Saturday, November 30, 2013


The Paul and Jean Hanna House, Stanford, CA, 1938 (J. Quinan)
I first became aware of Paul and Jean Hanna at a conference titled "An American Architecture," held in conjunction with an exhibition mounted by Brian Spencer at the Milwaukee Art Center in 1978. (Attendees included Lloyd Wright, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Bruce Goff, Herb Greene, Edgar Tafel, and a host of historians)  The Hannas spoke about building their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Palo Alto in 1938. Little did I know that ten years later we would be working with the same publisher, Victoria Newhouse, and that we would wind up pursuing the Frank Lloyd Wright-Darwin D. Martin Papers that were auctioned in Los Angeles in 1983. 

The Hanna's interest in Wright did not subside following the completion of their House. They amassed a large library of books on and by Wright and left those, their house, and a substantial archive pertaining to the construction of his house to Stanford University. According to Victoria Newhouse the Hannas submitted a huge manuscript to her Architectural History Foundation that was whittled down to the excellent 148 page book Frank Lloyd Wright's Hanna House: The Clients' Report of 1981. 

Paul sought the Wright-Martin Papers for Stanford's archives when they came up for auction as I did on behalf of the Archives of the University at Buffalo. When the bidding exceeded $50,000 we both dropped out and the papers went to a dealer who eventually sold them to UB and Stanford jointly for $100,000. Paul  and I, Shonnie Finnegan, the UB archivist, and Lorelei Ketter met at the dealer's office in Chicago in 1984, xeroxed the papers and divided them so that UB obtained the original portion that included letters from 1902 to 1915 while Stanford got the original material that extended from 1916 to the 1940s. It worked out well because Paul was interested in having the papers that pertained to the period that he and Jean were building their house whereas we were interested in the portion that pertained to Darwin Martin's relationship with Wright during the design and construction of the Martin House and the Larkin Building.

Despite a transaction made memorable by many months of fund-raising and delicate negotiations via conference calls I never saw the Hanna House until last week when Julie Cain, Program Coordinator for Heritage Services at Stanford, gave me and Sandra a tour. Having taught courses on Wright's work for thirty-seven years and visited many of them I can attest that the house cannot be adequately appreciated from images alone. Compared to the other Usonian houses from 1937-38 the Hanna House is surprisingly spacious both in its lateral reach and a variety of ceiling heights and configurations that extend up to fifteen feet in the entrance hall and in the kitchen. 

This was Wright's first use of a hexagonal planning module (said to have been brought to his attention by apprentice Cornelia Brierly) and he used it in such a way that the overall plan of the house bends 120 degrees along the south elevation filling the living room and dining room with sunlight and providing broad hillcrest vistas.

South elevation. the flat portion of the window wall at the far right slides  to open the original childrens' playroom (now the dining room) to the exterior and its vistas (J. Quinan)

The north side of the house is given over to bedrooms, a "sanctum" or study, and the entrance hall that reaches high to bring in north light.
Entrance hall with opening to the living room at the left (Photo: Ezra Stoller)
Hanna House is a rare commission from Wright's Usonian period that was not supervised by one of his apprentices. Harold Turner, a local Palo Alto builder, went to Taliesin for a few weeks to learn from Wright. The result is an amazing piece of craftwork where entire windows walls respond to the rhythms of the hexagonal module. The house abounds in ingenious accommodations to the hexagon including a  sequence of tall planks  (below, left) angled to the edge of a hexagon that screen the "workspace" (kitchen) from the adjoining dining area. Each board is hinged to a matching plank that can be swung shut to close the kitchen off.
View from the living room toward the children's playroom that was subsequently converted into a dining room. The  hinged planks that screen the kitchen are to the left (Photo by Ezra Stoller)
A detail showing Harold Turner's crafting of Wright's horizontal board and batten wall (J. Quinan)
The Hanna's were not well off when they began this project and Wright drove them to exceed their means to the point of exasperation. Apparently he recognized qualities and sensibilities in them that eventually materialized in extraordinary achievement and recognition in the field of childhood education, and considerable wealth. The Hanna House certainly testifies to all that and more -- the confluence of enormous talents.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Marin County Civic Center (Photo:

Last week, on our way to Napa Valley and the redwoods, Sandra and I stopped at the Marin County Civic Center one of the ten Wright buildings that I wrote about this past summer in the comparative section of "Key Works of Modern American Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright," a serial nomination of ten buildings that will eventually be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had been to Marin once before but this visit,coming right after the essay, was special . 
Marin County Civic Center facade with automobile arch (Photo:

Marin County Civic Center was difficult to write about in that it was completed under the supervision of Aaron Green, in 1964, five years after Wright's death and it seemed both odd in certain respects and virtually without comparison as a building type.  At 1460 feet in length the building is composed of two parts of unequal height (three and four stories per the two segments) owing to its adjustment to the hilly terrain. Furthermore it is "bent" at a kind of pivot point marked by a domed library, a pool, and a spire. 

