Author Q&A with Jeffrey M. Chusid: Saving Wright

By Steve Kroeter August 14, 2012

Jeffrey M. Chusid

Preservation architect and historic preservation professor Jeffrey M. Chusid: Cornell University (Ithaca, New York)


Preservation architect Jeffrey M. Chusid talks about his book Saving Wright: The Freeman House and the Preservation of Meaning, Materials, and Modernity (W. W. Norton, December 2011), which chronicles the efforts to preserve the Freeman House—an experimental house in the Hollywood Hills designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924—and the “the symphonic blast of excitement” the author experienced actually living in the house. The University of Mary Washington Center for Historic Preservation awarded Saving Wright the 2012 Historic Preservation Book Prize.

Buy the book

Designers & Books: How did you come to live in Wright’s Freeman House and how long did you end up staying?

The Freeman House and the Preservation of Meaning, Materials, and Modernity (2011), W. W. Norton

Jeffrey M. Chusid: Harriet Freeman had given her house (which she had commissioned from Wright, with her husband, Samuel) to the University of Southern California School of Architecture in 1984 in a living trust, with the right to reside there until her death. The next year, she was seeking a tenant for the apartment under the garage created by Rudolph Schindler, circa 1932, and called the dean of the School, Robert Harris, to ask him if he knew any potential candidates. I was teaching a summer course in architecture for high school students at USC, having recently joined the faculty at the School of Architecture, and happened to be the only faculty member around that Saturday morning when he got the call. He came out of his office, saw me, and asked if I knew anyone who might be interested. I replied, “Me!” A few weeks later, I was living at the house. I stayed until 1997, a period of 13 years.

D&B: You were well acquainted with Harriet Freeman and she lived in the house for over 60 years. What’s your assessment of the impact the it had on her life?

JMC: Certainly, the house had an impact, although it is perhaps easier initially to see the impact she had on the house since through the years it was increasingly transformed by various architects to accommodate her interests and her guests, who came for events and as long-term tenants of the two apartments. But the house also gave her a place, a home both physical and aesthetic, from which she could exert her influence over the avant-garde culture of Los Angeles, which she and her husband cultivated. She viewed the house as an extension of her personality, and relished its individuality and its notoriety. She and the house were a team, along with the Schindler furnishings, when the house was a salon showcasing modern dance.

Harriet Freeman in the east window seat of the living room, c. 1925, in front of a screen formed from a panel of perforated blocks. Photo: University of Southern California Freeman House Archive

D&B: Wright is known for having had colorful relationships with his clients. Did Harriet Freeman fall into this category? Are there any particularly telling Frank Lloyd Wright tales that she related to you but that didn’t make it into the book?

JMC: Harriet didn’t talk as much about the early days of the house with me as she did with others such as Kathryn Smith. She had limited encounters with Wright, though many more with his son, Lloyd, who built the house and whom she hated, and the most with Rudolph Schindler, who served as the family architect for over a quarter century. Her memories of Wright senior had more to do with the cost of construction, and what he said he would contribute financially to the project, which is detailed in the book.

D&B: You identify inherent flaws in the design and construction of the house that you say threatened its existence and made the preservation efforts particularly challenging. What were the most serious of those?

JMC: Wright’s construction method used the textile block, and as an integrated system of blocks, mortar, and reinforcing steel rods, it was meant to be as ubiquitous as possible. That meant that little errors were magnified by the scope of their use in the house, and that individual repairs were very difficult in the continuous building fabric. In addition, construction was horrendously tricky, and many unfortunate shortcuts were taken.

Freeman House, c. 1928, exterior from the southeast. Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Particularly problematic were the inconsistencies in the composition and durability of the blocks due to their manufacture on site by different workers under difficult circumstances; the fact that the design actually required some 70 different types of block, many more than were anticipated, and they did not always fit together; and the difficulty encountered trying to fill the channels in the perimeter of the blocks with mortar during erection, leaving the reinforcing steel frequently unprotected. But all the “flaws” were consequential, either requiring more time and effort during construction, or leading to damage later.

Living room of the Freeman House, 1925. Photo: University of Southern California Freeman House Archive

D&B: Other Wright houses in Los Angeles utilized that same construction method. How similar or dissimilar have the Freeman House preservation issues been compared to those of the other LA area textile block houses?

JMC: The Millard House, La Miniatura, uses a slightly different construction system, but it and the Ennis House still share many problems with the Freeman House. One difference between Freeman and the Storer and Ennis Houses is that the former uses a mitered block at the corners, while the others use an L- or U-shaped block. These are more difficult to make, but result in greater durability. The Storer House is in far better condition than the others. For one thing, it has more sheltering roofs, which provide a significant degree of protection for the blocks. Its construction did not require the degree of site work, or the number of retaining walls found at the Freeman and Ennis Houses. Storer was also the subject of two different substantial renovation projects under the direction of Eric Wright years ago, which arrested and/or corrected potential problems.

Construction documentation drawings, showing with alterations over time from 1925 to 1989, noted in red. Drawing annotations: Jeffrey M. Chusid and Adam Smith

D&B: The relevance of the book for architectural historians and preservation students is clear. Who else would you like to reach and what would you like the overall impact of your book to be?

