Storming the Castle: Touring the David Wright House, One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spiral Designs

The David Wright House in the bucolically named Phoenix suburb of Arcadia was dubbed “a modern castle in the air” when Frank Lloyd Wright finished the circular home in 1952 for his son and daughter-in-law. Moreover, the home’s preservation comes with a backstory that might be dismissed as apocryphal —if it weren’t so amazingly true.

Back in midcentury Phoenix, the elder Wright designed the home on 10 acres in the middle of citrus groves at the base of Camelback Mountain. The singular design, constructed from standard concrete block, rises up in a spiral from the desert floor to provide 360° views of the mountains that shape the valley. The David Wright House is one of Wright’s three spiral designs and the precursor to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

David and his wife Gladys lived there until their deaths, leaving it to granddaughters who then sold the iconic home to a buyer who promised to fix it up. He didn’t. The house was then sold to a developer, who sent a bulldozer to raise the property. Then, a miracle happened. The driver of the bulldozer pulled up to the house, sat for a long a while in amazement at its structure, and thought to himself, “Something’s not right. This isn’t a house that should be destroyed.”

Today, due to the driver’s instincts and the valiant efforts of Modern Phoenix, hundreds of supporters, the David and Gladys Wright House Foundation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, and a buyer whose family wanted to help preservationists retain the house, the home regarded as Frank Lloyd Wright’s last residential masterpiece still stands. The house is currently closed to the public. But in early April, a busload of midcentury architecture enthusiasts were treated to a tour and refreshments in the central courtyard during Modern Phoenix Week 2017, presented in conjunction with the Docomomo US National Symposium on Modernism and Climate.

According to our tour guides, Wright used concrete block for the house “as metaphor for a common material representing American democracy, elevated to high culture.” The house gradually lifts off the ground—we accessed it by walking up a ramp offering evolving, cinematic views of the mountains—circling around a central courtyard or “oasis” that originally included a swimming pool. The spiral was a metaphor for growth, according to our guides. It also provided plentiful opportunities for views and breezes.

On the upper main level the entry winds into a kitchen, then dining and living rooms, then two bedrooms and baths, concluding with a cantilevered master bedroom. As is common in Wright’s architecture, built-ins are plentiful and provide storage. A balcony off the living space looks northeast across the courtyard. Mahogany ceiling boards overlap in a circular pattern following the shape of the house. Fireplaces deploy concrete block in courses, again repeating the circular theme.

In a 1955 article in House Beautiful, the writer noted that, “the aim was to get up off the hot, dusty, desert floor, but not to separate the house from it…. The solution was to spiral slowly upward from a solid base on the ground.” Coiled like a rattlesnake, as a New York Times writer described, the David Wright House exemplifies Frank Lloyd Wright’s determination to innovate structures that embrace and reflect their sites.

Touring the house was revelatory and unforgettable. Enjoy a virtual tour here. For more on the efforts to preserve the David Wright House, read the New York Times’ articles here and here. The house is open on other special occasions, such as for educational programs, exhibitions, lectures, research, events, and performances.

 

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text and photos by Camille LeFevre

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