A Wright Renaissance
Frank Lloyd Wright pioneered several principles of Southwestern architecture in an Arizona home he designed in 1950 for his son David. More than 60 years later, a mother and son are leading an effort to restore its glory and preserve its heritage.
When Zach Rawling was just a tyke, barely in elementary school, his mother loved taking him on bicycle rides, leading two-wheeled tours past what she considered to be the best historical properties in metro Phoenix.
When it came to architecture, Katharine Rawling was no dilettante — the North Carolina native had studied the field beginning in high school and extensively researched the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture school at Arizona State University after she and her husband, John, moved to Scottsdale in the early 1970s.
Shortly after Zach was born, the Rawlings purchased a home about a mile and a half from one of Wright’s final residential projects, a 2,500-square-foot home the architect designed in 1950 for his son and daughter-in-law, David and Gladys Wright. The home’s occupants referred to it as their “own Taj Mahal,” but Frank Lloyd Wright, ever the showman even at age 84, bestowed upon the house an even more ambitious moniker: “How to Live in the Southwest.”
Wright loved to choreograph the views to his properties, and the original approach to the house would have been especially cinematic: Guests drove through acres of orange groves before entering a clearing with a spectacular vista that highlighted the full sweep of Camelback Mountain, which looms just a few blocks northwest.
The next sight to come into view would be the home itself, a literal coil of concrete block that begins with a spiral ramp that guests ascend on their way to the front door. Raising the house a dozen feet above the dusty Sonoran Desert floor maximizes cross-breeze ventilation to help keep the interior comfortable eight months out of the year. (For the remaining four, Wright was kind enough to include air conditioning, which only recently had become readily available for residential use.)
The architect’s Usonian principles championed the use of readily available construction materials — items that any American could pick up at the hardware store — and sturdy, insulated concrete block, then a relatively new building material, was particularly well-suited for the Southwest. David Wright was an executive for the company that created the Vibrapac press, used to form said blocks, and also acted as the contractor for the construction of his home, following his father’s blueprints.
The house was designed at the same time Frank Lloyd Wright was working on plans for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, another famously spiral creation. “The David Wright House let Frank explore the complex geometry of a radial grid,” says Victor Sidy, head and dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture from 2005 to 2015. “In some ways, it serves as a maquette.”
There is one major difference: While the Guggenheim is always focused inward, at every point the Wright House directs its occupants to gaze outward — it was specifically sited along a direct line between Camelback Mountain and the Papago Buttes that jut up a few miles to the southeast, for example, and the home’s elevation and radial grid afforded an enviable, 360-degree view of the 10 acres of surrounding grounds — a “lawn” of leafy citrus treetops.
David and Gladys Wright lived in the house until their deaths (at ages 102 and 104, respectively), and during that half-century the grounds morphed into something more hidden, less spectacular. The couple subdivided the acreage, selling nearly half to developers who constructed more traditional homes atop what used to be the estate’s grand entrance. On what remained, vegetation crept and spread to obfuscate some of the home’s defining elements. Trees that had been planted to afford privacy from the traffic on new nearby streets also grew to obstruct the once-enviable sightlines, and the bougainvillea that had once been only a courtyard accent sprawled intrusively in front of the showcase entry spiral.
“As that growth occurred, the whole house became inward-looking,” Rawling says. “All views were essentially closed off.”
The property was first put on the market in 2009, and was about to be purchased by a developer that had announced plans to demolish the home and build luxury homes on the site. Preservationists were outraged, but the house would be destroyed unless someone stepped in to save it.
Rawling, then a successful custom home builder in Las Vegas, was told about the Wright House’s plight from a colleague and immediately sprang into action. “All these years we’d never been inside the house, and only seen it from the street,” he recalls. “But 36 hours after I heard about it, we were walking through the courtyard for the first time.”
His mother was immediately enchanted, inspecting every nook during the tour of the fully intact interior, opening every closet door. “I could tell there was no way she’d not want to take on the project,” says Rawling, who purchased the property in 2012 and moved back to Phoenix so he and his mother could oversee restoration of the house and grounds, directed by Wright historians and preservation architects such as Sidy. Katharine hopes to see the property used as a nonprofit philanthropic educational and cultural facility with significant programming aimed at children — “the age I was when I first saw the building,” Zach Rawling says.
If successful, the effort would be a fitting epilogue to the story of a home built through a two-year collaboration between father and son, with the hallmarks and trademarks of postwar optimism in the American West. “It’s a nice moment in history to preserve,” Rawling says.