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Robert Berger House, San Anselmo, California, 1950-57


Frank Lloyd Wright  was influenced by Wisconsin populism - and
as a populist genius he tried several times over his long career
to design houses that were affordable to the
middle class.  What he called his "Usonians" date back to the
First Herbert Jacobs House of Madison, Wisconsin in 1937. Wright
designed  other small houses for people of middle class
incomes after the 1937 Jacobs house, many using his concrete block system.
Some owners of the "Usonians" did part of the construction work
themselves.  But Wright designed a house in 1950 to be built almost entirely
by the owner, a teacher of modest income in the early fifties. The Robert
Berger house was to 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. .(13) Robert
Berger tells the story of his house in a letter, "...it has taken me 5
years 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 build. This requirement was forgotten by Mr. Wright since I
probably have the heaviest house  in Marin county. I figured that
I have lifted more than a million pounds in the last five years in the
building. Actually, the  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 one of Wright's  small 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. hexagonal
unit contains the dining room area, which 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.

It sits on the side of the hill, 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 against both  sides of the form. In the center between the two
wooded forms,  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."

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."
13 Newspaper article, Marin Independent Journal

14 Personal letter from Robert Berger to Bernard Pyron,1957

I wrote this paper on the Robert Berger house in 1957 or 1958 and it was lost to me over the years. It ended up in the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives. In February of 2006 the Archives sent me a copy of my original mimeographed copy. To make use of the mimeographed copy  on the Internet, I made a PDF file of it. Then  I used an Optical Character Recognition program to change the PDF pages from the mimeographed copy to text.

  Double-click the left mouse button on any photo on
  this page to enlarge it.
Notice that the living area flows on three
sides of the central kitchen stack that rises above the roof, and that
a short bedroom wing extends off that central hexagonal-like area.
Note also the fin that extends out from the main hexagonal area
pointing down in the drawing above.  The triangle shape to the left of
the central hexagon is a terrace with retaining walls.  We will see
something like this in the Ralph Moreland project of 1956.
This is a
photograph I made in 1957 of  the floor plan drawing for the Berger
house created by Frank Lloyd Wright and his Apprentices. This floor
plan is based upon a diamond module unit system where the angles are
60 and 120 degrees.  The kind of "fin" that extends out from the main
structure  of the living room and kitchen area  facing down 
comes to a point of 60 degrees. The "corners" of
the living area are 120 degrees, not the 90 degree corner of the
typical box house.

A core kitchen hexagonal shape  extends above the roof and opens into
the living room at one point.  Note that the floor plan shown above is
only the First Unit of the Berger house.  It has only one bedroom.
You can see the dotted lines of the hexagonal-shaped roof which hovers
above the central stack and the living area.

This is a photo I took in 1957 of the Berger perspective drawing.
 Wright allowed me to photograph his plans and perspective drawings
 at Hillside.

You can see the rugged nature of the San Anselmo hills here.  Apparently Berger was using the tent
 to live in during this phase of the building.


The "fin" that extends out from the central kitchen-living area is
seen here, which adds to the"fortress" look of the house.  The house
looks like it was built to withstand calamities of nature as well as
attacks from gangs of enemies in very hard times.

At the time this picture was taken, Berger had built the rock wall out
some distance from the central area of the house.

Robert Berger sent me this photo, as well as the one showing the
beginning of construction.  He sent the photos in  1957, along
with a letter describing his
experiences in building this Frank Lloyd Wright diamond module "fort"
in the San Anselmo hills.  Probably Berger took these photos himself.

 Bruce Radde took this photo and sent it to me as a slide.  I believe the
 photo was taken in 1958.
The color photo above shows the central kitchen-living area from a different viewpoint,
and again the "fin" extending out from that area is shown.

The reddish-brown stones of the Berger house were not laid on top of one another and held by mortar as in more conventional stonework. Instead, forms were placed so that a space was left for the width of the wall - and rocks were placed aginst the forms so that they would show when the concrete was poured in to hold them in place. Probably, steel rods were placed at intervals within the walls

And, most likely, the walls were built in vertical sections, and not created in their full height at one time. Working with vertical sections, each of a few feet in height, would have enabled Berger to more easily select the rocks he wanted to show on the outside of the finished walls. Apparently, he did cut a lot of rock.

This is the system Wright worked out for the bottom part of the walls of Taliesin West, in Arizona.