Preserving Wright's Westcott House
The Westcott House in Decline
However, after the Westcott's tenure, subsequent owners began to make changes. The sleeping porches were enclosed, an addition was placed on the north side of the house, and the great reflecting pool was filled in. Later on, the house was subdivided into seven apartments.
Luckily, most of the house remained intact. The apartment subdivision required new walls and plumbing and electrical service. But few walls or original materials were removed.
Over the years the house deteriorated, primarily due to the enormous expense of maintaining and restoring a prairie-style house. This despite the best intentions of the last owners. Eventually they entrusted the future of the house to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a national advocacy group dedicated to the preservation of all of Frank Lloyd Wright's remaining structures.
Not only does the group provide extensive technical expertise to assist owners of Wright structures, it also devises innovative solutions to save them when they are threatened.
While the organization does not usually buy Wright structures that are at risk, it is now able, through its recently endowed Lewis-Haines Fund, to step in as an interim buyer when a potential owner is expected to commit to purchasing and, if needed, restoring the house.
The conservancy spent several months stabilizing the Westcott house and working on an easement to protect the house forever. A locally formed Westcott House Foundation takes ownership in May, 2001.
The two organizations will work together to ensure that every aspect of planning, reconstruction, restoration, and management of the structure is done consistently with Wright's original intent.
The house is currently undergoing its last stabilization procedures. Leaking roofs, failing structural elements, improper water drainage, and dangerous electrical systems have all been brought into a safe condition.
Basic demolition work on the apartment additions and other post-Wright embellishments has also been done to allow the architecture firm of Chambers, Murphy and Burge of Akron, Ohio to perform research for a historical structures report.
Architect Lauren Burge and structural engineer Elwin Robison have been working to document the current condition of the house. The report has been completed and the conservancy is reviewing the results. The Westcott House Foundation will receive the report in the coming weeks.
Already, work on the house has revealed much about how the house originally looked. This has allowed us to understand what walking into the house must have been like, and how it will be again.
The entrance, like that of many other prairie houses of the day, was not initially obvious. Visible from a side street, the main entrance is sheltered and compressed. On entering, the visitor was met by a wide hall with a low ceiling that gets lower as one ascends the wide stairway.
Walking up the stairs, one rose into a bright hallway and beckoning entry into the great room. The entry hall was bathed in a warm light from three art-glass clerestory windows. A massive skylight in the second-story ceiling was visible from the open stairway. In the great room, open areas flowed naturally into one another.
A typical Wright technique was to create a space within a space by using screens and half-height partitions rather than floor-to-ceiling walls. Thus, in the Westcott House the fireplace was not visible at first entry into the great room because two screens with inglenook benches surrounded the massive roman brick fireplace.
Today, only one screen exists, and the benches have been removed. Wright's plans for the house still exist so the screens, benches, and other details will be rebuilt exactly as Wright wanted them. The art-glass skylight and clerestory windows were removed during stabilization and will be put back once work on the interior is complete.
The front terrace is somewhat intact, but the reflecting pool is not. The Westcott house had extensive gardens and elegant landscaping. Wright's original plans for the grounds still exist, and proper vegetation will again adorn the grounds as will the extensive pergola that joins the main house with the carriage house.
The Westcott house has all of the common features of a great Wright prairie design: strong horizontal lines, elegant symmetry, simplicity of materials, and stucco walls with strong wood trim. The visible facade from High Street draws the eye to the low lines of the landscape and the large planter urns, the largest Wright ever designed for a house.
Some of the interior vistas that Wright had intended can be seen again now that the apartment partition walls have been removed. For the first time in over fifty years, the entire great room can be seen from one side to the other.
Today, the Westcott house stands in need of repair, but restoration is underway. The two organizations will ensure that it will be restored to Wright's vision and forever remain as a testament to both his revolutionary ideas of domesticity and to the individuals and groups devoted to the preservation of these ideals.
Matt Cline is a member and webmaster of the Westcott House Foundation Board and site manager for the Westcott House.