JMC: So far, I have heard some of the most enthusiastic comments from people for whom both the history of modern architecture and historic preservation are foreign territory. Because historic cultural resources are owned by communities with diverse interests and agendas, I am quite pleased that the significance and drama of the Freeman House story comes across to a broad audience. Otherwise, what I was trying to convey was just how much preservation is a synthetic art, incorporating social and cultural history, technology, aesthetics, and economics, among other things. And that the exciting political debate over meaning is central to what we do. I wanted to acknowledge the importance of Wright and his creation, but also to put both the house’s design and its preservation into a more complex context than we normally encounter in our case studies.

D&B: Is there any book that had an influence on you as you were writing yours? Did any preservation or Wright-related books serve as a model or inspiration to you?

JMC: There are many wonderful scholars in the field of Wright studies, and I have tried to give due credit to them in my preface. I was particularly indebted to Wright in Hollywood by Robert Sweeney, and Frank Lloyd Wright, The Lost Years 1910–1922 by Anthony Alofsin. In some ways the book that most closely models the kind of history I was trying to tell, interweaving various design, cultural, and technological narratives, is Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King.

D&B: You utilized a somewhat unusual structure for the book. The even-numbered chapters “tell the story of the Freeman House from original vision through the structural rehabilitation project of 2001.“ The odd-numbered chapters “examine theoretical issues, interpretation, preservation practice, and conservation implications.” What led you to use this approach?

JMC: Of course, I was convinced that this was a book that could and should be purchased, read, and enjoyed by everyone. However, publishers and others who read various versions of my manuscript kept asking, “Who is your audience?” I realized that some would be coming to the book because of Frank Lloyd Wright, some because of the history of Southern California modernism, while others would be interested in the technicalities of a preservation project. I wanted people to feel that they would be comfortable with the book no matter their background or interests, and that they could shape their interaction with the book in a way that best served them.

D&B: What impact did the process of writing the book have on your view of architectural preservation and how it should be practiced? Was there anything about your philosophical orientation that changed?

JMC: The book took a long time to write. During that process, it could not help but impact how I thought about preservation. My understanding of the project also changed over that period, and I found myself more critical of some decisions I had made at the house, and more understanding of others. The Freeman House was a dramatic entrée to the field, and working on it was the thing that most influenced how I see preservation, in large part due to the almost hyper-exaggerated conflicts embodied in the project, such as Wright’s vision versus the subsequent alterations, interpretations that favor the architecture versus those that favor the social history, initial use versus subsequent needs, and architectural conception versus structural reality. I would have to say that the question with which I still wrestle, and which remains central to the story of the Freeman House, is how to balance the rich intellectual debate surrounding those conflicts with the need to act—efficiently, appropriately, and in a timely manner.

Living room, iconic view of looking south down Highland Avenue, 1953, when the Freeman House was at its peak, showing Frank Lloyd Wright’s design and Rudolph Schindler’s dining table and seating. Photo Julius Schulman Photography Archives, Research Library, Getty Research Institute ©J. Paul Getty Trust

D&B: Given that you’ve seen Wright, or his work, from the inside out, and up very close and very personally—what’s your sense now of his talent and legacy as a residential architect?

JMC: I can’t say that I have much to add to this that hasn’t already been said by others who have lived with the leaking roofs and exhilarating spaces of Wright’s architecture. His contributions were extraordinary, as was his hubris. The “agony and ecstasy” of his legacy is that successes and failures were often inextricably connected, even dependent on each other. I cannot imagine what my life and my abilities as a designer would have been without having lived in a Wright House. I would never have become a preservation architect if it weren’t for the building’s desperate straits. His work is a burden, but also one of the crowning achievements of American civilization.

D&B: Where do you live now? How do you feel there versus how you felt when living in the Freeman House?

JMC: Today I live in an eclectic house, built in Ithaca, New York, in 1929. In layout it is a center-hall colonial, while stylistically it is a cross between Tudor and Arts and Crafts. It is beautifully designed, and shares some ideas with the Freeman House, including the importance of moving toward light, combining compressed and expansive spaces, and celebrating the materials and craft of its making. It is a bit more relaxing than living at the Freeman House, because I am less fearful of what the future might bring and am comfortable redesigning parts of the house to reflect my own sensibilities and lifestyle. At the same time, nothing here can match the symphonic blast of excitement that greeted me every morning when I walked into the living room of the Freeman House, and looked down the axis of Highland Avenue across Los Angeles.

The Freeman House in 2007, seen from Highland Avenue. Photo Mark Hertzberg

D&B: Are you written out on Wright now—or do you think you will have more to say about him? Are you working on a new book now?

JMC: In 2010, I led a workshop for the World Monuments Fund at Florida Southern College, in Lakeland Florida, which has the largest extant collection of Wright buildings, most built in the textile-block system. However, I would have to say that my main focus has moved eastward. I am currently studying the works of Joseph Allen Stein, an American who practiced in California in the 1930s and 1940s, with designers such as Neutra, Ain, and Eckbo; then moved to India in 1953 and became an important architect there for almost 50 years. This research has allowed me to take what I learned about California modernism while working on the Freeman House and see how it has translated in a very different context. Over the past decades, I have also expanded my work as a preservation architect and planner to include cultural landscapes, and projects in Texas, California, Ukraine, China, Fiji, and elsewhere.

All images are from Saving Wright, courtesy of W. W. Norton.

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