookie-cutter hotel, but the rooms are spacious and it’s less than a mile from the Currier. Rooms start at $99.
Bedford Village Inn
2 Olde Bedford Way
Bedford, N.H.
800-852-1166
www.bedfordvillageinn.com
This sprawling inn, about 10 miles from the Currier, has 14 suites with marble baths and four-poster beds, and a top-rated restaurant. Winter rates start at $225.
Where to eat
Hanover Steak Chophouse 149 Hanover St., Manchester
603-644-2467
www.hanoverstreetchophouse.com
Settle into a leather banquette and order one of the city’s best dry-aged steaks ($36-$50). Portland Pie
786 Elm St., Manchester
603-622-7437
www.portlandpie.com
Where locals go for pizza; start with the lobster sliders and then pick from 18 specialty pies, $11-$19.