June 7, 2017

The Unorthodox Fight to Save a Frank Lloyd Wright Home

Pope Leighey House in Falls Church. Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Pope-Leighey house in its original location in Falls Church, Virginia.

When asked in 1969 what it was like to live in her Usonian home, Marjorie Leighey's response could be interpreted as unexpectedly sentimental: “In a sense, living there was a response to the feeling of the house. That it could have feelings, as well as a feeling, arises from its real union of the outdoors with the inside.”

She went on to describe the house as small yet large, complex but simple, and proud but humble. It was this appreciation for the subtle intricacy of the Frank Lloyd Wright property that compelled Marjorie and Robert Leighey to purchase it from the first owners, Loren and Charlotte Pope, two weeks after the for-sale ad appeared in the papers at the end of 1946.

By the time Mrs. Leighey put to paper the impact the house had on her for the 1969 special issue of the National Trust's magazine, much of her life had been spent coiled around the house. It seems almost incongruous that she was not there when Wright designed the house in 1939, but it was his creation for the Popes, who believed they would spend the rest of their lives in it. While the Popes moved out after just five years, they could not have chosen a more perfect couple than the Leigheys as its protectors, though they did not know it at the time.

Mrs. Leighey admitted that when she first moved into the house, she felt angry that its architect essentially dictated how she was to live her life—an absence of oversized furniture and a necessary scaling down of possessions needed to go hand-in-hand with the house's Usonian design. The house soon won her over, however. Its beauty, specifically, captured the Leigheys’ attention so wholly that she and her husband didn’t want to live anywhere else.

Mrs. Leighey noted that living in the house was an exercise in “grace and humor,” as she, her husband, and guests adapted to the way of life the house prescribed. Living in the house also required humility as she learned to accept that quite often, people visited her on pretense—the house was their main object.

A view of the small dining table inside the house.

photo by: Lincoln Barbour

The main living space included furniture designed by Wright, including this dining table and chairs.

The 1,200-square-foot house encouraged the creativity of the Leigheys. For dinner parties, Mrs. Leighey would serve salad from a large bowl on the table as a separate course, rather than in the narrow kitchen. They built a shed outside for items that could not fit in the house. Despite a forced change in habits, she appreciated that living in the house offered “a quiet pleasure and thankfulness for being surrounded by something so admirable to look upon.”

In 1961, after 15 years living in the house, the Leighey’s contented life became uncertain as they learned of rumors surrounding the future construction of Interstate 66 that would impact their house. The threat was placed on the backburner, though, as Robert Leighey battled an illness that eventually took his life.

In 1963, two months after Robert died, Marjorie could ignore the threat no longer. She was officially notified by Virginia's Department of Highways that the interstate was slated to be paved through her living room. The house was in the way.

If one can imagine grieving the recent loss of a husband, and then the fear of losing the house they both loved and a sudden uncertainty of the future, you can see a small window into how Marjorie Leighey felt that turbulent year.

Yet she pressed on. Having accepted that the highway would indeed be built, she reached out to the National Trust and the Department of the Interior to help. After months of meetings between bureaucrats, local grassroots efforts, and the writing of many letters (and public editorials with tongue-in-cheek headlines like "Wronging a Wright" that perhaps diluted the nature of the threat), a decision was ready to be made.

On a Saturday in late March 1964, Mrs. Leighey met with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, members of highway departments in both Virginia and at the federal level, and officials from the National Park Service and the National Trust to determine her house's fate.

Transportation officials were adamant that the highway could not be routed around her home. Mrs. Leighey was adamant it could not be demolished. It must have been a rather tense meeting, made all the more so by where the meeting occurred—inside the very house that teetered on the chopping block.

In the end, however, everyone agreed that the house must be moved. Mrs. Leighey gave her approval. One month later, the National Trust was appointed as the best option to save the house, a 23-year-old piece of architecture that was already renowned across the country.

After fighting for so long to ensure the survival of her home, Mrs. Leighey moved to Kyoto, Japan, to become an Episcopal missionary in September 1964, and did not witness the dismantling, move, and reconstruction of her house 13 miles away from Falls Church to Alexandria.

Pope Leighey House re-roofing in 1996. Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Reconstructing the roof at the house's final resting spot at Woodlawn in 1996.

When this battle to save the house occurred, there was no National Historic Preservation Act or Transportation Act—these would come two years after Pope-Leighey moved to Woodlawn, another historic site of the National Trust. It’s highly likely that had they been established, the house may still be resting on its original location, since both of these pieces of legislature established the means to protect significant historic properties across the country. (The Transportation Act dealt specifically with historic properties that were in the way of federal highway proposals.)

Moving a historic property is one of the least favorable options to preservationists, because the land it’s sited on is often integral to the interpretation and significance of the historic structure. Removing the structure may save it from destruction, but it is read quite differently, and there is a risk of losing what made it significant in the first place.

The Pope-Leighey house, however, is an unusual case. Not only was it moved and reassembled, but it was also just 23 years old at the time—hardly the 50 years that designates a building as historic. Just seven years later, the house was listed on the National Register. At a time when historic preservation was more of a noble idea than a defined practice, the tale of the Pope-Leighey house established an unorthodox example that underscored the many reasons historic architecture is preserved today.

Mrs. Leighey moved back to the country and to her home in 1969. She continued to live in it until her death, and welcomed the many visitors who came to see not only the house, but the woman who saved it.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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