Frank Lloyd Wright: Owner Built Robert Berger House Bernard Pyron
In 1958 I used information sent to me by Frank Lloyd Wright home owners about their participation in building their houses to write a paper on owner built Wright homes. Included in this paper was a long letter to me from Robert Berger about building his Wright house in San Anselmo, California. This paper was lost to me over the years. But in early 2006 when I sent an E Mail to the Wright Archives about copyrights on Wright talks, the Archives sent me a copy of my original mimeographed copy. To make use of the mimeographed copy on the Internet, I made a PDF file of it. Then I used an Optical Character Recognition program to change the PDF pages from the mimeographed copy to text.
The idea of Frank Lloyd Wright, the internationally famous personality and master architect, designing an organic house in the 1950s for the average person to build themselves was an inspiring, yet largely unfulfilled, dream. Wright, greatly influenced in his beliefs by Wisconsin populism, tried several times over his long career to design homes for the person of modest means. He called these home designs “Usonians,” his word to describe a new and democratic American architecture.The first completely realized Usonian design was the First Herbert Jacobs House of Madison, Wisconsin in 1937. It was a modest, yet strikingly unique home designed for a newspaper reporter and his family for the sum of $5500. Wright continued to refine his Usonian designs in order to make them more accessible to the common person, incorporating more standardized materials, and simplifying the building techniques; even developing an “Automatic” version using his concrete block system. All of this was done to streamline the process and in Wright’s mind, make it possible for average people to build their own home.
Although some Usonian homeowners did execute a part of the construction work, it was uncommon for anyone to undertake the majority of building project them self.With the lengths that Wright went to make home construction accessible, why didn’t more people undertake the dream of building their own Frank Lloyd Wright designed home? To understand that question we must examine the many obstacles that conspired against such a dream being realized.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright was in his second “Golden Age” during the 1950s, considered by many to be his most productive period. Many of his larger projects were built or were under construction, such as the Price Tower in Oklahoma and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Wright’s fame worked against many average people considering him as a source for a simple home design. It was perceived as unlikely that an architect busy with fifty $35,000 to $500,000 houses and several large projects would find it profitable to design a home that would cost no more than $15,000 if planned to be completely built by the owners.
2. If Wright’s fame didn’t put people off, his infamy might. Wright was no stranger to controversy in either his professional or private life. His colorful lifestyle, his atypical designs and his outspoken ideas were often a source of many raised eyebrows. It was common for his detractors to circulate the notion that Wright designed only for the rich or that he did not consider costs at all. An average person might “lose their shirt” if they employed the eccentric master architect.
3. It is a prevalent notion that house construction requires the expert: the contractor, the subcontractor, the mason, the carpenter, the plumber and the electrician. It is true that many suburban areas have extensive zoning laws to protect public safety. But the idea that only an expert can properly follow these rules is often furthered out of professional self-interest than fact. The “Do-It-Yourself “ method was often thwarted by these feelings of technical helplessness or bureaucratic zoning red tape.
4. Most of the people who developed an architectural appreciation to the point of wanting a Frank Lloyd Wright house were professionals who usually had minimal experience with manual labor or saw that type of work as beneath them. Many could not stand the physical strain of building a house or feel that they would not enjoy building a house themselves in their leisure time. However, some people realize that when creative physical labor is left out of their lives they feel a sense of inadequacy. It’s often an epiphany to many that creative physical labor improves their physical, as well as, their psychological health.
5. The average person does not wish to live in a house that remains unfinished for several years and cannot tolerate the mess and other lifestyle disadvantages. It’s assumed that only someone who really enjoys the process of building would desire such an arduous undertaking. Otherwise, a person would be better off to buy standard track housing.
6. Lending agencies at the time were already fearful of lending money on a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and would likely be doubly skeptical of a “non-expert” owner undertaking the building of the home.
