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The Wright neighborhood

New England has few of master's works, but two share a street in New Hampshire

Homeowner John Kalil, 89, says he plans to sell the Frank Lloyd house he inherited to a buyer who wants to live in a 'Wright home.'
Homeowner John Kalil, 89, says he plans to sell the Frank Lloyd house he inherited to a buyer who wants to live in a "Wright home." (Globe staff photo/Geoff Forester)

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Most of the 250 Frank Lloyd Wright structures that remain as private residences are inhabited by Wright devotees, people who either commissioned their homes from Wright himself, or who excitedly bought their own piece of live-in history.

John Kalil, 89, a retired civil engineer who's lived in his Wright house for 15 years, isn't one of those.

''I like it fine," is about as close as he gets to gushing about the place. ''It isn't the type of house that's closed in. It gives you a feeling of being free."

Perhaps his reserve is constitutional, though it also may stem from how he came to live here. Far from pursuing the Wright dream, the house came to him, by inheritance; his brother, Toufic H. Kalil, was the devotee. When Toufic commissioned the house in the 1950s, John didn't know much about Wright ''other than that he was a famous architect," he says.

But Toufic knew the Zimmermans --whose Wright house a couple of doors away is now owned by the Currier Museum of Art -- admired their home, and ''didn't like any other kind," according to John.

This isn't to say that John isn't conscious of the artistic and historic importance of his home. He's working to preserve it, and when he eventually sells it -- it's not on the market -- he wants the buyer to be ''somebody who wants a Wright home." In this, he resembles the majority of Wright homeowners, who, in the words of Ron Scherubel, executive director for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago, ''know exactly what they have and have a strong feeling that we need to preserve this for future generations."

Kalil shares something else with a number of Wright homeowners: his age. Though Kalil still drives, does his own yard work, and manages as many household duties as people half his age, a number of the folks who commissioned Wright homes in the 1940s and 1950s are getting to the stage where they are moving beyond single-family home life.

The 1,380-square-foot house that was built for Toufic in 1955 is an example of Wright's Usonian (for United States of North America) designs, which were meant to provide exceptional housing for people of mid-range incomes.

Although it seems odd that the only two Wright houses in New Hampshire (out of only five in all of New England) share the same street, it's actually not all that unusual to find Wright houses in clusters, notes Hetty Startup, Zimmerman House administrator at the Currier and vice president of education and outreach for the Wright conservancy.

In some cases, as in Usonia in upstate New York, the grouping was planned; in others, as in Manchester, it occurred naturally. Zimmerman and Toufic Kalil worked together as doctors at Sacred Heart Hospital in Manchester, and both were Wright fans. ''The coincidence is that a piece of land came up for sale just down the street from the Zimmerman House rather than elsewhere in the city," says Startup.

Although Wright drew up and approved the plans for the Kalil House, he never visited the site; his practice was to send an apprentice to supervise building, and Morton Delson was his man in Manchester.

The Kalil House is a ''Usonian Automatic," meaning that it's built of concrete blocks that homeowners, theoretically, could make themselves. In reality, few homeowners did. For the Kalil House -- which cost between $70,000 and $80,000, no small figure in 1955 -- the blocks were created by Manchester Sand and Gravel. Like most Usonian dwellings, the house has few windows facing the street but many more facing the back, toward the terrace, trees, and grass, so as to integrate its occupants with nature.

Inside, the house is paneled throughout in Philippine mahogany, including the specially treated walls of the sunken tub-shower. Much of the furniture, including the bookshelves, is built in. The effect in the bedroom/study/hall is a bit like a well-designed camper or boat -- so much has been so cleverly fit into a relatively small space. By contrast, the living room, with a central fireplace and a virtual wall of small windows, is airy and spacious.

People who visit sometimes ask Kalil what his favorite part of the house is. ''Right there," he tells them, pointing to the corner where the two lengths of the built-in living room couch meet below windows open to the yard in back. Everyone seems to be drawn to that spot, he says.

Occasionally, strangers are drawn to the house itself, which does stand out, especially in northern New England. Kalil, who values his privacy, has had to ask people taking pictures to leave. Fortunately, he says, he can tell them there's the Zimmerman House up the road, which is open to the public by reservation.

