Todd Levin knows how it feels to live in a work of art. The angular, mid-century modern home he acquired last summer in Glen Ridge is one of three remaining Frank Lloyd Wright houses in New Jersey.
Levin, an art advisor who splits his time between Glen Ridge and Manhattan, views his suburban home as a source of astonishment. “I own this?” he muses. “I cannot believe it’s mine.”
The 1,800-square-foot home—known as the Richardson House for its original owners, Stuart and Elizabeth “Betty” Richardson—has many of the features that are typical of Wright’s residential creations, including a flat roof, open floor plan, built-in furnishings and walls of windows.
In a career that spanned almost seven decades, Wright (1867–1959) designed more than 1,000 structures, although not all were built. Nearly 400 Wright structures, including more than 280 single-family homes, survive in 37 states, Canada and Japan.
Between 1940 and 1958, Wright fielded requests to design private residences. Only four were ultimately realized in New Jersey: the James and Lucille Christie House in Bernardsville (built in 1940), the J. Alfred and Muriel Sweeton House in Cherry Hill (1950), the Richardson House (1951), and the Gloria Bachman and Abe Wilson House in Millstone (circa 1954).
Like Levin’s home, the Christie House and the Sweeton House are privately owned. Unfortunately, floods from hurricanes Floyd (1999) and Irene (2011) extensively damaged the Bachman-Wilson House. In 2014, its owners sold it to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, where it was meticulously restored and is now displayed on the museum grounds.
Writing in 1938, Wright—who designed corporate headquarters, banks, churches, hotels, a synagogue, a college campus and the incomparable Guggenheim Museum—described his goals for residential design. “The house of moderate cost is not only America’s major architectural problem, but the problem most difficult for her major architects,” said Wright. “I would rather solve it with satisfaction to myself and Usonia, than build anything I can think of at the moment.”
Wright used the term Usonia to refer to the homes he started building in the mid-1930s. He espoused the Usonian house as a pragmatic solution for affordable, middle-class housing. His modest-sized, single-family homes promised a “freer life than you could possibly live in the conventional house.”
Usonian houses are set on a colored concrete pad with radiant heat (and no radiators). They have a relatively unfussy floor plan with a distinct separation of living and bedroom areas, no plastered walls, indirect lighting, a living room with a wall of plate-glass windows, a dining alcove and a carport (no garage). Wright’s designs encompassed all of the components, including interior décor.
When push came to shove, a custom-designed Usonian residence was really not so affordable. The 1,460-square-foot Sweeton House—which celebrates its 70th birthday this year—was originally budgeted at $15,000, but ultimately cost approximately $24,000. That didn’t include the land, which had to be bought separately.
Given the unconventional aspects of Wright’s designs, it’s no surprise that construction estimates far exceeded what clients expected. That explains why so few New Jersey commissions actually materialized. In 1956, Wright pointedly rebuked William Clifton, a disgruntled client who was unable to have his house built within budget in Bergen County: “We don’t sell houses—we sell our services to help a man get what he wants for what he can afford to pay.”
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The Sweeton House, the smallest of New Jersey’s Wright houses and the only one in South Jersey, is located on what had been a 6.48-acre peach orchard between Moorestown and Haddonfield. The one-floor home for a family of four was built of simple concrete blocks, redwood plywood and plate-glass windows. It has a pitched 14-foot carport that extends from the entranceway.
Characteristic of the Usonian model, the Sweeton House sits on a red concrete pad with radiant floor heating. The living room and dining area has floor-to-ceiling windows and doors.
“We are thrilled with the serene and lovely lines of the house,” original owner Muriel Sweeton wrote to Wright. “The beautiful economy of the plan is heart-warming and encouraging.”
