In the Spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright

Joe Massaro owned an island and a handful of unfinished sketches by the architect. His course was clear: Honor the man and build the house

As the boat pulls up to the dock on Petre Island, N.Y., it falls into the shadow of a solid cement cantilever suspended over the water. Moving toward the island, the 78-foot cantilever meets an inclined rock embankment, the foundation of a house seamlessly fitting into the irregular formation of the ground. From the water it looks like a ship, its bow jutting out over the lake.

The house represents the culmination of a saga that began back in 1950 when Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America's most influential architects, designed a house he promised would surpass his 1937 masterpiece, Fallingwater. But the 5,000-sq.-ft. house, commissioned by engineer A.K. Chahroudi for a plot on this 10-acre island in the middle of Lake Mahopac, was never built. In fact, it was all but forgotten until 1999, when retired contractor and new island-owner, Joe Massaro, acquired five of Wright's original sketches and decided to bring the drawings to life.

Since then the building has been at the center of a fight over design authenticity and— in an age when "starchitects" such as Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenmann are already selling their back catalogs of drawings and models for substantial sums of money—might just prove the focal point of a new age of retroactively or even posthumously produced designs. One thing is for sure: This house is finally a reality. On July 12, workers put the finishing touches on the Massaro House, as it is now known.

Filling In the Blanks

Stones taken from around the island stick out of concrete walls. The walls slope toward the water as if to slide down the rocks below them. In Wright's trademark style, five stone chimneys sit low atop the roof and windows dot the entire house, including the upper half of the roof. Inside, red concrete triangles create a grid across the floor, and each wall rests neatly along a line and blends seamlessly into the pattern. The earth tones and flood of natural sunlight create a calm atmosphere, while the length of the cantilever makes the living room seem surprisingly spacious.

The original drawings that Massaro bought included a floor plan featuring built-in and stand-alone furniture, three elevation plans, and a building section. But Wright had only worked on the plans for three months and his designs were not complete. So Massaro hired architect Thomas A. Heinz to fill in the blanks. Heinz, who runs his eponymous architectural firm in Libertyville, Ill., is considered something of an expert, having consulted on 40 Wright buildings, not to mention the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

"The expression 'standing on the shoulders of giants' comes to mind," says Heinz of the process of constructing the Massaro house. In channeling the famous architect, Heinz relied on his knowledge of all of his projects—and on advanced technologies. To create a full set of construction documents he scanned the five available drawings into a computer and then used ArchiCAD software to translate the information into a three dimensional image. The software produced a database of viable dimensions for everything from the rooms to the concrete walls—and proved that Wright's expansive design ideas were possible. "This wasn't my design so I really needed to understand how everything was put together," said Heinz. "I needed to work in three dimensions."

Questioning the Authenticity

The software allowed Heinz to obtain a detailed, vertical section view of the house so that he could better understand its structural demands. Getting this 3D assessment of what construction might entail before any kind of commitment to build saved both time and money. (Massaro, who bought the island for $700,000 in 1990, refused to give details of the final cost of construction.)

Given the speculation that went into the design, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (which Wright himself founded in 1940 as a repository for his work) has refused to recognize the structure as genuine, and purists grumble that the redesign has no authenticity.

"The real problem with Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt designs is that when he was alive he might do some general sketches, but an awful lot of the detailed work was done at the end of his cane. He'd say 'let's do this, boys' or 'lets do that," says Phil Allsop, the foundation's chief executive officer. "He isn't there today so [this house is] not [a] Frank Lloyd Wright at all. [It's] just a design taken from a sketch." For his part, Heinz dismissed the remarks. "The drawings are of the Frank Lloyd Wright house even if they don't call it that. We're not too concerned."

The house is certainly Wright-like. The window-lined room that extends from the living room to the fireplace near the end of the cantilever reflects the "open plan" design pioneered by the architect. Wright also typically designed furniture to occupy his structures; in this case built-in seating lines the perimeter of the living room.

Balancing Modernism and Nature

Finally, the sloping roof and collection of terraces overhanging the rocks and water are quintessential Wright. There's a clear balance between modernism and nature inherent in the building. Wright's structures, so modern in form, were hailed for the way in which they blended into their surroundings. He once wrote of Fallingwater, "Any building for humane purposes should be an elemental, sympathetic feature of the ground." The foundation of the Massaro house is a 60-foot-long rock, native to the site, that cuts through the entrance and extends through several rooms, including one bathroom shower.

The house is, Massaro believes, an accurate realization of Wright's original intentions. "I believe if Frank were alive today, this would be the end result," he says. Moreover, it reflects Wright's philosophy of modern architecture, which starkly contrasts with the white walled minimalism and form-over-function approach so prevalent today.

Wright felt architecture should reflect modern life and modern needs: His then-innovative single story, open plan system helped a mother keep an eye on children as she cooked. And it is because his designs reflected such basic human needs that, even a half-century later, a home such as the Massaro House still works.

Click here to view images of Massaro House.

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