Sleeping with Frank Lloyd Wright: What’s It Like to Live in a Starchitect’s House?

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I met Carol and Bill Pollak when I was interning without pay in San Francisco, living (not very well) off my paltry savings. As parents of a friend I’d known in DC, they were kind enough to invite me over for dinner and feed me a square meal. When I remarked on their lovely Marin County home, they agreed it was “nice,” but insisted it was nothing like their previous house, which they described as truly special.

For a little over a decade, from 1988 to 2000, the Pollaks lived in the Chicago suburb of River Forest in a 10-room home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Isabel Roberts House was erected during Wright’s quaintly termed “Prairie” era and renovated by the architect in the early 1950s. The Guggenheim is currently feting the 50th anniversary of their own iconic, Wright-designed building — giving us the perfect excuse to grill them on what it’s like to live in one of the great man’s houses.

Flavorpill: Was the Roberts House crazy expensive?

Bill: At the time we bought it, the house was about $800K, which was way out of line with other material things in our lives. But when we saw it, we felt it was the perfect house for us.

FP: What convinced you that it was the perfect house?

Bill: We weren’t looking for a Frank Lloyd Wright house. But the house we were in was much too big for us once the kids had grown, and my father called with a listing in the newsletter for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house was in a town we’d never heard of, and when he told us the price we told him he was out of his mind. However, we ended up in the area, so we figured we’d take a look. I wasn’t really that impressed with the house from the outside.

Carol: I was.

Bill: Yes, you were. And when we went inside we were both blown away. We thought it was stunning and that it was a very workable house. I’m sure we were affected by the fact that it was designed by a great architect, but I think that if the house had been designed by “Fred Schwartz,” most of what we felt would have been the same.

Carol: We felt it was the perfect house. The night we moved in, we got there before the furniture and slept in sleeping bags in the living room. That’s how excited we were.

FP: How was this house different from others you’d lived in?

Bill: One way it was different is that we would not have considered altering it in any way, interior or exterior, including furniture. Wright did some of the furniture design for his houses, and the couch and the dining room table and chairs were from the 1950s alterations. Incised designs in the chairs reflected patterns in the dining-room lighting fixture that also was designed by Wright. At about the time we were buying the house the market for his furniture was very active, and legally people could take things out and sell them, but we would not have considered that. Within the Wright community there was an ethic that you don’t do that.

FP: Was there anything not so great about the house?

Bill: The particular problem of this particular house was the roof. Made of copper and stepped in form, it had problems of design and execution. Its flat sections tempted the fates, who accepted the temptation, abetted by the less-than-excellent quality of the joining of the copper sections. We had a number of leaks over the years that we had to have repaired. The one good side of the Roberts House roof problems was that it caused me to be up on the roof quite a lot. From there the roof itself, a complex sea of intersecting copper planes, was really quite beautiful. I would rarely have experienced that beauty but for the leaks.

Carol: The house was also built around a tree. It was an old and large elm, but all that was in the room was a trunk, which is not the most attractive part of a tree. It was something the house was known for, but it really was a quirk. Wright built his own house around a tree, and that tree died. We always felt he was fortunate.

FP: Has the experience of living in that house changed the way you view architecture generally?

Bill: We lived in a small Georgian Colonial house in Washington, DC, before moving to the Chicago area and thought it was wonderful. But I think I’d have a hard time going back there. Our taste in homes was changed by the experience of living in a Wright house. The things Wright accomplished in the Roberts House were many: for one, the public rooms all flowed into each other and you had the feeling of spaciousness, yet at the same time subtle variations made the different spaces distinct. It was an artful result, not the consequence of simple thinking.

FP: The concept of “home” goes beyond “house,” for most of us, to include a sense of sanctuary, privacy and ownership. Did you feel like the house belonged to you, or was it Wright’s house, of which you were stewards?

Bill: We didn’t have a worshipful stance towards the building; it was our house, not a museum piece.

Carol: Well, yes, but we did feel that it was a treasure and we had a responsibility to share it. We gladly opened the house to a number of student and other interested groups, and, three times for the “Wright Plus” annual tour to support the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which involved having 2,500 people go through in one day. We felt it was our home, but we did feel it was a responsibility because of its meaning to others.

FP: How did visitors react to the house?

Bill: It was very interesting to witness, actually. Friends and others who came to the house broke roughly into three categories: People who had heard of Wright and would “ooh” and “ah” and behave as if they loved it, but you could just tell that they said it because they felt they should. Then there were those who knew of Wright and seemed really to understand the house and to enjoy being in it. And then there were people who had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright but were very affected by the house. That was fun.

Carol: We were getting a new refrigerator once and one of the delivery guys just stopped what he was doing and looked around and said, “Wow, who built this house!” We told him it was built by Frank Lloyd Wright. His partner looked at us and said, “This guy’s from Park Forest. You think he’s heard of Frank Lloyd Wright?”

FP: Would you do it over again?

Carol & Bill: Absolutely.