Down a narrow hallway illuminated by clerestory windows are the main bathroom and three compact bedrooms. Hassocks and chairs were originally designed for the living room and dining area. Two of the bedrooms had desks with built-in cabinets and shelving that have now been removed from the house. Muriel Sweeton handwove the fabric for the upholstery as well as the drapery panels and bedspreads. Samples were sent to Wright for his approval. The house still has one of its original chairs and a hassock with pads covered in Sweeton’s golden-yellow textured material.
The Sweetons lived in their Wright house until 1974. It is now in the hands of its third resident owners, Dan Nichols and his wife, Christine Denario. Nichols, an architect and managing partner of Ragan Design Group in Medford, and Denario, a psychologist, bought the property in 2008. They regard themselves as stewards of the Sweeton House. “To survive,” says Nichols, “it must be a house that maintains the character that Wright had intended.”
Over the past few years, Nichols and Denario have carefully restored the modest residence. The main bathroom was updated, kitchen cabinetry was repaired, the original redwood plywood was reclaimed to make hassocks based on Wright’s design, a rolling library ladder was added to access the upper tier of kitchen cabinets, and a workshop space was converted into a home office and a hall bath.
“We replicated Wright’s details from elsewhere in the house to make the new elements,” says Nichols, who serves on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. The couple’s guiding principle: “What would Wright do?”
On a winter afternoon sitting in the intimate yet seemingly expansive living room of the Sweeton House, a visitor could hear birds chirping outside. Indeed, the owners say they have “never been so in tune with the seasons since living in a house like this.”
The Christie House, which turns 80 this year, is also attuned to its wooded surroundings. The oldest and largest of the Usonian houses in New Jersey, it is elegantly situated on 7.25 acres in Bernardsville. The L-shaped, 2,000-square-foot home has a main wing with a living room and a bedroom wing that seems to recline across the landscape. Its horizontal orientation gently hugs the ground. Wright considered his buildings “a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”
In 2003, the third owner of the property commissioned Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino of Tarantino Studio in Millstone, specialists in the restoration and preservation of Wright houses, to realize the master-bedroom suite that was designed by Wright but never built. Using original renderings, the Tarantinos interpreted the elevation and sensitively matched the brick, cypress and glass with its original construction, completing what the Christies hadn’t accomplished. (The Tarantinos had owned the Bachman-Wilson House for 23 years, before selling it to the Crystal Bridges Museum.)
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Just as owning an original Wright home has its challenges, so does selling one. The most recent owners of the Christie home put it on the market in June 2016 for $2.2 million, according to Zillow, a real estate website. The listing price was eventually reduced to $1.45 million. The house sold late last year for about $1.35 million.
The listing agent for the Christie House, Roger Christman at Weichert Realtors in New Vernon, describes it as “a very unique home that isn’t for everyone.”
Robin Seidon, partner and broker associate at West of Hudson Real Estate Group in Montclair, was the listing agent for the Richardson House in 2016. For that home, she says, 20 percent was added to the offering price “for the Wright factor.” Seidon emphasizes that any property “needs to be priced right.”
Deborah Lebow, sales associate at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Upper Montclair, showed clients the Richardson property when it went back on the market last year. “It is like purchasing a sculpture,” she says. “It is a unique buyer pool that would be the keeper of the flame.”
Levin turned out to be the unique buyer for the Richardson House. He paid $1.3 million for the home last October. He considers the property a “special work of art by Wright” as well as a “real-estate investment.”
John Payne, a former Rutgers law professor and legal scholar on affordable housing, owned the Richardson House from 1996 until his death in 2009. He eloquently considered the unique responsibility of his custodial role: “One of the odd things about owning a house like this is that one does so in the legal and financial sense, but not fully as a moral right; it matters to us, as it should, what the original clients think about our stewardship of a house they haven’t lived in for 30 years.”
Unquestionably, ownership of a piece of architectural history brings with it a distinct obligation. It’s also a thrill. As Lucille Christie told Wright after her family sold their Bernardsville home: “We have all felt [the home’s] influence and it has made our life happier and fuller.”
Fred B. Adelson is a professor of art history at Rowan University. Contact him at [email protected].