January 2, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright's Teater's Knoll Will "Take Your Breath Away"

In the tiny town of Bliss, Idaho, tucked away in Hagerman Valley above the Snake River, you’ll find the only structure in the state designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1952 for a local painter named Archie Teater, the studio—commonly referred to as Teater’s Knoll—is thought to be the only studio FLW designed other than his own.

The elaborate one-room residence is shaped like a parallelogram, with a sloping roof and settled on the edge of a rocky hillside. The walls are made of Oakley stone, an earth-toned quartzite rock from a quarry 80 miles away.

Current owner Henry Whiting has lived there for 35 years, and has completed two major restorations on the structure. He says that when people visit, he waits for them to step through the door, and watches as their eyes get wide in appreciation and awe, and then stop to listen as the sounds of the river rapids rise up through the valley.

“Then they turn back to the house—I know that’s exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright intended,” he says.

And once you’ve heard the story of how Whiting ended up here, perhaps you’ll think that’s what FLW intended, too.

The view of the prow at the Archie Teater Studio at Teater's Knoll. Masonry by Kent Hale.

photo by: Scot Zimmerman

The view of the prow at Teater’s Knoll. Masonry by Kent Hale.

With this fireplace at Teater's Knoll, Wright wanted to create a rustic feeling for this Western structure, much like the National Park architecture of the region.

photo by: Scot Zimmerman

With this fireplace, Wright wanted to create a rustic feeling for this Western structure, much like the National Park architecture of the region.

Whiting grew up in Midland, Michigan, surrounded by buildings designed by his great-uncle, local architect Alden B. Dow (son of Herbert Henry Dow of Dow Chemical), a major contributor to the Modern Michigan movement and essentially an adoptive grandfather to Whiting. Dow apprenticed under Wright for several months before opening his own studio, and the two men remained close friends until Wright’s death. By the time Whiting was ready to launch his own career, he had already been fed many stories about FLW and his work.

When Whiting went to school to study landscape architecture, he took a course on Frank Lloyd Wright that he says changed his life. “I spent the remainder of my time studying [Wright] in the architecture library. I had an almost obsessive interest in [him], fostered by my great-uncle. I just loved him.”

Then Whiting went to Idaho for some landscaping projects and fell in love with the state, getting a job in 1977 there after he graduated from college. He began to intently study FLW designs built on an equilateral triangle and was fascinated with the idea of hexagonal space. He learned about Teater’s Knoll after his first permanent weekend in Idaho, and went to check it out.

That’s when Whiting’s life really changed.

The view to the prow of Teater Knoll's studio room, featuring several diagonal lines, which was unusual for Wright, but appropriate for an artist's studio. Furniture by Wright; sculpture by Lynn Fawcett Whiting.

photo by: Scot Zimmerman

The view to the prow of the studio room, featuring several diagonal lines, which was unusual for Wright, but appropriate for an artist's studio. Furniture by Wright; sculpture by Lynn Fawcett Whiting.

The view to the front door of the Archie Teater Studio with a newly enclosed carport. The Snake River is to the left, below a 200-foot cliff.

photo by: Scot Zimmerman

The view to the front door of Teater’s Knoll with a newly enclosed carport. The Snake River is to the left, below a 200-foot cliff.

His first view of the structure showed what looked like an abandoned home, locked up behind a barbed wire and chain link fence. But Whiting was “captivated” and would visit every six months just to look at it, as it continued to deteriorate.

Finally, in 1982, the studio went up for sale, and Whiting made an appointment with the realtor just to finally get a chance to see what was inside. “It was a complete mess,” he recalled. “There was no heat, no electricity. It was pitch black inside. The chairs, designed by FLW, were covered up with white sheets, and they looked like ghosts.”

Whiting didn’t even know who Archie Teater was or what he had painted. But when he saw the boxes and boxes full of FLW memorabilia and documents on the construction of the house, he knew there was no going back. He got his uncle’s blessing, and at 26 years old, purchased Teater’s Knoll with a plan to restore it. He thought there was no better way to learn FLW architecture than with hands-on experience.

Because Bliss is such a remote town, the restoration crew would stay the entire week to work, and go home on weekends. The first big project was replacing all of the windows—over 100 in total. Single-pane glass had contributed to condensation staining some of the building’s wood, which also needed replacing.

Whiting redesigned the kitchen and bathroom to conform with Wright’s equilateral model and added a hexagonal skylight. In a second restoration, he added a guesthouse, replaced the roof, added new insulation, and expanded the carport to add in a larger pantry, freezer, washer and dryer, and other features that would make the house more livable, all keeping within the existing footprint of the building.

Whiting lived in the house part-time until 1994, and then met his wife, a sculptor, who had grown up in a FLW house. The couple moved into the studio full time, and as Whiting says, “it was the perfect place for her to pursue her work,” per the original intent of the building.

Teater’s Knoll was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and is one of the youngest buildings ever to be listed. Whiting has written two books about his restoration work and his piece of preserving FLW’s legacy (Teater’s Knoll: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Idaho Legacy and At Nature’s Edge: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Artist Studio), and the home has been featured in Preservation Idaho’s Idaho Modern “Modern Masters” series.

Today, he continues to find opportunities to maintain the house and update its features, all in line with Wright’s principles.

“People who live in Wright houses always say that every day they see something new,” he says. “That is so true because of the complexity of the design. I think it has something to do with the relationship of the house with nature.”

When new visitors to Teater’s Knoll come through the gate, Whiting says they’re blown away. He knows just how they feel: “Thirty-five years later, the house can still take my breath away.”

Jenna Sauber is a freelance writer and nonprofit communications consultant in Washington, D.C. She blogs about literature, family, and more at jennasauber.com.

@cajunjen

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