17 Jul 19
The Mercury News
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Like a ghost wandering the halls of its own creation, the legend of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright lingers in the curves and angles, the masonry and woodwork, and even the furnishings of one of his standout Usonian homes, the Maynard Buehler house in Orinda.
The Buehler house, tucked into an unassuming cul de sac, is one of three Bay Area Wright-designed homes that will be open for tours in the coming two weekends.
In addition to the Buehler house, the Bazett/Frank house in Hillsborough and the Robert Berger house in San Anselmo will also be open to the public. They are part of a California inaugural fundraising tour conducted by the Frank Lloyd Wright Revival Initiative. Two others in Bakersfield and Bradbury were on the tour earlier this month.
The Bazett/Frank house contains the smallest bedroom ever designed by Wright, nicknamed “The Mummy Room.” The Berger house includes the storied Wright-designed doghouse, known as Eddie’s House, designed for a 12-year old boy and his dog. It is the only doghouse that the architect is known to have created.
“We are embarking on a home tour this July, which will provide the opportunity for Frank Lloyd Wrightophiles all over the country to visit Wright-designed private homes rarely available for public tours, plus meet with high-profile Wright experts and original client descendants,” says Michael Miner, a documentary filmmaker who specializes in films on Wright architecture, and the founder and CEO of the organization.
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”curated” curated_ids=”6191913,6132157,6132405,6132259,6134699″]The Buehler house was completed in 1949 and was the culmination of a dream for original owners Maynard and Katharine Buehler. The couple had seen Wright’s designs featured in Architectural Digest and wanted him to build a house for them, but held little hope of attracting the famed architect to Orinda.
Then Katherine Buehler learned of a couple who had persuaded Wright to come to San Francisco to build a store, the Morris Gift Shop on Maiden Lane. She wrote to Wright, asking him to consider designing a home for them.
After hearing nothing, the couple hired a San Francisco architect, but were happy with neither the design nor the cost. Then one day, the phone rang and a man identified himself as their architect and asked to meet. It was Wright.
It took four months to draw up the plans and about a year to build. It was not always a happy collaboration. The Buehlers found Wright arrogant at times and unwilling to divert much from his original plans. When the 6-foot tall Katherine Buehler complained that the kitchen looked small, Wright informed her that women had been emancipated from the kitchen, which was news to Mrs. Buehler.
But when the home was finished, everyone was happy, including Wright, who showed up unannounced one day after the Buehlers had settled in. After a tour, Wright proclaimed that he had built them a beautiful home. And he had.
The Buehler home was one of about 60 that Wright designed in the style he called Usonian — homes meant as affordable alternatives for the middle class. Wright had wanted to use slate for construction, but the Buehlers found it too expensive, so Wright settled on an unconventional material — cinder block. The material turned out to be inexpensive, says Nadine Smith, event coordinator for the home, but a dickens to work with, which ended up adding to the cost of the home.
Wright also chose old-growth redwood for the interior and exterior, a copper roof and 14-karat gold leaf on the ceilings. The floors, made of concrete slabs, were stained in Wright’s favorite color, Cherokee red.
Wright had two conditions before he would officially start the project. He insisted the Buehlers purchase the surrounding property, which has streams running through it, and that they hire landscape architect Henry Matsutani, who renovated the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The Buehlers agreed.
Wright had definite ideas about a lot of things outside the architectural realm. He believed the perfect size dinner party was no more than six guests, so he designed a dining table for the Buehlers with exactly six chairs, all with low backs so they didn’t obstruct the view.
Frank Lloyd Wright let few details escape him, including the design of the dining table, which he believed should seat no more than six.
After both the Buehlers’ deaths, the house was sold to Gerald Shmavonian, whom Smith describes as a collector of all things. Shmavonian began opening the house to wedding parties and events — Vogue magazine named it one of the five best places in the country to get married — and soon was confronted by cul de sac neighbors, who complained about traffic and noise. The city also fined him, but Smith says Shmavonian has reached an agreement with Orinda to permit the events to continue.
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-tag”]Shmavonian also is at odds with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation of Scottsdale, Arizona, which has sued him for trademark infringement over his website, http://www.franklloydwrightestate.com.
Proceeds from the tour are earmarked for the Frank Lloyd Wright Revival Initiative’s efforts to save Wright-designed buildings. The initiative was originally formed to raise money to rebuild a Wright pavilion in Alberta, Canada. Miner says after the demolition of one of Wright’s Prairie School buildings in 2018, the group expanded its mission to preserve existing Wright structures that are threatened.
To date, it has committed $200,000 toward the acquisitions of the Spring House in Tallahassee, Florida, and $25,000 for the Pappas House Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri. It also has committed to raise $45,000 to preserve what remains of the Oboler Estate in Malibu, which was destroyed in last year’s Woolsey Fire, and for rebuilding.
Tickets for the tours are $150 a person; $100 for AIA students.
Bazett/Frank house, Hillsborough, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 20
Buechler house, Orinda, 2:30 p.m. July 27
Berger house, San Anselmo, 5:30 p.m. July 28