Most homeowners don't have to contend with the shutterbugs, but they all have to deal with maintenance, and that includes Kalil. Although he says the house isn't difficult to maintain, he sometimes has to devise creative solutions.

''You're living in a house that needs to be kept up like any other," says Startup. ''But you're also living in a house that is designed by America's foremost architect. And you're living in a finite object. There aren't any more of them."

For one, Kalil's home contains the kind of original furnishings many Wright homeowners only dream of -- not only tables and chairs, but also fabric items: the autumn-toned bedspreads, the upholstery, and the 30 throw pillows overlapping each other along the living room couch. Sometimes keeping everything in shape requires an expert, such as Debora Mayer, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based paper specialist who repaired some lampshades in recent years. But to keep the upholstery in good condition, says Kalil, he hires cleaners right out of the phone book.

Other maintenance issues are trickier. For example, acid rain and the freeze-thaw cycle have taken their toll on parts of the Kalil House's exterior concrete blocks. So far, Kalil has been dissatisfied with at least a couple of contractors: The first used the wrong materials, he says. The second did passable work but then plastered over the concrete, at which point Kalil removed him from the job. He is currently looking into another company to do the work.

''There are real preservation dilemmas," says John Payne, who with his wife, Edith, lives in the Richardson House, a Wright design in Glen Ridge, N.J. The couple recently spoke at a Zimmerman House docents' training in Manchester about the issues of maintenance and preservation; they were available because, at the time, they'd moved out for several months while extensive repairs were being done.

Among the repairs at the Richardson House are replacement of the radiant heating system -- pipes embedded in the concrete floor of the house (typical for Wright houses). Because of a chemical reaction between the pipes and the concrete over time, the pipes have ''turned to lace," according to Edith Payne, and so the entire floor must be jack-hammered apart, the pipes replaced, and a new floor poured. The original floor, or most of it, will be lost.

But the alternative would have been to add baseboard heating, which would have greatly altered the design intent of the house. Such are the decisions faced by Wright homeowners.

It can be a tough call, and though the majority of Wright buildings aren't subject to any special regulations when it comes to home improvements, the conservancy (savewright.org) offers support and guidance to Wright property owners as if they were.

Kalil, who is aware of the organization, says he's not interested in joining. Though the word ''stewardship" certainly describes the role Kalil is playing -- the term comes up a lot among Wright owners -- he seems to want to get the job done more than discuss it.

The concrete work and a dehumidifier are in the home's short-term future, says Kalil. In the longer term, he will sell it (he has no heirs) but has no idea when. Kalil is also not sure what the house is worth. It sits on three-quarters of an acre with a view of distant mountains and has a in-law apartment in back that Kalil uses for storage. The houses in his neighborhood are quite diverse, with homes that look like mansions sharing the streets with modest ranch houses and former farmhouses. Property values vary widely. ''A conservative average," says Christine Gagnon, a real estate agent with ERA The Masiello Group in Manchester, ''is $350,000 to $400,000." She said the neighborhood is quite ''desirable."

A Wright house is sometimes easy to sell, sometimes not. Location and condition factor into the sale as they would for any house, says the conservancy's Scherubel. ''Generally speaking," he says, ''there is a premium, but it's not usually as much as the owner wishes it were, usually 10 percent to 20 percent over the market price for comparable houses in the area."

A recent roster of Wright houses listed for sale on the conservancy's website ranged from $375,000 for the Eric Pratt House, a three-bedroom Usonian in Michigan, to $2.5 million for the Andrew B. & Maude Cooke House, a waterfront estate in Virginia.

The Kalil House is on the small side, but its location in a good neighborhood in an urban center and its plethora of original furnishings -- down to the kitchen appliances -- could make it especially desirable to Wright aficionados.

One thing is for certain: Kalil would like to see the house end up in the hands of people who recognize it for what it is.

When asked how he would feel about someone buying the property for the land alone and doing away with the house -- a fate some Wright homes have met, or almost met -- he says with alarm and not a trace of irony, ''That wouldn't be right."

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