Lessons learned from Frank Lloyd Wright

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: House Styles, Old Houses

When I think of old houses, a few things always come to mind: Hardwood floors, high ceilings, small rooms and majestic entryways, wide porches and handcrafted porch railings. Those staples of the country farmhouse or urban Victorian have long been the hallmarks of what spells "old house" for me.

But lately, I have come to appreciate the beauty of modern architecture. I was recently given an interesting gift -- the "Fallingwater" Lego set. As I was sitting at the weathered dining room table putting the little blocks together, building the tiny replica piece by piece, my husband read aloud from the book that had come with it.

I wasn't paying much attention, to be honest -- I was busy trying to figure out how many pieces I needed for a particular section -- but I did catch this snippet: "Built from 1936 to 1938."

That got my full attention. I stopped working and stared at the picture on the box, at the magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright building in springtime. It was a study of concrete, wide terraces at cantilevered angles and walls of glass. It was created with two paint colors: Ochre for the concrete and a bold Cherokee red for the steel. It even has a rushing stream right underneath the house, from which it took its name.

But for all those modern angles and lines, I found myself charmed by the lovely old place.

There is no doubt that Fallingwater is a perfect example of early modern architecture. There is also little doubt that this vintage beauty is an old house that deserves the title just as much as an elderly Victorian does.

Seeing modern architecture in a new light

My experiences with old houses were always with those buildings that held a country kind of charm. I was drawn to stately Federals with wide columns or fun Craftsman bungalows. I admit that sometimes I would look at modern buildings and wonder: How could someone feel warm and cozy there? The architecture seemed cold and distant, more suited to an office space than a home.

But after moving to the Philadelphia area, just a short train ride from New York City, I have discovered modern architecture standing side-by-side with structures built well over two centuries ago. Much to my surprise, I have found myself drawn much more strongly to the beauty and simplicity of the more modern lines.

That shift led to opening up a few books on modern architecture. I was delighted to discover the Walter Gale House, one of the first homes Wright designed after he struck out on his own in the world of architecture. It is clearly a Queen Anne -- but it has modern elements that hint at what he would later create. The Heller House, built in 1897, is a decidedly modern house, but the stone columns and entry facade are a nod to the more traditional styles.

Then I discovered the nearby "Suntop" homes in Ardmore, Pa., filled with astounding light that made the 1600 square feet look much bigger than it really is. That delightful Wright gem was the first modern home that made my heart race, especially when I took the plunge and asked the realtor how much it might cost.

I am quickly becoming a fan of simple lines, ample light, surprising details and even the look of concrete and steel. Unique homes built in the early 1900s, when modern architecture was finding its way into the world, are the perfect blend of those elements and the "old house" vibe.

I still love Victorians and Craftsmans and Federals. But as long as my antiques look good against the concrete and glass, I might choose a modern home for my next adventure.