- Ray and Mimi Brandes Residence, Sammamish (Issaquah),
- Washington (1952) (S.350)
(Note, due to the fact that the internet is constantly changing, and items that
are posted change, I have copied the text, but give all the credits available.)
For sale: Historic local home that's a lesson in making a small house a work of art
By Lawrence Cheek
Published Tuesday, January 30, 2007
One of the three Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the Puget Sound area is on the market, a perfect time to wander through it and wonder why its ideas are being neglected in this century's thirst for reasonably priced, modestly scaled homes.
Although the asking price of just under $2 million is a giant step out of the middle-class leagues, this house wasn't conceived as a baronial estate. Original owners Ray and Mimi Brandes wrote to Wright in 1951, asking him to design a small house for a "simple unaffected servant-less life." Jack Cullen, Ray Brandes' stepson and the present owner, says they envisioned it as a showcase for their contracting business.
It was, though for a reason they didn't expect. "He said it was the most complex project he'd ever built," says Cullen.
This is one of Wright's 50-odd Usonian houses, a brand the architect devised in the 1930s and continued to design until his death in 1959. "Usonia" was Wright's pet term for an America that might be perfected by his grandiose but populist vision. The idea behind these small houses was to offer beauty, practicality and affordability to families of average means. In practice, "affordability" never quite meshed into the equation, but Wright remains conspicuously alone among A-list architects who actually have tried to improve the state of middle-class single-family homes.
The Usonians weren't stock plans. Wright designed each one uniquely, right down to the furnishings and light fixtures. They were rectangular or L-shaped in plan, generally constructed of concrete block and redwood, with lavish window areas and lovely but fussy detailing that kicked up the cost. Living rooms were large and bedrooms minuscule, but built-in plywood furniture made excellent use of space. Wright also invented the carport for the Usonian house, and it spread to the suburban "ranch" houses of the '50s.
The rumor that Wright's roofs chronically leaked has been repeated so often it's imbedded in cliche -- and it's true. "It leaked up until two years ago," Cullen confirms. "Three different roofing engineers worked on it. Finally we had a 'torch-down' layer (rubber vulcanized onto fiberglass) put down and by God fixed it."
The Brandes house occupies three wooded acres on the Sammamish Plateau. It's very compact by modern standards -- 1,600 square feet plus a 300-square-foot guesthouse -- but it feels astoundingly spacious when you walk in and settle down in the living room. A wall of windows on one side, French doors on the other, and clerestory windows surrounding a ceiling recess flood the room with daylight and connect it to the outdoors.
The house exudes quiet dignity, and yet it's bristling with quirks. The kitchen features a custom- fabricated stainless steel countertop with five electric burners, a forerunner of modern cooktops. The two children's bedrooms open onto a micro-hall barely 18 inches wide. The likely reason was to allow the children an intermediate degree of privacy without shutting their doors -- Wright loved to experiment with familial social engineering in his house designs. The guesthouse enjoys a fireplace in a miniature den, which Cullen uses as an office, but oddly, there's no plumbing.
The welcoming mood of the house, though, is remarkable. Typical of Wright's residences, it doesn't feel pompous or self-consciously arty; an ordinary family and its clutter could move right in and feel welcomed. Amend that: an ordinary family and a fraction of its 2007 clutter. There's no basement, no "bonus room" and no garage, and the closets are just cabinets.
Cullen spent his teen years in the house and later raised his own two children in it, and he thinks its refusal to engorge too much stuff is a positive quality. "You just don't let clutter accumulate. The kids recycled their toys instead of letting them pile up. When you come across something you haven't used in five years, you know it's time for it to go to a garage sale."
He's selling it, he says, because his kids are grown and it's time for a change in his life. The house has been on the market for several months, obviously in search of a special buyer. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a non-profit that fights to preserve the architect's work, holds a preservation easement, which means that future owners will have to get conservancy approval for alterations. Updating kitchen or bath in appropriate style probably would be OK'd; grafting on an addition or plastering over the concrete block would not.
"Generally, people who are interested in buying a Frank Lloyd Wright house don't want to make radical alterations," says Ron Scherubel, the conservancy's executive director. "They like the design and appreciate its historic significance. But I'm always telling people, 'Don't buy a Frank Lloyd Wright house by mistake.' "
Despite his endless idiosyncracies and frequent crackpot pronouncements, Wright held to a noble belief that all people, regardless of their resources, deserved to have their lives uplifted by beauty. This house does so not with bombast but with many small details that enrich the quality of its space. Brendan Gill, Wright's most penetrating biographer, said it perfectly: Even a casual visitor to a Wright house feels an "expansion of spirit" because of the dramatic manipulation of space and dazzling geometry.
For example, the mitered glass windows that turn the corners subtly erase the sense of the house as an enclosure walling off the surrounding woods; it feels an integral part of its environment. The wedge-shaped redwood dentils on the fascia create a clicking visual rhythm that abstracts the geometric cycles of nature: solid and void, bounty and bust.
Of course all this came at a price. Ray Brandes bled out of money before he got to those finicky dentils; Cullen finally added them according to the blueprints a few years ago. "A carpenter spent 2 1/2 weeks routing them, then I finish-sanded each one," he sighs. "It was a mammoth undertaking."
Many ideas here could easily translate into contemporary homebuilding: the quality of the daylighting, the efficiency of the built-in furniture, the richness of interior textures in the concrete block and honest wood paneling. But the most important point is that a house's square footage is irrelevant to the quality of life that it engenders. Wright himself proclaimed that "a house is more a home by being a work of art." That can be taken as elitist, but it also can be an argument for small, unpretentious, quietly beautiful buildings just like this.
Lawrence W. Cheek is a freelance writer on architecture and author of "Frank Lloyd Wright in
Arizona." Contact him at email@example.com.