FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
OWNER BUILT HOUSES
OWNER BUILT WRIGHT HOUSES: ROBERT BERGER HOUSE, 1950-1957
Owner-Built Frank Lloyd Wright Houses: The Robert Berger House, 1950-1957 and Later (written in 1959) Bernard Pyron
The idea of Frank Lloyd Wright known as the master architect and as a great and controversial architect throughout the world, designing an organic house for a relatively poor man (a high school or college teacher) to be almost 100 percent owner-built without the help of experts, is an inspiring dream.
There are many reasons why this dream would not be realized. First, during the 1950s Wright is in his second "Golden Age," probably his most productive period. Many of his larger projects have been built or are under construction, such as the Price Tower in Oklahoma and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. How could an architect busy with fifty $35,000 to $500,000 houses and several large projects find it profitable to design a home that would cost no more than $15,000 if well planned and completely built by the owner himself? Second, many people hare attempted to circulate the idea that Wright designs only for the rich or that he does not consider cost at all and that a poor man will "lose his shirt." if he employs the master architect. Third the notion is prevalent today that house construction requires the expert, the contractor, the subcontractor, the mason, the carpenter, the plumber and the electrician. Contractors and workman would support this belief in their professional interest. Fourth, most of the people who have developed their architectural appreciation to the point of wanting a Frank Lloyd Wright house very much are professionals or semi-professionals who have never done manual labor or have long since "advanced" above it. Many could not stand the physical strain of building a house or else they feel that they would not enjoy building a house themselves in their leisure time. However, some do realize that when creative physical labor is left out of their lives they are only "half-men", and would welcome a certain amount of physical labor. They would admit that creative physical labor can improve their physical as as their psychological health.
Fifth, many people do not wish to live in a house that remains . unfinished for several years and cannot tolerate the mess and other disadvantages of living in an unfinished house, Unless a person enjoys doing his own building and values the process of creating a house as much as the finished product and desires a rustic, unfinished looking organic house, and does not have $35,000, he would be better off to buy a builder's box, complete with picture windows. If one wants a slick, smooth. "finished' looking house, he had better not build it himself unless he is already an experienced craftsman.
Sixth, lending agencies would probably be very unlikely to lead money on a Frank Lloyd Wright house since they would be fearful that the house night fall down if it were not a box complete with picture window, and in addition the owner-builder might not be "expert" enough to build it right. Actually though, the resale value of a Frank Lloyd Wright owner-built house would seem uncertain to any conservative banker.
But Frank Lloyd Wright did design a house to be built by the owner himself (a poor teacher). The owner reports that the house will cost $15,000 when finished. Robert Berger reports that "I tried for a few months to design- my own house, but I always ended up with a box.."
.One morning while talking with his wife, bemoaning the house design problem, Berger suddenly got the idea, that Frank Lloyd Wright should design his house. He could write and all he could lose would be a three cent stamp. That was in the spring of 1950. Three years passed before he could start construction and four more have gone by with the house just now at the half way mark. In October 1950 Berger finished the topographical map which Wright required. required.(13) Robert Berger tells the story of his house in a letter"...it has taken me 5 years to build enough to build enough to move into. We, or I should say, I, started building in 1953 (the plans were obtained in 1951) and we moved into the uncompleted first unit July 1957. My house is probably unusual in several respects for Mr. Wright. First, the house was to be built completely by the owner and second, the house was designed originally to be expanded from one bedroom to three by adding a wing...Incidentaly, one of my requirements was that the house be easy to built. This requirement was forgotten, by Mr. Wright since I probably have the heaviest house house in Marin county. I figured that I have lifted more than a million pounds in the last five years in the building. Actually, house has presented no great difficulties to me though I have never built a house before...I haden't even paid the lot off when Mr. Wright designed the house. I earned the house myself...I'm probably the poorest client Mr. Wright ever had...I did not do the radiant heat installation because it was put in in two days whereas it would have taken me a couple of weeks, The concrete floor was the only job in the house I could not do myself since it required about 8 men at once to pour and steel trowel the large floor area before it began to set...
