“I have lived here now for 41 years. I was 26 when I bought the place.”
Henry Whiting II is speaking to a group of about two dozen spread out on a rolling berm of lawn on an early fall day that still has at least one foot in summer. You don’t have to peak over the edge of the rounded yard to know that directly below, by 300 feet, is Idaho’s water glory, the Snake River. You can hear her trilling over rocks and chuting down rapids which look tiny from this perch far above, but in reality are six to eight feet tall, Whiting says.
He is speaking to a group of Preservation Idaho members who have traveled from all corners of the state just to be able to get a glimpse of the diamond in the rough that is perched, or rather, juxtaposed on this edge of land just outside Bliss, Idaho. They have all come to see one of only two houses in Idaho built by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright: Teater’s Knoll.
Whiting is not the original owner of the place. It was first owned by Archie and Patricia Teater. Whiting said the couple first bought the 2 1/4-acre property atop the basalt cliff in 1949 for $125. Archie was a landscape painter and they both loved the beauty they found there. They wanted to build an artist studio for Archie and so in 1951, Patricia sent Wright a letter. “We would like to build a spot of interest to humanity,” she wrote.
It took four years to finish and the Teaters spent spring and fall at the studio. Archie passed away in 1978 and Patricia in 1981. Whiting purchased the property in 1982. To date, he is one of the longest-tenured owners of a Frank Lloyd Wright home. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, and was one of the “youngest” homes to be registered there.
Whiting has a degree in landscape architecture and in addition to adding on a walkway and “Tea Circle” garden and patio space, added two buildings onto the property, including a bunkhouse, using Usonian principles — native materials, flat roof, large cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling, natural lighting with clerestory windows and radiant-floor heating.
While talking about the structure, Whiting embodies it with its own spirit, imploring the visitors to “be cognizant of how the building is making you feel; just feel what the building is telling you.” He said even though he has lived there for over four decades, “I never get tired of it. Frank Lloyd Wright homeowners talk about seeing something new everyday in their house. I believe it is because of the relationship of the building to nature,” Whiting said. He said the home creates “a more complex relationship with light.” It is hexagonal — six-sided — and built at 120-degree angles, both in its relationship to itself and also to the hillside and the view it looks out upon, which is nearly horizon to horizon.
“He’s essentially manipulating you,” Whiting said, referring to Wright. “It’s designed completely for the beauty of the river.” Whiting said the angle and direction that the front of the home faces, affords incredible views, day and night. Watching the sun through the leaves, “the light literally is dancing,” he said. And at night, because there is practically zero light pollution due to the isolation of place, it is just black as ink, making the heavens a showcase. “The stars at night,” Whiting said, shaking his head in marvel. “Oh, and the sunsets. The moon is just beautiful here.” Every angle, every sloping window sill, every inch of the home was built with purpose, Whiting said. “It’s meant to inspire an artist.”
Living and maintaining a Frank Lloyd Wright home takes a lot of TLC. For instance, when Whiting had to replace the wall of glass windows, it was a bigger task than just ordering the glass. Each and every pane is a different size so Whiting made replicas out of wood and shipped to the glassmaker so that they would fit properly.
The rock used extensively throughout the house — the outer and inner walls, the massive fireplace, the walkways and Tea Circle patio — is called Oakley Stone, quarried from Oakley, Idaho. It is a “metamorphic” rock and is heavily veined in rusty oranges, browns and golds. According to Jennifer Pisano, a member of Boise Midcentury Houses and a docent for Preservation Idaho, they had to get creative when bringing in some of the larger slates of rock. “They dropped all of the Oakley stone for the Tea Circle by helicopter,” she said.
Inside the home, which was built not as a conventional living space but as an artist’s studio, there are more unique features. “The only interior door is for the bathroom,” Whiting said. Plus, “I have the only Frank Lloyd Wright building without a bedroom. … It’s like in New York City or SoHo — that’s what this place really is,” he said.
In the kitchen is a trap door built into the floor that acts as an escape route from the bank vault located in the small basement below. The vault was brought in by Archie Teater to lock up valuable art and other items from possible intruders and/or thieves who might want to steal them. The “trap door,” which could be easily covered with a rug, was there in case someone would accidentally get locked inside of the vault; they could (hopefully) manage to crawl up into the kitchen to safety.
Preservation Idaho Docent Carrie Applegate points out the structure and lines of the building as it meets the roof and is seemingly aimed toward the cliffs. “It’s like the prow of a ship,” she said, “but instead of breaking through the water, it’s breaking through the hillside.
