Arlington museum explores Frank Lloyd Wright's design for a middle-class home

In 1948, newlyweds John and Catherine "Kay" Christian had a vision for their dream house. The professor of bio-nucleonic research and pharmaceutical chemistry at Purdue University and his wife wanted a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Their budget was $22,000.

The story of their first contact with the world-famous architect through the building process to finalization is told in over 55 objects, including furnishings, drawings, videos, photographs, letters and books on display at the Arlington Museum of Art through Feb. 17.

It seems impossible that such a meager amount of money, the price of an economy automobile in today's dollars, could interest the mercurial architect who was then in his 80s. But in the last years of his life, Wright, who died in 1959, had turned his attentions to the needs of the middle class by designing a series of houses he called Usonian homes. They were modest in size, always one-story, with low horizontal orientations that nestled into their settings. They were miniatures of his much grander prairie-style houses which had brought him international acclaim. The Usonians had few interior walls, large banks of floor-to-ceiling windows and a seamless integration with outdoor living areas. The spacious living and dining rooms were separated from the small wing of bedrooms by the kitchen. Wright saved money by deleting garages, attics and basements. His walls for both the exterior and interior were sandwiches of stone or brick over an interior layer of insulation, so there was no need for paint or wallpaper.

Wright viewed the design of affordable housing a challenge worthy of his time.

In his 1943 autobiography he wrote, "The house of moderate cost is not only America's major architectural problem but the problem most difficult for her major architects. As for me, I would rather solve it with satisfaction to myself and Usonia, than building anything I can think of at the moment." Wright adopted the term "Usonia" (originally coined in 1903 by James Duff Law as an acronym for United States of North America, to distinguish it from the other Americas) for his economical home designs in part because it suggested "utopia."

The Christians visited several Usonian houses and contacted Wright in 1950. A series of letters were exchanged including Kay's 28-page treatise What We Need for How We Live, a detailed outline of their desires for their home, and an exacting list of their household goods. She included their hobbies (his: gardening, hers: collecting) and ideas, and their tastes. "We're conservative people yet we like things somewhat unusual but not to the extent of being extreme."

She listed all her storage needs. These included but were not limited to china, crystal, two dozen demitasse cups and saucers, lace tablecloths, bridge sets, doilies set, napkins and table pads for the dining room, and bedroom drawers for lingerie, belts, scarves, hankies, gloves and jewelry. She listed every single thing they owned that might need to be accommodated in general storage, as well as the functionality demands of the kitchen, utility room, outside areas and a basement that had so many multi-purpose rooms that it might have well been another house. She included charts for the average temperature extremes for their building site in West Lafayette, Ind., and a list of the 35 trees on their one-acre property including species, heights and diameters.

In 1954, Wright turned in his first set of drawings. There was no basement or formal living room for which the Christians had asked, and he estimated the design and construction budget for the 2,200-square-foot house at no more than $35,000. The Christians agreed to the cost, but advised Wright that the interior furnishings, also designed by him, would have to be bought as their income allowed.

On Jan. 1, 1955, the Christians received Wright's final drawings. Two days later, Wright received a letter from John questioning the need for such a large living room.

Wright replied via telegram. "Sorry you feel living room too large never yet have seen one too large if anything yours is too small." That ended the discussion and construction began in April. The Christians moved into Samara, named for the swirling seed pods of pine trees, in September 1956. John still lives in the house. Kay died in 1986.

Wright's terse telegram on yellowed Western Union paper is on display in the museum; so is Kay's book of needs and desires. Many of John's letters, Wright's drawings, and pieces of custom-designed furniture and decoration using the graphic seed pod created by Wright are also included. But the interest in this exhibit lies in the fine print found in the letters, books and drawings. This is a reading exhibit. To satisfy contemporary exhibit expectations, there are interactive displays and videos, including an interview with Wright by an aggressively hostile Mike Wallace.

The exhibit, "Frank Lloyd Wright's Samara: A Mid-Century Dream Home," will be of great interest to fans of the egomaniacal yet truly gifted architect, and lovers of midcentury architectural design will appreciate Wright's jewel box of house, with all of the integrated details and furnishings. However, the exhibit lacks visual punch and the displays have a disturbing randomness. The first item the visitor encounters is Wright's detailed drawing for the interior cabinetry, not a large photograph of the house or even Wright's elevation drawings. This is indicative of the entire exhibit, which was curated by Scott W. Perkins, curator of collections and exhibitions at Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Okla., home of Wright's only skyscraper. The installation is scattershot and only those people who have already been won over by Wright or his Usonian vision will appreciate the effort. Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @gailerobinson