Three American Houses

January 7, 2013

We Americans have a special cultural pedestal reserved for single-family homes. Think “house with a white picket fence,” “the American dream,” etc etc. American architects and architectural historians generally have their own ideas about what makes an iconic American house, and lately I’ve had the good fortune to be able to visit a few of these, all now converted to house-museums. Not your typical houses by any means, and certainly not what most people think of when they think “house,” but houses nevertheless. And, probably fortunately for us all, not likely to become the next big thing in residential construction, as you’ll see below.

Biltmore House

Client: George Vanderbilt

Architect: Richard Morris Hunt (with landscape design by Frederick Law Olmstead)

Construction: 1889-1895, steel and brick, with Kentucky limestone veneer

Location: Asheville, NC

The Biltmore touts itself as “America’s largest home," and while I question its “homey-ness” I have no doubts about its large-ness. This place is huge. Think castle - more specifically, think French chateau, because that’s what Vanderbilt ordered. It was so crowded when we visited (this privately-owned quasi-theme-park has no qualms about packing in as many visitors at once as possible) that we didn’t get to see all the open rooms, which is fine because they don’t let you take photos inside and there are so many rooms that it’s just too much anyway. What we did see what interesting enough, since we took the special “Architect’s Tour” and got to go up on the roof. I definitely recommend this. Under the roof we saw the iron bars holding up the slate tile, looked down on the winter garden’s elaborate copper sculpture, and hunted for traces of the gold leaf that used to decorate Vanderbilt’s initials on the copper roof panels. This “house” is not only big and built to last, but extremely fancy: it had all the latest domestic inventions, like two elevators, electric lighting and its own generating station, refrigerated storage rooms, central heating, an intercom and fire alarm system, a pipe organ, swimming pool, bowling alley, gym, and observatory. All this, hidden inside a building that pulls from the best of 13th-century French architecture. Secretly made of steel and brick, the building is swathed in Kentucky limestone to give the whole thing an air of respectability. Well played, Mr. Vanderbilt, sir. Your grandchildren are still milking this thing for all it’s worth.


Client: the Edgar Kaufmann family

Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright

Construction: 1936-1939, reinforced concrete

Location: Bear Run, PA

Fallingwater is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most iconic, and most spectacular, house projects, as it dramatically cantilevers over a waterfall in an isolated, wooded area of Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh. The story goes that Wright was too proud of his design to listen to the structural engineer, and refused to use the recommended amount of steel; but the engineer somehow managed to add it without Wright’s approval. Nevertheless, the house has been perilously close to collapsing multiple times and was restored as recently as 2002 by one of my professors, Robert Silman of Robert Silman Associates. (You can read his article here.) The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy that maintains the property is fiercely protective of it, disallowing any photography on the property except at the viewpoint seen below, and strictly controlling visits. So the best place for detailed images is their website. I wish I could show photographs of the interesting (and horribly energy-inefficient) detailing on the windows, with glass directly abutting stone; or the floors with foundation stones jutting up into the living room; or the river, which apparently caused terrible moisture and mold problems in the house. In short, this was a house we all wanted so badly to succeed, despite its awful structural, environmental, and comfort problems, that we the public have continued to pour money into it for over 70 years. And yet - I still highly recommend you go see it.

The Glass House

Client: Philip Johnson

Architect: Philip Johnson (yes, he built it for himself)

Construction: 1949, steel and glass

Location: New Canaan, CT

The Glass House is a Late Modernist glass box built by architect/curator Philip Johnson for himself and his partner in what was once a relatively out-of-the-way suburb of New York City, and still an affluent area although with many more residents now. Johnson bought himself a large piece of land and built a number of strange and interesting structures on it throughout his life. I had always assumed that the house was somehow situated in a wooded area, given that it has zero privacy. In fact, it overlooks a pond and woods, but is itself relatively out in the open on a hill. It faces the appropriately-named Brick House just across the lawn, a guest house with maximum privacy (that also contains the heating equipment for the Glass House, thus freeing it from having unsightly machinery inside). By contemporary standards the house seems small, but architects are notorious for having different standards than “regular” people, and the glass walls really do make it seem bigger on the inside (see what I did there) than it actually is. And yet, you couldn’t pay me to live there. No curtains! Horrible heat loss through enormous single-pane windows! No storage! But I guess that’s where you have to live if you want to be perpetually famous. You can register for a tour on the Glass House website, as the National Trust is also extremely picky about visitor access to the site.

Still on my list of houses to visit: Monticello, the Gamble House, the Glessner House, the Robie House, Taliesin (yes, more FLW), Eames House, Farnsworth House, Gropius House, and Schindler House. Other interesting houses I’ve visited: Ca d’Zan, Vizcaya. When it comes to these palatial complexes, let’s just say they don’t build ‘em like they used to. Fortunately. (Except for Versailles.) For more photos of the houses, check out my Google+ album and scroll to the end.