It has amazed me the number of so called technical jobs such as plumbing, wiring, etc that I have been able to do. They are not so difficult. Many people could do them if they wanted to. I keep reading of people who supposedly have built their own homes and in most cases they contracted out these jobs. They poured their money down the drain... The house is extra beautiful to my wife and I since we built it with blood, sweat and tears and not with a pen and check." (14)
The Berger house is beautiful. It is one of Wright's diamond module houses, well placed on its hill site, overlooking a valley. The site is about 3/4 of an acre. Although the site is inside the city limits, it is high in the hills with few surrounding buildings and can be considered to be in the country. It is in Marin county, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The house was designed to be in two units. The first unit is hexagonal in shape and is built around, the hexagonal solid rock core which Berger first built. The core rises, above the roof and contains bath, utility room and kitchen. The. first unit contains the dining room area, which flows on three sides, of the central, core. The first unit also contains one bedroom which also flows on three sides of the central core. The rock walls extend out from one side of the hexagonal first unit to form a triangular. terrace which is open to the living area and part of. the bedroom. The triangular terrace rides the slope of the hill. The house
13 Newspaper article, Marin Independent Journal
14 Personal letter from Robert Berger to Bernard Pyron,1957
sits on the side of the hill, not on the, not on the hill-crown. The second unit, the bedroom wing, will be built off one side of the hexagon. "The walls are made by use of wooden forms. Thin slices of Sonoma candy rock (which Berger must split from larger chunks himself) are faced toward both sides of the form. In the center, like a sandwich filling, Berger pours a mixture of rocks and concrete. The concrete seeps through the Sonoma stone facing edges and adds to the texture of the wall. The 14 inch thick walls will be continued in a line from parts of the house to enclose a triangular terrace." (15)
In the Berger house all exposed wood is of Phillipine mahagony. The house is apparently built to last. A newspaper article described it as "...a veritable fortress of a house...Its solidness is obvious at once. But its simplicity of line and rugged design are compatible with the wild rough terrain. "It'll sit there a thousand years, a friend observed to the builder." Frank Lloyd Wright also designed a triangular dog house for Jim Berger's dog.
Other Wright clients have done a sizeable portion of the work themselves. The Douglas Grants of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who were inexperinced in laying rock, did their own rockwork. Wright built them a special wooden form which was raised as the wall got higher. E. J. Kaufmann Jr. reports that the Grant stonework is among the best in Wright architecture. Don Loveness is doing his own rockwork for his house near St. Paul, Minnesota. Some of Wright's apprentices reported that his house will cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Louis Penfield of Willoughby, Ohio worked with the carpenters and masons, and did all of the interior. Archie Boyd Teater of Bliss, Idaho laid the stone (tore out wrong stonework done by the local contractor), worked with sub-contractors, did some of the carpentry, and poured the concrete floor. The Karl A. Staleys of Madison, Ohio report that they did 70% of the work on heir house themselves. They also used student help in hauling 100 tons of rock from creek bottoms. The owners and a local high school manual arts teacher worked for about three years doing carpentry work, finishing electrical work, upholstering, millwork, etc. The plumbing and heating was contracted. Thomas Rickard reported that W. B. Tracy of Seattle, Washington did most of the work on his Usonian Automatic. The cost to date has been $15,000.
The Samuel Eppsteins of Galesburg Village, Michigan did about half of the work on their house themselves. Patrick Kinney of Lancaster, Wisconsin quarried the stone for his diamond module Wright house.
Costs. Some people have the notion that Frank Lloyd Wright designs only for the rich. Occasionally a young couple will ask him if he can design a house that will cost $15,000 to $20,000. How many really low price (less than $20,000) houses has Wright built. Only 17 of the Wright home owners - those who answered my letters - have reported the cost of their houses. Five of seventeen Wright home owners said heir houses cost from $25,000 to $30,000. Three reported their cost at $30,000 to $40,000, two at $40,000 to $50,000, and one at more than $50,000. Only three reported that their houses cost from $15,000 to $20,000.
Sites. Frank Lloyd Wright has always encouraged people to build in the country. How many Wright owners did build in the country, or at least outside the city limits? Only 24 owners gave me that information. Thirteen of the twenty four say that their site is now outside of the city limits of a town or city.
I wrote this paper in 1959 and it was lost to me over the years. In February of 2006 the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives sent me a copy of my original mimeographed copy which had somehow ended up there. I used an Optical Character Recognition program to change the PDF pages from the mimeographed copy to text.
I have a collection of my photos of Wright houses, including the one below of the Berger house, on: