Pope-Leighey House Prepares for Frank Lloyd Wright's 150th Birthday
Why don’t you go ahead and put your hand on the floor,” Peter Christensen says to me. “Give it a feel.”
It’s an odd request. But I’m a visitor at Pope-Leighey House, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian house in Alexandria, Virginia, and like any good guest, I do as I’m told. I feel the floor. It’s warm.
“Radiant heat,” says Christensen, a longtime docent at the site. “There’s almost no insulation in this house, but do you feel how wonderfully comfortable it is?”
It is comfortable. Despite the frigid temperatures outside, I slip off my coat and feel tempted to walk around barefoot.
The heated concrete floors are one in a series of surprises I encounter during my visit to Pope-Leighey House, dedicated as a National Trust Historic Site in 1965. There’s also its size. The two-bedroom, one-bath house with a den measures 1,200 square feet, but it seems bigger inside, thanks to Wright’s combination of high ceilings, large expanses of glass, and an open floor plan. Even the kitchen, which only holds one person comfortably, feels airy, with its tall slot window that floods the space with light.
Another surprise is the hidden storage. On the short walk from the front door to the living room, I pass a set of closet doors, and later a wall of cabinets in the small hallway outside the bath. But I don’t notice any of these storage spaces at first. Their hinges are barely visible, and the entryway closets don’t have doorknobs, so they blend in with the walls.
And then there are the screws. First, it should be noted that the entire house is a study in horizontality, with its flat, cantilevered roof, horizontal board-and-batten walls, and built-in bookcases with no vertical support beams. Even the mortar joints in the living room’s brickwork add to the effect: The horizontal joints were raked out and the vertical ones were dyed to match the color of the brick, creating the effect of a wall of horizontal lines. Christensen’s eyes twinkle as he invites me to look at the exposed, slot-headed screws in the walls. Each one was turned to be perfectly horizontal. It’s an absolutely obsessive level of detail, and I am delighted.
“We can never do self-guided tours of this house,” Christensen says. “You could blow through here in five minutes and think you saw everything, and you’d miss most of it. There’s so much going on.”
Today, Pope-Leighey House is one of the finest examples of Wright’s Usonian houses, a series of inexpensive but well-designed residences for middle-income homeowners. It’s the only Wright site open to visitors in the Washington, D.C., area. And thanks to a recent, four-year-long effort to clean and restore the house’s cypress siding, it’s looking better than ever. The timing is good, too: June 8, 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the architect’s birth, so Pope-Leighey House, like most other Wright properties, is gearing up to host a number of celebratory events.
For on-site director Amanda Phillips, the birthday sesquicentennial is a chance to bring new people to the house, which has a tendency to fly under the radar—even among Wright fans.
“People tend to think, ‘Oh, it’s just a small little house. Is it really worth the drive to go see it?’” Phillips says. “But yes, it is! It’s a remarkable house. It’s magical. There’s always something new to learn about it, or something new to see.”
The story of Pope-Leighey House begins with one carefully worded letter. Loren Pope, a 28-year-old copy editor at Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star newspaper, had just purchased a 1.3-acre lot in Falls Church, Virginia, with his wife, Charlotte, and he couldn’t imagine any architect but Frank Lloyd Wright designing their house. On August 18, 1939, he wrote the architect a letter. Aware of both Wright’s popularity as an architect and his colossal ego, Pope laid it on thick:
“Dear Mr. Wright,” he began. “There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life. Material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is for a house created by you.”
He continued: “I feel that you are the great creative force of our time. And if you had never built a building I’d still feel that you are one of the great Americans as a man.”
Pope attached details explaining the lot, including its size and topography, and the position of the trees and the small stream running through it. He described the climate and prevailing winds. He included a list of his and Charlotte’s desires, including a terrace, space for their books and their radio phonograph, and a study. Most importantly, he included his budget: $5,500, or the equivalent of about $86,000 today.
Fifteen days later, Wright responded: “Of course I am ready to give you a house.”
A series of designs followed. Wright made adjustments after his original design went well over the Popes’ budget, and construction finally began on July 18, 1940. The couple moved into their new home in March of 1941.
That Frank Lloyd Wright—the architect behind Fallingwater, a grand house built over a waterfall in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as the soaring Guggenheim Museum in New York—would design a house on such a modest budget might surprise some. Most stories about Wright do not hint at an altruistic streak.
“Oh no, he wasn’t an easy man,” Phillips says during my visit to the house. “He was very complicated.”
Ashley R. Wilson, who as the National Trust’s Graham Gund Architect serves as the architect for the Trust’s 27 Historic Sites, puts it a little more bluntly when I ask her about it a few days later: “As arrogant as he was, he truly believed that anybody and everybody should be able to afford good architecture,” she says. “And he worked to give that to people. He really did care.”
That belief falls at the very heart of Pope-Leighey House and the other Usonian houses Wright designed. He achieved their lower cost by using locally sourced materials when possible, and by reducing the footprint without sacrificing comfort. To make the houses feel bigger, he used high ceilings, open floorplans, compressed corridors, and efficient storage space. Instead of garages, he opted for less-expensive carports. And he designed custom furniture at a slightly smaller scale so that rooms appear larger. Even the radiant heating system frees up a small amount of extra space by removing the bulk of a radiator.
“The real genius of Wright comes from understanding his mastery of creating interesting, functional, comfortable spaces,” Christensen says.
And the Popes felt immediately at home in their new space. But their time there was short. Exhausted by the grind of the newspaper business, Loren Pope sought a career change, and both he and Charlotte were seduced by the idea of living on a farm. Just five years after moving into the house, they listed it for sale.
By then, word had traveled about the Falls Church property, and the newspaper ad led to a flood of inquiries to the couple’s real estate agent. Most people who called were just trying to sneak a glimpse of the fabled house. So when Robert and Marjorie Leighey called to inquire about it, they had to prove they were serious buyers. They viewed the property that evening, and three months later, in February of 1947, they moved in.
Robert, a patent examiner for the United States Commerce Department, and Marjorie, who later did extensive missionary work in Japan, enjoyed living in the house for years. Then came a serious blow: In 1960, Virginia’s Department of Highways began planning for an extension of Interstate 66, which would cut through Falls Church. More specifically, it would cut through the living room of their house.
The couple fought the plans, drawing the support of a number of arts, architecture, and preservation groups, as well as Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Loren Pope wrote a passionate letter to The Washington Post in protest. And in 1964, the National Trust for Historic Preservation became involved in the fight, as well. “[The house] was only 23 years old,” Wilson says. “But they recognized it was important.”
Despite these efforts, the highway expansion carried on. Marjorie Leighey received a formal notice to vacate the property in September of 1963, just two months after her husband died. Soon it became clear that the only way to save the house would be to physically move it. Several new locations were considered, but one stood out above the rest: the 126-acre estate of Woodlawn, a National Trust Historic Site in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. The property, with its flat topography and thickets of trees, closely resembled the land around Pope-Leighey’s Falls Church location, and National Trust personnel would already be on hand to care for and maintain the house.
On July 30, 1964, Marjorie Leighey formally transferred the house to the National Trust, retaining the right to live there for the rest of her life. Shortly thereafter, it was taken apart piece by piece, stacked onto a flatbed truck, and transported 13 miles to Woodlawn, where it was reassembled. It was dedicated on June 16, 1965.
But that wasn’t to be the house’s final site. After cracks appeared in the concrete floor and the roof developed leaks, a series of structural analyses and studies in the late 1980s and early ’90s indicated that the clay soil it was placed on during the 1965 relocation was unstable. Further, some of the roof drainage systems had been incorrectly installed during the house’s reassembly. In 1996, it was once again disassembled, moved, and reassembled, this time just 30 feet upslope from its second location.
The third time has proven to be the charm. Today Pope-Leighey House looks much as it did when the Popes moved in 76 years ago, despite the fact that not all of its original materials remain. The slab foundation and colored concrete topping slab were replaced during the relocations. And because the original mortar made it difficult to detach and reuse the bricks, new bricks and mortar were used to recreate the original brick walls, hearth, steps, and planters.
“It’s been jimmied with a lot, but I think that’s part of its preservation story,” says Wilson.
Still, the exterior wood—tidewater red cypress that Wright chose for its durability, density, consistent color, and termite-resistant oils—is almost all original. It looks brand new, thanks to a recent conservation effort.
The wood conservation project started in 2011, when Jablonski Building Conservation completed a building assessment and treatment report. (That work was funded by a grant from the federal Save America’s Treasures program.) Years of deferred maintenance had left the wood looking worn and dull. Dirt, dust, and debris were caked on its surface, and its raised grain suggested past pressure-washing treatments.
But no one knew for sure the best way to clean and maintain the cypress. Wright didn’t leave specific instructions. And there was minimal documentation at other Wright sites to use as a guide. So following the building assessment, the National Trust began an investigation. Wilson and Audra Medve, who at the time was the preservation manager at Pope-Leighey, enlisted architectural conservators Pamela Kirschner and Andrew Fearon, along with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, to help. They studied letters, photos, and other documentary sources to better understand the house’s materials. Kirschner conducted an in-depth comparison of products that could be used to clean and protect the wood, testing 10 different treatments and rating them for qualities such as longevity, saturation, and historical accuracy.
In the meantime, Oak Grove Restoration, based in Laytonsville, Maryland, inserted Dutchmen (narrow wood slivers) into gaps where the wood was cracked or damaged, which helped to stabilize the siding.
Using the results of her testing, Kirschner created an affordable three-step process for cleaning and protecting the wood: First, spray the siding with D/2 Biological Solution, a biodegradable liquid that cleans the wood and removes mold, algae, and other biological growth. (“This is preservation dream stuff,” Wilson says, citing its environmentally friendly ingredients and its ability to clean and remove stains.) Then apply Bora-Care, a biological deterrent with an active ingredient of borate salts, which keeps wood-destroying organisms such as termites, carpenter ants, and fungi at bay. Finally, brush on TWP 1530, a water-repellent preservative that protects wood from mildew, UV damage, and general weathering, while also aiding in color retention.
With this plan of attack, timing was everything. Once the wood was cleaned, it couldn’t be left exposed, so all the work had to be completed within 60 days. For the finish to be effectively applied, the temperature had to be between 50 and 90 degrees, meaning this work couldn’t be done in the middle of summer or winter. Plus, the wood moisture content had to be below 11 percent between treatments, meaning there would be a wait time between coatings of the finish. This was not a one- or two-person job. So Wilson called upon National Trust staff and interns, plus students from the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Preservation. More than a dozen volunteers showed up.
“People love Pope-Leighey House,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t hard to get excited volunteers out there to help.”
The work was completed by the summer of 2015, and it cost the National Trust a grand total of $13,000, thanks to the volunteer labor and a $10,000 donation to Woodlawn from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. The hope now, Wilson says, is that her team’s research can be replicated at other Frank Lloyd Wright sites with wood siding.
“This is such an easy, preservation-friendly, economical solution,” she says. “And honestly, anybody with a wood house can use these same products and these same steps.”
With its cypress siding looking as good as new, Pope-Leighey House stands ready for the upcoming Frank Lloyd Wright sesquicentennial celebrations. Amanda Phillips and her team, including volunteer docents such as Peter Christensen, are gearing up for new in-depth architectural tours of the house, as well as Twilight Wine and Cheese tours starting in May. And on June 8, Wright’s actual day of birth, there will be a big picnic at the site.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was obsessed with picnics,” Phillips says. “Who knew?”
As it turns out, being one of Wright’s apprentices (or “fellows,” as he called them) meant attending mandatory weekly picnics. He would pick the location, and the fellows would bring food. Then he would have a captive audience to listen to his thoughts and ideas.
As we sit in the living room talking about Wright’s work style and the upcoming events, I encounter yet another one of his surprises: As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows created by the cutout pattern in the clerestory windows move down the walls and across the floors, the geometric figures gliding across the space as if in a carefully choreographed dance.
“It’s a little animated light show,” Christensen says, as he switches on a lamp. I sit back, feeling completely at home, and I enjoy the performance.