Two Wrights don't make a Wrong
21 November 2001
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Hi all,

The answer to last week’s quiz was Loren Shriver – not a household name, I’ll admit, but he is the only astronaut whose hand I have shaken so that increases his claim to fame at least in my eyes. Robert’s record still holds as quiz champ, although Philip got bonus points this week for noting that one of the “Easy Quiz” items was wrong. Thank you, Philip. Chinese gooseberries do indeed originate from China and not New Zealand, so all please adjust your scores. This also led me to investigate another claim made by the Kiwis – that they were the creators of the Pavlova. “She has far too much time on her hands”, I hear you mutter. Well, you’re quite right. My work permit finally came through some weeks ago, but so far I am still having to create my own diversions. I am no longer an illegal alien, just unemployed – doesn’t quite have the same romantic ring, does it! Nevertheless, I feel that my national pride is at stake on the question of our beloved dessert, and I am sure that there is someone out there who has finished all their exams and/or their marking and/or their work for the year, who will have the time and energy to sort out the issue of the origins of the Pavlova. It’s not so much a quiz item as a challenge.

Our exploration of Indiana continued with the aeronautical theme last weekend, as I had spotted a little place in the East which was listed as the birthplace of Wilbur Wright, and decided the museum there might be worth a visit. On Saturday morning, the weather was fine but foggy as we headed out through the football traffic across some hitherto unexplored roads. Along the way, we stopped at a little cheese shop, whose second specialty was taxidermy (interesting combination!), a garage sale to buy some more Christmas decorations (garage sales have been my major cheap source of these necessary supplies, which I will dispose of at my own garage sale next year), and the best treat of all – Pendleton, a town which was celebrating its Christmas craft festival.

There were shop after shop brimming with marvellous trinkets and items with which to decorate for Christmas. I have not bought many of these delights as I have to think about getting everything back home again, but I do not tire of wandering through these Aladdin’s caves of treasures. Peter doesn’t have the same stamina for this particular form of adventure and his enthusiasm wanes considerably after the first 5 or 6 shops. Personally, I could spend all day there (and many dollars!). I did buy a cardinal bird tree ornament and found some fabric at the quilting shop which also featured these beautiful red birds. I plan to make an Indiana wall hanging with the cardinal (the state bird emblem) as the centre piece. Peter dragged me kicking and screaming to the car and we got back on the “Wright” track for our day’s activities.

As we neared the town, many signs were posted directing us to our destination. We finally arrived to read the sign on the door indicating that the museum was open only between the months of April and October (missed it by thaaat much!). We explored and investigated as much as we could by pressing our faces against the windows and doors of the museum, and took a photo of the simple cottage which presumably was Wilbur’s birthplace. The family must have moved before Orville came along, but I really don’t know much more about the story.

We weren’t too disappointed. I had already had enough fun in the shops at Pendleton, and we had seen a different part of the state. We drove up to Muncie and visited the Ball State University campus and Minnetrista Cultural Centre and wandered through the Gardens. There were a number of grand residences and we were very excited by our first sighting of a real live pair of cardinal birds in the gardens, so we counted the day a great success and headed back for home.

Many weeks ago, we spotted an article in the local paper about a house in West Lafayette which had been designed and built by the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (maybe Wilbur’s cousin? If I had gotten into the museum I might be able to tell you). The article talked about a display from the house in the Lafayette Art Museum and a number of tours of the house which were being organised this month. I booked two tickets for us, and when I got the map I was amazed to learn that I had driven past this house many times each day and had not even been aware of its existence. It is hidden from view on the main road beside Purdue by thick evergreen landscaping. Last night was the long awaited date for our visit, and we met with other visitors at the entrance.

John Christian (a former professor at Purdue) is one of only 6 people still living in the homes they commissioned FLW to build for them, and the visit to his home was the greatest highlight of all the wonderful things I have seen so far on this trip. John welcomed us at the door, asked our names and noting our accents asked where we were from, hung our coats, and directed us into his wonderful living room – the focal point of the home. Each guest was similarly greeted and seated – about forty of us, and there was room for more. John then spoke about how he and his wife, young and poor newlyweds, managed to get the world’s most famous and arguably the best architect to build them a home.

In 1950, FLW was 83 and renowned. John and his wife, Catherine, had seen other examples of Wright’s homes and were determined that they wanted something special and different and they wanted FLW to design it. By sheer chance, Wright answered the phone when John boldly called his office. Had one of the secretaries or apprentices answered, John would have been told there was no chance, as Wright was busy on many more substantial projects at the time. But, for some reason (maybe the sincere enthusiasm of the young couple), the great architect agreed to build them a home. John spoke of his meetings with Wright and the “twinkle” in the old man’s eye which is evident also in his work. The house was finally completed in 1956, and John said that they were pleased with the delay as it gave them time to save more money.

The house is one of Wright’s “Usonian” designs which were typically low and flat, and designed to be “affordable”. Although the house is priceless today and is listed on the register of historic landmarks in Indiana, John and Catherine were only able to build the basic structure initially, and have added to it as they were able. They made an agreement with Wright that they would do this and hundreds of detailed drawings were provided as designs for not only the house, but also the furniture (indoor and out), the furnishings, appliances, light fittings, ornaments, even crockery, cutlery, and bed linen. Almost every piece in the house was designed by FLW. The house has never been renovated, any additions have been faithful to the original vision of the architect. As a result, the house has a sense of harmony and cohesion which is a delight to the spirit. It truly is a work of art. I found myself wondering as John spoke with such passion, warmth, and enthusiasm about his home, what it would be like to live in a place like that. I know the pressure of owning a piece of fine art (my chook plate, Bev!), but to actually live in a piece of art would be an extraordinary experience.

But the house has been a home in every sense of the word, and was very comfortable to sit in and listen to its story. By the time the house was built, John and Catherine had a daughter and the family lived and entertained there, inviting many of their students and friends to share their home. Catherine died in 1986, and John, now in his 80s, lives alone in the house (apart from the 3000 odd visitors who came through last year). With his daughter he has set up a trust to continue the sort of educational program that he runs now (with the help of many trained historical interpreters), and to ensure the preservation of the house in its pristine condition. It is like a time capsule, and it is a great tribute to the designer and the owners that it remains completely functional, and in many ways is even modern today. I was keen to see the kitchen which is probably the room that has seen most changes since the fifties. All the original appliances are still there, spotless and in good working order. They have added a microwave and it sits awkwardly on the bench. It was the only thing FLW hadn’t anticipated. The Christians had no TV in the 1950s – they were a rare and expensive novelty in those days – but Wright assured them that they would want at least three of them in time, and designed a cabinet in the living room where this architecturally unattractive item could be concealed when not in use.

I was deeply moved by this extraordinary opportunity to share this special part of history. The house, called Samara, which means “winged seeds”, is only going to become more significant and more interesting as time goes by. I felt very privileged to be able to share it with the man whose vision and life it had been. A special night indeed! If you want to find out more about the house, visit the website at http://www.dcwi.com/~samara/home.htm

Nick, we will be able to take you to see the exhibition at the gallery, but unfortunately there will be no more home visits until next spring.

Tomorrow we celebrate our first Thanksgiving and I have been thinking about all the things I have to be thankful for. That includes all of you lovely people and some others who remain digitally homeless but nevertheless abide deep in my heart. Thank you all for your love and friendship and support. I was thinking about how helpful people were when we were packing etc., when I heard this gem on the radio:
“A friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body!”
I know I can rely on you guys. Thank you.

Lots of love
Majella

Last updated: March 30, 2002
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