I paused in my rounds the other day to admire a house on my route a bit more closely. For the first time, I recognized it as a Prairie-style house with its Craftsman details, hip roof, broad eaves and abundant windows. It was exactly the sort of home I had long fantasized about owning, aside from the location. As the children have grown older, my house–a modest stucco bungalow situated in the Hiawatha neighborhood–has gotten smaller. I should be more appreciative of it. People are living in a tent-city down the road after all. But that tent-city, like so many other things, adds to this urge I have to flee to the country.
Curious and due for a break, a Google search of the address provided me little information aside from the value of the house. My thoughts turned to Frank Lloyd Wright, and I wondered if any genuine examples of his artistic dwellings existed in Minneapolis. Sure enough, an image appeared of a home nearby that I immediately recognized. Aside from the attached brick garage, not much of the heavily foliated residence at 255 Bedford Street SE is visible from the sidewalk. The property is located at the southern terminus of Prospect Park with a panoramic view of the Mississippi River valley. Certainly, it was this vista that convinced Wright to design the home for Nancy Willey back in 1934 for the tidy sum of $10,000.
What made me unmistakably certain that I had delivered mail to the house was not a Wright architectural feature, but rather a red sign on the steps:
At the time of delivery, I had been put off by the proclamation which seemed to me–a kid who climbed a lot of fences growing up in the trailer court—a bit snobby. However, upon learning it was a Wright house, a living work of art, the sign made perfect sense. Listed on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places, the owners must have quickly tired of having Wright-aficionados peek through their windows and interrupt the sanctity of their barbeques.
Photographs of the house abound on the internet. The Malcolm Willey House even has its own Facebook page. The home is constructed primarily of red brick and cypress with a pair of clerestory windows that bathe the living room in heavenly sunlight. Abundant French windows marry the interior and exterior of the house, providing that luxurious feeling of being outside in nature while inhabiting the comfort of a climate-controlled space. The boundary between inside and outside is further blurred by the brick floor which extends past the walls to form a triangular patio terrace in the garden sanctuary. It is, without question, an exquisitely beautiful house.
Yet, there are things about it, like any innovative work of art, that challenge our perceptions and would take some getting used to. Chiefly, and I know I’m just a mailman, Wright really went overboard with the brick. Brick carport, brick steps, brick walls inside and out, brick wall around the perimeter of the property and, most shocking, the brick floor. Wright houses, with their open floorplans, have been described as “citadels of family life.” But that’s an awful hostile surface for a crawling baby’s knees. Or their heads when they start wrestling one another! You would think a father of six kids would know better. Frankly, the house resembles one of my son’s Minecraft creations after he’s been tapping on the iPad like a woodpecker for forty-five minutes. The Midwestern genius gets away with it aesthetically with all the natural light, but still, it’s a lot of fucking brick. Brick is cold and dark–the building material for hospitals, schools and libraries. I’ve always admired the stateliness of brick homes and an accent wall of the stuff adds a lot of character. Yet, if I were going to change anything, the brick floor would have to go.
But, of course, it never could. It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright house! Try violating one of his cabinets to install a dishwasher and don’t be surprised if you’re pilloried in the local newspaper as one St. Louis Park couple recently discovered. Wright homes retain the name of their original occupants. Future owners–in spite of the enormous pain, time and money they expend rehabilitating them–are merely caretakers of Wright’s legacy.
My own home, a three-quarter story constructed in 1926, has some charming features such as piano windows, porcelain tile in the bathroom and handsome oak beams that adorn the arch between our living and dining rooms. The preserved woodwork unifies the house and adds a lot of Craftsman character. Unfortunately, we keep our blinds drawn out of privacy because the neighboring houses are only twelve feet away. We still have the original birch cabinets in the kitchen which contrast interestingly with the modernity of our custom stainless-steel countertops and checkerboard-tiled floor. The upstairs master bedroom is a good-sized space even if it’s hotter than hell in the summer months owing to uneven insulation and poor ventilation.
The attic areas have these doors and you don’t always want to see what’s inside. Like a few months back, when I discovered a mold outbreak around the rafters. The spaces are prone to condensation. Knee-deep in cellulose with a bleachy rag in hand, I proclaimed to my wife that our house was fucked and we needed to call someone. We had some additional vents cut into the roof and some mold guys painted up the boards. We either need to have some soffit-work done or the more expensive option would be to gut the upstairs, spray foam everywhere and re-sheetrock the whole damn thing—what they call a “hot roof.”
Honestly, it’s more responsibility than I care to have on my shoulders. Between my job and caring for the kids, the home repairs add a lot of unwanted stress to our lives. Aside from the attic problems, the house’s major failing is its small kitchen and, for whatever reason, we always seem to find ourselves inside it. My wife will be making dinner, some show playing on her iPhone, and I’ll come in for a quick word. Then the kids will come following and, before you know it, everyone’s shouting at once. I usually leave, my head hung in apology, without ever telling her what it was that I wanted to say in the first place.
Basically, my wife wants a $50,000 dishwasher and I want to retire from the post office while I can still walk, hence the conflict. Or we could just move and acquire a whole new set of troubles. In the meantime, I daydream about Frank Lloyd Wright.
The problem with material perfectionism is it tends to be this veneer that covers up a lot of spiritual defects, like the mold in my attic. Acquire your dream home and then you become a guy with his finger in the dam, a preservationist fighting the inevitability of change.
Like Nancy Willey.
When she began construction on her Wright-designed house, residents maligned her brick fence, a “spite wall” one obstreperous neighbor called it. Then in 1955, she wrote Frank Lloyd Wright again about the freeway being constructed through her backyard.
The view from the Malcolm Willey house is still magnificent. But the roar of I-94 never ceases.
Like the teardown construction of “Dream Homes” in my own neighborhood, change always inspires controversy. People sign thirty-year mortgages as if they were some pact with God against the Flood.
The Prospect Park neighborhood I deliver mail to is incredibly hilly. I have been mocked by passersby for the number of steps I have to climb. The way I look at it, I get paid to exercise. I’m not morbidly obese because I spend my days in front of a computer. Bald eagles and turkeys are my daily observance. I deliver mail under the Witch’s Hat, a water tower erected in 1913 to people who, quite frankly, don’t care if I exist. A legal battle is currently underway to oppose the building of a condominium along the skyline beside the Witches Hat–the highest geographic point in Minneapolis. The original 17-story design of the condominium would have overshadowed the Witches Hat, ruining the subject of many a watercolor and photograph. Plans for the condominium have shrunk. It seems, for the moment, David is winning.
Meanwhile, one high-rise along the Green Line goes up after another. Wright hated cities. He found them dehumanizing, referring to skyscrapers as “ugly glass boxes set up on stilts of concrete.” I admire Wright greatly. This is a man who designed the Guggenheim, yet still found time to construct lampshades every bit as magnificent.
I grind the blocks out till every bit of cartilage is gone, the athleticism of my marathons a distant memory, until I’ve made it. . . .
collecting my pension,
staring out at an expanse of untrampled snow,
the tan tufts of big bluestem,
some distant dogwood and sumac,
the tangled limbs of oak trees along the horizon
as I sip my coffee,
my wife reading a book,
the dream achieved–
a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the country.