Spire, garden and library rotonda (Photo: J. Quinan)

The building was widely criticized upon completion for the tiers of non-structural segmental arches that screen balconies on the sides of the building and for decorative flourishes (see facade detail above) that were wildly at odds with the rigorous Cartesian geometries of late modernism (as in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, for instance). Wright wanted a golden roof that would have handsomely blended the building into the brownish landscape but this was denied by his clients and, following his death, Mrs. Wright made the decision to have the roof painted sky blue.
Entrance area (source unavailable)

The genius of the building lies in its experiential qualities:  Because the site was originally rural and remote Wright conceived the building entirely around automobile access. There are three large segmental arched openings at ground level through which one drives to parking lots beyond and under which it is possible to drop off passengers. These arched openings are truly cavernous but in a way that is humanized, even gendered. Overhead, between the arches,  the building opens up into an elongated three story skylit atrium reminiscent of the Larkin Building's light court but curvilinear and fluid -- not a commercial enterprise but a place for the citizens of Marin County (or anyone) to come for a driver's or marriage license, a court case, or a records search. 
Interior of administration building (photo: J. Quinan)

Unlike the Larkin Building, or the Guggenheim Museum for that matter, here Wright made each of the balcony levels narrower as the floors rise so that people moving about can interact vertically as well as laterally. The scale is entirely human and the colors are a warm buff and Cherokee red with decorative accents in a golden hue.
Garden (photo: J. Quinan)

In a world of pompous classical courthouses and city halls the Marin County Civic Center is easy to be in, more country club than civic monument, and futuristic enough to warrant a role in the  1997 film "Gattaca."

Sunday, November 3, 2013


George Barton House, 1903-4  Dorothy Martin (left) is on the porch, her cousin Laura Barton stands at the doorway)(Photo by Clarence Fuermann)

J.J. Walser House, Austin (Chicago), 1901-2

In the summer of 1994 the Martin House Restoration Corporation purchased the George Barton House from Harvard University. How did this happen? Eric and Eleanor Larrabee originally purchased the Barton House in the late 1960s when Eric was appointed Provost of Arts and Letters at the University of Buffalo under the incoming president Martin Meyerson (for whom the University obtained the nearby Martin House). 

Eleanor Larrabee, who studied architecture at Harvard under Walter Gropius, was employed by the firm of Warner, Burns, Toan and Lunde in Manhattan (architects of the Rockefeller Library at Brown University and the Olin Library at Cornell)  but the Larrabees maintained the Barton House as a  second residence throughout the 1970s and 80s. After Eric passed away in 1990 Eleanor made an annuity arrangement with Harvard that involved ownership of the Barton House. When she died in 1997, following an automobile accident in Manhattan, the Martin House Restoration Corporation was able to purchase the house thanks to three inspired citizens, Robert Wilmers, Robert Rich, and Stanford Lipsey. 

Since the Barton House was uninhabited my wife and I were asked to live there and we did so for a year -- a  rare opportunity for me as a Wright scholar. I gave numerous tours and spent a lot of time just experiencing the house. The Barton House is based upon the J.J. Walser House in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, designed in 1901 by Wright and under construction in 1902 by Elmer E. Andrews, the brother-in-law of William R. Heath another Buffalo client of Wright. One of the interesting aspects of the Barton House is that it represented an opportunity for Wright to re-work a design and enhance it. Nevertheless, the Barton House is a house of walls unlike the pier-constructed principal Martin House designed in 1904 and 1905. 

After considerable scrutiny over time I realized that Wright treated the walls of the Barton House as framed panels much like framed pictures.  The wall surfaces were fields of textured plaster tinted with autumnal colors and glazed with clear varnish. The enframing members consist of three pieces of flat sawn oak, the first, a 5/16" wide and 11/16" deep fillet, is the most prominent. Abutted to it is a 1" wide strip recessed 5/8" in from the fillet, and adjacent to that is a half inch strip that rises 7/16" from the wall surface. This framing panel is itself framed by 2 5/8" door frames and 4" horizontal scale moldings. The elements are simple but the overall effect  is one of taut containment of every surface and every room, something that would change significantly in the Martin House as Wright dispensed with walls in favor of a skeletal construction system if brick piers.

Wall panel on second floor George Barton House

Second floor bedroom George Barton house, detail of wall framing with door frame to the left and scale molding above

Often, especially in the ceiling, the central panel would be of a darker hue than the surface around it so that the panel would float as though detached. In its current state (see pictures below) the Barton House bears a color scheme loosely devised by Eleanor Larrabee after Wright's colors but lightened, owing to the darkness of the house, and painted in flat latex colors with none of the luminosity of Wright's method. These surfaces are due to be restored. I should add that Eleanor Larrabee was a wonderful steward of the house who carefully preserved every piece of shim and every little screw that appeared to be original to the house. As a result the Barton House is among the most pristine of any of Wright's prairie houses anywhere.

Barton House dining room as seen from the living room (Photo by Biff Henrich)