These obstacles were enough to put many off from the prospect of building any home, let alone one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet one man approached Wright in 1950 with the request that the architect not only design him a house, but one he could build himself. Robert Berger was an engineering teacher of modest means. Having found a lot in Marin County, California, he recounted in the late 1960s about how he originally started to design his own home:
“I was a trained engineer. Of course, like any engineer, since they can draw lines and can compute, everyone thinks they can design a home. And a lot of people do. However, it’s been my experience that most engineers essentially end up designing a box. I was dissatisfied with the box. Every time I would start with the design, I’d end up with a box.” 1 (Frank Lloyd Wright remembered. Patrick J. Meechan, p. 104) Frustrated with his designs, Berger turned to architectural magazines for inspiration. He happened upon the January 1948 issue of Architectural Forum, dedicated entirely to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Berger recounted, “I just fell head over heels in love with the type of housing he was designing.”2 (Frank Lloyd Wright remembered. Patrick J. Meechan, p. 106)
Over a cup of coffee at lunch one day, Robert told his wife that he was going to ask Frank Lloyd Wright to design their house. Berger sent a handwritten letter to Taliesin West, asking Wright for a house design that Robert could build himself. It was a shot in the dark, but if nothing came of the request, he would only be out the cost of a stamp. Robert received a reply from Eugene Masselink, Wright’s secretary, stating Berger was to send a prospectus and a topographical map of the proposed site. Frank Lloyd Wright would design his house! Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Korean War and Robert’s duty in the armed forces forced an intermission in progress on the house design. On his way back to California after the conclusion of his service duties, Robert Berger met with Wright in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Upon confirming that Wright would design his house and it would cost no more than $15,000, Berger proceeded to finish the home site’s topographical map and send it to Taliesin in 1950. Robert Berger shares the story of starting to build his house in a letter he sent to me:
“…it has taken me 5 years to build enough to move into. We, or I should say, I, started building in 1953 (the plans were obtained in 1951) and we moved into the uncompleted first unit July 1957. My house is probably unusual in several respects for Mr. Wright. First, the house was to be built completely by the owner and second, the house was designed originally to be expanded from one bedroom to three by adding a wing…Incidentaly, one of my requirements was that the house be easy to build. This requirement was forgotten by Mr. Wright since I probably have the heaviest house in Marin county. I figured that I have lifted more than a million pounds in the last five years in the building. Actually, the house has presented no great difficulties to me though I have never built a house before.. I haden’t even paid the lot off when Mr. Wright designed the house. I earned the house myself…I’m probably the poorest client Mr. Wright ever had…I did not do the radiant heat installation because it was put in in two days whereas it would have taken me a couple of weeks, The concrete floor was the only job in the house I could not do myself since it required about 8 men at once to pour and steel trowel the large floor area before it began to set…
It has amazed me the number of so called technical jobs such as plumbing, wiring, etc that I have been able to do. They are not so difficult. Many people could do them if they wanted to. I keep reading of people who supposedly have built their own homes and in most cases they contracted out these jobs. They poured their money down the drain… The house is extra beautiful to my wife and I since we built it with blood, sweat and tears and not with a pen and check.” (3) (Letter From Robert Berger To Bernard Pyron, 1958)
The Berger house is one of Wright’s small diamond module houses, well placed on its hill site, overlooking a valley. The site is about 3/4 of an acre. Although the site is inside the city limits, it is high in the hills with few surrounding buildings and can be considered to be in the country. It is in Marin county, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The house was designed to be in two units. The first unit is hexagonal in shape and is built around the hexagonal solid rock core which Berger first built. The core rises above the roof and contains bath, utility room and kitchen. The. hexagonal unit contains the dining room area, which flows on three sides of the central core. The rock walls extend out from one side of the hexagonal first unit to form a triangular. terrace which is open to the living area and part of. the bedroom. The triangular terrace rides the slope of the hill.
It sits on the side of the hill, not on the hill-crown. The second unit, the bedroom wing, will be built off one side of the hexagon. “The walls are made by use of wooden forms. Thin slices of Sonoma candy rock, which Berger must split from larger chunks himself, are faced against both sides of the form. In the center between the two wooded forms, Berger pours a mixture of rocks and concrete. The concrete seeps through the Sonoma stone facing edges and adds to the texture of the wall. The 14 inch thick walls will be continued in a line from parts of the house to enclose a triangular terrace.”
In the Berger house all exposed wood is of Phillipine mahagony. The house is apparently built to last. A newspaper article described it as “…a veritable fortress of a house…Its solidness is obvious at once. But its simplicity of line and rugged design are compatible with the wild rough terrain. “It’ll sit there a thousand years, a friend observed to the builder.” (4) Frank Lloyd Wright also designed a triangular dog house for Jim Berger’s dog.”