A tower of wooden boxes, stacked and interspersed with thin boards, from which a soft, discreet light shines as if from a lantern. The sculpture is the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), that “whimsical and ingenious old man of Taliesin”, inclined to “polygonal and expensive” constructions, as Gio Ponti described him in a 1941 editorial (Domus 235).
“Polygonal” was his solution to achieve indirect light without resorting to glass or shades. A composition of forms with a delicate play of light and shadow, it recalls the atmospheres of Japanese houses, a country that the “whimsical” American had come to know through the surimono prints of which he was knowledgeable collector. In 1946, Giancarlo De Carlo told the readers of Domus (in issue 407) about the influence of Japanese art on Wright’s design idiom: his “eclectic, fantastic and often unexpected architecture” was filtered through the sensitivity of those Oriental artists – “the love of nature, the ability to arouse spiritual qualities in inanimate things” – and transferred into his temperament as an “American pioneer”, capable of achieving “a balance of organic forms” or indulging in “surprising disorder”.
Wright’s first design of a light source concealed and split into superimposed polygons dates from the 1930s. The pendant lamp was conceived for a room with a high ceiling in the Taliesin complex, his home-studio in Wisconsin. In the 1950s, the architect returned to the design and developed it into a lamp with a stem and base. As can be seen from the archive drawing, the square shapes are interspersed with plywood strips and distributed in an apparently precarious balance, concealing the light sources that reverberate on the wood.
The ensemble of solids and voids also comes to life in a dialogue with natural light, which is captured on the fragmented surfaces and helps to define the domestic space, fostering the coveted synthesis between man and nature that for Wright was fulfilled in the house, the shelter, as he called it. Taliesin – as the lamp was to be called – must have particularly appealed to him, since he used it in his studio and designed a dining-room version for Mr and Mrs Sander, who commissioned the mahogany, burnt brick and glass house in Springbough, Connecticut. The Taliesin floor and table lamp is now produced by Yamagiwa, a historic Japanese company that has long collaborated with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Supported by 100 years of artisan carpentry, it offers Taliesin in cherry, walnut and oak.
On Thursday, October 19th at 5:30 p.m., Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House will continue its Design Aloud lecture series with noted Wright scholar Ayad Rahmani on the occasion of his new publication: Frank Lloyd Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Transforming the American Mind.
“We are thrilled to be able to welcome Professor Rahmani to the Martin House,” stated Jessie Fisher, Executive Director of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House. “It is an important part of our mission to help deepen the understanding of Wright’s work and the context in which his ground-breaking designs emerged. We are deeply grateful to the M&T Bank Charitable Foundation for making these kinds of intellectual opportunities available to our local community.”
“By exploring Wright and Emerson at the intersection of their thoughts and creations, Rahmani substantially deeps our intellectual understanding of both men with an abundance of interconnected, fresh insights,” says Jack Quinan, author of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo Venture: From the Larkin Building to Broadacre City.
In Rahmani’s words, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Transforming the American Mind is an interdisciplinary volume of literary and cultural scholarship that examines the link between two pivotal intellectual and artistic figures. Inspired by Emerson’s writings on the need to align exterior expression with interior self, Wright believed that architecture was not first and foremost a matter of accommodating functional needs, but a tool to restore intellectual and artistic authenticity, too often lost in the process of modernization.
Ayad Rahmani is a professor of architecture at Washington State University, where he teaches courses in design and theory. He also serves on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. He is the author of two previous books, the most recent being Kafka’s Architectures.
His latest book is an interdisciplinary approach to better understanding the motivation behind Wright’s groundbreaking designs, using his deep connection to the teachings of Emerson. From the book jacket: “Ayad Rahmani shows that Emerson’s writings provide an avenue for interpreting Wright’s complex approach to country and architecture… His designs sought to challenge dehumanizing labor practices and open minds to the beauty and science of agriculture and the natural world. Emerson’s example helped Wrigth develop an architecture that aimed less at accommodating a culture of clients and more at raising national historical awareness while also arguing for humane and equitable policies.”
Immediately following Professor Rahmani’s talk in the Greatbatch Pavilion, the author will be available to sign copies of the book, which is for sale in the Martin House gift shop. The Design Aloud lecture series is presented by M&T Bank.
This event is free and open to the public, but space is limited so pre-registration is required