Wright at Home
September 12, 2016
A Martha’s Vineyard house owes its inspiration to America’s most famous midcentury modern architect.
Text by Regina Cole Photography by Michael Partenio Produced by Stacy Kunstel
Even on Martha’s Vineyard, an island endowed with more than its share of natural and man-made beauty, this spot packs a wallop. More than a mile of magnificent dry-laid stone walls—once bordering a sheep path leading to the old center of Chilmark—still stand. There are poetically gnarled apple trees, meadows, a century-old stand of blueberries, a vernal pond, an enormous boulder left by some long-ago glacier, and a nineteenth-century barn with soft, mottled walls of old brick.
And there is a new house. It has the unmistakable roof overhangs, stone piers, clerestory windows, and mixtures of natural materials that identify the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. “I grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” the homeowner says. “It was the best aesthetic education I could ever have had. Virtually every square inch was captivating, and it was wonderfully livable.”
Thus, when it came time for her to build on this very special site, she considered only one very special design inspiration. Together with Debra Cedeno of Architecture + Indigo in nearby Vineyard Haven, she created a home that pays homage to the American master while it makes the most of the stone walls, the old barn, the blueberries, apples, pond, and meadows.
“I worked with two other architects before I found Debra,” the homeowner says. “They were intractable. But she was open, and I could see that she was highly skilled and talented.”
Cedeno happily returns the homeowner’s sentiment. “She is the client we all dream of,” she says. “We had the level of trust you yearn for when you design a house. She had this landmark location, and we have a shared love for Frank Lloyd Wright and organic architecture. When we met, we just clicked.”
Cedeno and her client both love Wright’s use of natural materials. “But especially,” the architect says, “I have always been wowed by how good he was on the delicate balance between the external site and the house.”
For her client, she designed a 5,500-square-foot house modeled on Taliesin, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Like that famous building, this house is organized around outdoor areas while offering unobstructed views of the surroundings from every room. A shallow-pitched copper roof is coated with zinc to make it non-reflective. Stone and stucco walls are punctuated by ample fenestration.
“When you drive up, it is unassuming,” Cedeno says. “There are the old stone walls and the old brick barn, and the house nestles into the landscape between the blueberry bushes, the vernal pond, and the boulder. When you first see the house, you can see through it to the old stone wall.”
The siting was of primary importance to the homeowner, who was determined to disturb the surroundings as little as possible. “I had formulated a concept of where it would be located,” she says. “I am only the third owner of this property, and it’s important to me that we preserve the history, including the old walls and the outbuildings.”
The brick barn, built in 1852, is the last such structure on the Vineyard, built with rejected bricks from the first commercial brickyard in New England, in operation from 1642 to the end of the nineteenth-century. “They made a big pile of rejects, and people came and helped themselves,” the homeowner explains. “You can see how the bricks are all different sizes and thicknesses.”
Before she and Cedeno designed and built her new house, the homeowner lived in the approximately 800-square-foot barn; today, it functions as the guest house.
The main house is organized around a long hall that provides views of a sculpture garden nestling into a niche between building sections. Doors open to terraces on both sides. At one end are the living room, kitchen, laundry room, and scullery; the bedrooms and the homeowner’s studio occupy the opposite end. Between them, a trellis-topped colonnade is a glass-lined hallway to bring the outdoors in.
“I really like the fact that I can open the central part of the house to the fresh air and just leave the bedrooms air-conditioned,” the homeowner says. “I like that I have long walking distances in the house. In the winter, the sun is low and heats the concrete floors. In summer, the overhang shades the interior. You can step outside from most of the rooms. And, the materials I see are real: wood, stone, and glass.”
“There are thirty-three feet of glass on the north side of the living-dining room,” says Cedeno. “Yet it feels warm and cozy, in part because of the wood lining the ceiling.”
She goes on to explain the design of the gently tapering stone columns that distinguish the rooms. “We built them with stone blocks that subtly decrease in size as they go up. Otherwise, the columns would look as though they’re going to topple over.”
The homeowner is especially fond of the scullery, a hall-like space between the kitchen and the laundry room that has a floor of brick (a nod to the brick barn) and is furnished with a sink. It makes a convenient station for washing vegetables from the garden or keeping fresh lobsters until it’s time to cook them.
The home’s eclectic collection of furnishings includes pieces of George Nakashima furniture found long ago and thrift store treasures discovered recently. The classic modern silhouettes and neutral upholstery tones suit an interior primarily composed of stone, wood, and glass.
“In the house I grew up in, the furniture, the lighting fixtures, and all the other furnishings were chosen and custom designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” the homeowner says. “It made for such harmony, for such an integrated sense of design. We tried to create a version of that.”
She spends about half the year here in her Wright-inspired island home. “I’m usually here in the summer, and for some holidays,” she says. And, she adds, with a smile, “I am always here to pick the apples.” •