4. Newspaper article, Marin Independent Journal
3 Personal letter from Robert Berger to Bernard Pyron,1958
ROBERT BERGER HOUSE FLOOR PLAN
The Berger living area flows on three sides of the central kitchen stack that rises above the roof, and a short bedroom wing extends off that central hexagonal-like area. Note also that a fin that extends out from the main hexagonal area pointing down in the drawing above. The triangle shape to the left of the central hexagon is a terrace with retaining walls. We will see something like this in the Ralph Moreland project of 1956.This is a photograph I made in 1957 of the floor plan drawing for the Berger house created by Frank Lloyd Wright and his Apprentices. This floor plan is based upon a diamond module unit system where the angles are 60 and 120 degrees. The kind of “fin” that extends out from the main structure of the living room and kitchen area facing down comes to a point of 60 degrees. The “corners” of the living area are 120 degrees, not the 90 degree corner of the typical box house.
A core kitchen hexagonal shape extends above the roof and opens into the living room at one point. Note that the floor plan shown above is only the First Unit of the Berger house. It has only one bedroom. You can see the dotted lines of the hexagonal-shaped roof which hovers above the central stack and the living area.
ROBERT BERGER HOUSE PERSPECTIVE DRAWING, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT ARCHITECT This is a photo I took in 1957 of the Berger perspective drawing. Wright allowed me to photograph his plans and perspective drawings at Hillside.
ROBERT BERGER HOUSE, START OF CONSTRUCTION You can see the rugged nature of the San Anselmo hills here. Apparently Berger was using the tent to live in during this phase of the building.
BERGER HOUSE DURING CONSTRUCTION The “fin” that extends out from the central kitchen-living area is seen here, which adds to the”fortress” look of the house. The house looks like it was built to withstand calamities of nature as well as attacks from gangs of enemies in very hard times.
At the time this picture was taken, Berger had built the rock wall out some distance from the central area of the house.
Robert Berger sent me this photo, as well as the one showing the beginning of construction. He sent the photos in 1957, along with a letter describing his experiences in building this Frank Lloyd Wright diamond module “fort” in the San Anselmo hills. Probably Berger took these photos himself.
ROBERT BERGER HOUSE ALMOST COMPLETED Bruce Radde took this photo and sent it to me as a slide. I believe the photo was taken in 1958.
The color photo above shows the central kitchen-living area from a different viewpoint, and again the “fin” extending out from that area is shown. The reddish-brown stones of the Berger house were not laid on top of one another and held by mortar as in more conventional stonework. Instead, forms were placed so that a space was left for the width of the wall — and rocks were placed against the forms so that they would show when the concrete was poured in to hold them in place. Probably, steel rods were placed at intervals within the walls And, most likely, the walls were built in vertical sections, and not created in their full height at one time. Working with vertical sections, each of a few feet in height, would have enabled Berger to more easily select the rocks he wanted to show on the outside of the finished walls. Apparently, he did cut a lot of rock. This is the system Wright worked out for the bottom part of the walls of Taliesin West, in Arizona.
In 2006 Prairiemod published online a slightly different version of my article above. The Prairiemod version has some photos by professional photographers and some floor plans out of one of William Storrer’s books on Wright buildings. A few days ago I tried to find my Prairiemod article on the Robert Berger house and could not find it.
In searching for an online copy of the Prairiemod pdf file on the Berger house I came across this article, https://medium.com/@oof/the-robert-gloria-berger-house-2b9f33049bc0#.ojnu8j90y
“The second-hand story, as I told it a few hundred times, in the ten months that Naya & I lived in & loved an FLW house in San Anselmo, CA goes about like this:”
No contact information is given to the author for the article. There is a link given at the end of this article to the GoDaddy site where supposedly the Berger article was stored.
Clicking in this link, http://www.prairiemodstuff.com/berger%20layout_final.pdf brings up this error page:
“The connection was reset
The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading.
The site could be temporarily unavailable or too busy. Try again in a few moments. If you are unable to load any pages, check your computer’s network connection. If your computer or network is protected by a firewall or proxy, make sure that Firefox is permitted to access the Web.”
It looks like my article on the Robert Berger house is not on GoDaddy.
Here is the link to my article about the Patrick Kinney house on Prairiemod:
The GoDaddy.com link results in a GoDaddy ad selling domains on the Internet.
Neither of my two articles on Frank Lloyd Wright houses that Prairiemod published in 2006 and 2007 are available on the Internet in 2015. There are existing links on the Internet to my Prairiemod article on the Robert Berger house. Apparently clicking on these links does not bring up my article. And the images of the Berger house and floor plans for it are of better quality on the Prairiemod version than those of the above article which I have had on the Internet for years
My E Mail address is: email@example.com I am also on Facebook as Bernard Pyron.