Frank Lloyd Wright's Legacy Lives

Students at Taliesen West and owners of the architect's buildings work to preserve his genius. ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY

ARIZONA sun blazed on the convention tent, the breeze lifting the flaps to show crumpled mesquite trees and saguaro cactus with arms upthrust to the sky. Red dust swirled under a blue heaven, and a bird's irrepressible song nearly drowned out a panelist discussing the steps to landmark status for Frank Lloyd Wright houses. The occasion was the third annual Frank Lloyd Wright Building Owners Conference, an opportunity for homeowners, architects, historians, curators, and assorted fans to gathered to exchange information, gripes, and swap Wright stories. The three-day meeting was held at Taliesen West, Wright's winter headquarters and the place where his archives and architecture school are housed.

The site is more like a makeshift summer camp than an academic setting. The scattered buildings lie so low that they are virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding ledges of rock. The structures have spiky, geometric details of painted metal sprouting from the tops and sides like strange, primitive symbols. Forget the orderly, symmetrical elegance of Wright's Midwest prairie houses; these structures have a wild freedom and frontier rawness.

Wright originally came to Arizona to work on a mammoth resort project called San-Marcos-in-the-Desert. He and his workers built tent shelters of white canvas over wood and stone bases while the construction was going on. So enthralled was Frank Lloyd Wright with the quality of suffused light that came in through his canvas ``roof'' that he kept the idea when he designed more permanent buildings.

When the San Marcos project fizzled, Wright stayed on in the Southwest. For Taliesen West, he took the desert-dwelling concept and applied it on a larger scale, designing a drafting studio, communal kitchen and dining area, quarters for himself and his wife, additional housing for staff, a large and a small theater, and outbuildings. Since the buildings sat low into the rock, they stayed cool, and the stretched canvas ``roofing'' helped filter the warm light. Visitors today have to imagine what the canvas was like, because thick, translucent plastic sheets now replace the fabric, which did not prove durable. It's a tradition for apprentices to spend part of their time out in the desert, building small shelters that develop their imagination, make them aware of natural elements, and give them design experience.

The drafting studio is well-lighted and busy with apprentices, cluttered drafting tables, sheafs of tracing paper, and T-squares. A daunting portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright surveys the room; the students work in the shadow of their master in every sense.

There is a slight air of nostalgia about Taliesen West. A Phoenix woman who has frequent dealings with Taliesen West likened it to a ``living history museum'' because of the emphasis on preserving Wright's ideas and teachings. But the alumni work on display was not overawing; it would be difficult to characterize it as being on the cutting edge.

While the apprentices are trying to carry Wright's precepts into the 21st century, the group attending the building owners conference is concerned with keeping his existing buildings alive. From the urgency and heatedness of their discussions, it's clear that Frank Lloyd Wright's structures have no special immunity from deterioration.

If ordinary homeowners think they have troubles, they should hear the litany of woes concerning Wright houses: leaky skylights, faulty radiant-heat systems, concrete-slab floors in need of replacement, tile-roof breakage, art glass and furniture in need of restoration.

Add to conservation problems the hassles of living in a work of art: nosey, uninvited guests, and the challenge of staying true to the architect's original plan while keeping the place habitable. So why do people willingly live in Frank Lloyd Wright houses?

Mildred Rosenbaum, the oldest original owner of a Wright house, was eager to share her enthusiasm for the architect. Built in Florence, Ala., in 1939, her house was designed by Wright to accommodate the Rosenbaums' large book collection and their sons' interests.

When the growing family felt pinched in their house and reluctantly considered moving, they approached Wright. The architect, undoubtedly engrossed in a multitude of projects, designed an addition for them that exactly suited. Mrs. Rosenbaum still lives in the house. ``It's something I'm very proud of, and I boast about it all the time.''

Roland Reisley, owner of a Wright home built in Pleasantville, N.Y., in 1954, described to a skeptical reporter the virtues of concrete floors with radiant-heat. ``It's great. The coils under the concrete heat the floor evenly and the heat radiates up and warms everything - the furniture, everything. I walk across it in my bare feet in winter.''

Tell that to the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, N.H., which is restoring the 1952 Zimmerman house. The building's heating coils had disintegrated under the concrete flooring and the whole floor had to be jackhammered to pieces (see story on Page 13).

Despite the massive task of preserving Wright's legacy, building owners have a sense of being a part of history. None of them would care to place monetary value on the inspiration they draw from daily contact with Wright's genius.

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