We enjoyed a visit from old friends yesterday evening. Angela’s childhood friend Amy and Amy’s sister Julie toured the Elizabeth Murphy House for the first time. Amy and Angela were classmates in high school. Julie is a self-described Wright-o-phile who has toured many public sites and vacationed to see Usonian homes, is herself trained in design, and is curious and well-informed on architectural history. For example, she had facts on the enigmatic and misunderstood Russell Barr Williamson on the tip of her tongue. She especially appreciates Williamson’s later Mid-Century Modern contributions, which are ample. We had a great time.
After Amy and Julie left, Angela and I reflected on what a privilege it is to share the key elements of Wright’s simple Elizabeth Murphy House with visitors. Of course, on every tour we highlight the mistakes of the American System-Built project, like the Pebble-Dash stucco and now-flashed upward-canted leaky window headers. But more and more, we find ourselves focusing on the elements that assume that people come from a place of kindness. For example, we always point out the Place of Greeting (our name, not his)- a key feature in this house – that directs visitors and hosts to stand at the very center while saying hello.
Think about that. Imagine that you are inside when someone rings the bell. Instead of peeking through a teensy hole in the door or just cracking the door open (to the chain) to check who is there, you open the door wide, turn, and you and your guest walk single file down a compressed path, and then you pause where the path releases into the social space, then say hello, shake hands and take their coat to hang it in a nearby closet. It is only another 10 steps to sit on the couch in front of the mantle and start your conversation. Most greetings in most homes happen at the outside edge of the space. Greetings in the Elizabeth Murphy house happen at the center of the home.
Through elements like the Place of Greeting, we can see that Wright assumed that working-class people – the people with modest means who would live in his ASBH designs – were inherently kind, trusting and trustworthy. But he wasn’t limiting his thinking to the occupants; Wright also assumed that visitors to these spaces – neighbors, delivery-persons and newcomers would be equally kind, inspired perhaps, during their trip along a Path of Discovery on the way to that Place.
Wright’s ASBH Model A203 (Designed in the years 1915-16) starts from a place of optimism and opportunity and intentionally works toward long-lasting friendships. This was a bold and daring statement, just a year or two after his love Mamah Borthwick was murdered in the 1914 Taliesin fire. It has been written that Wright began to design for defense after the catastrophe and while that may be true, we see that for common folk like us, he also doubled down on designing to build social capital.
This, we are learning, is what it means to democratize architecture. Art is for everyone. Everyone deserves a chance. Art engages and changes. And every time friends like Amy and Julie visit, we are reminded that the work is ongoing and worth doing.
Finally, if you missed our recent virtual tour, you can replay it here and see the Compression and Release and Place of Greeting for yourself. This link should take you to minute 28:38, when the tour begins.
Image used with permission: American System-Built (Ready-Cut) houses for The Richards Company, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives: architectural drawings, ca. 1885–1959. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) 1506.056