Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Discovering Frank

I had known about Frank Lloyd Wright and his work for a long while before that early autumn evening when he became a "real" person to me. I'd long admired his work -- his use of integrating light, nature, the land into his designs. His reputation included being persnickety, so convinced his style and design was correct, he would at times rearrange the furniture in one of the home he had designed because he didn't think the homeowner's version contributed to the elegance of his design. I hated that character trait, yet admired his guts and conviction.

Rick lives in one of the 1960s homes built in the style of Wright's work and has tried to keep consistent with that feeling.

But it wasn't until an unexpected evening several years ago that included video and ice cream that I would learn more about this man.

A number of years ago, Ken Burns produced a remarkably short special (for him -- only four hours) about the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The film was to be one of the centerpiece of PBS' November sweeps period (yes, no matter what anyone tells you, at PBS ratings matter).

Several Frank Lloyd Wright houses remain in the Lansing area, and I thought it would be a wonderful idea to feature one of these as our program guide cover. So, I asked Michael Maurer Smith (whose blog is here and whose website is here) to photograph the home of Don and Mary Lou Schaberg in Okemos. (The photos in this post are not by Mike, but found at various sites online including wikipedia and some real estate sites.)

The Schaberg's home was from Wright's Usonian period in the 1950s, homes designed for the "typical American family." While now the market price could top a million, back then the homes were for middle income people. Schaberg, who was in the lumber business, was a fine partner for the eccentric architect and his supervisors, having a genuine eye for beauty. (Wikipedia talks about the Schaberg house here.)

Well, Mike came back with some splendid images, having enjoyed a lovely time with the Schabergs. We planned on our cover and that was that!

But one day -- before even PBS stations had seen a preview of the program -- Don called me and said he had received a copy from Ken and wondered if I would like to come preview it, with Rick of course, and with Mike and Kate. We'd have some ice cream, he promised.

Well, we were delighted and excited, and the evening didn't disappoint. The house itself was beautiful, with an open floor plan, astounding light, beautiful use of wood, stained glass and organic elements and the built-in features Wright was associated with. (The pool came later!)

We watched part of the documentary, including that which featured Don and Mary Lou's home movies during the building of their home. We then toured the tower Don had designed and built on their grounds (Don's office) and enjoyed our ice cream.

The Schabergs were delightful people and the evening was warm and congenial. During our talk, I learned Don was an old Lansingite and after he had revealed his high school, I asked him if he had ever known my mother or her sisters. I was thrilled when he remembered them all, particularly my aunt Grace, who was his age and with whom he hung about in school.

In fact, he said, he had a movie camera back then and he would shoot movies that Gracie and other friends wrote, using the homes of the various parents. "I'm sure I still have them," he said. And, when we made our farewells, he said he would try to find them.

Not long after, I received another call from Don. Would I like to come for ice cream and see the movie of my aunt Grace?, he asked. Well, yeah. (Below is Gracie with my uncle, Martin, 1951)

To see the woman whom I knew as a mom-figure come to life on the screen as a sixteen year-old girl was truly jarring and wonderful. The face, the expressions were there, but in the form of a young woman, playing a role (the devious maid!) with all the aplomb and sassiness I would recognize in this dear funny woman who would, like my mother, die far too young. (Grace, about 1975)

Not long after that, the Schabergs would give me a copy of that film, which I would share with Mama K's husband David and his two sisters, Patty and Mutty. It remains one of our treasures.

Frank Lloyd Wright -- he was as eccentric, Don said, as all the stories Ken Burns and countless others told about him. And as brilliant. Certainly one bit of proof was their own home and their own memories.

Wright's life was turbulent and marked by many loves and great tragedy. To learn about the novel "Loving Frank" by Nancy Horan, which I recently finished, visit Chopsticks and String.


~*~Patty S said...

another really fascinating post Jeanie!

I learned so much!

Naturegirl said...

Jeannie when we go to Scottsdale AZ every winter there is much of Frank Lloyd Wright's vison and influence in structures and building. His use of integrating light, nature, the land into his designs certainly is evident in the structures I've seen there. This post was informative and by the way I love the bungalow type homes.

Janet said...

So interesting. I have a bit of a fascination with architecture and design and have seen a few films/shows about Wright. He was most definitely eccentric!!

And how wonderful that you now have a copy of that film of your aunt. That must be a family treasure.

Joanne Huffman said...

Really cool post! I enjoyed Loving Frank and will read the other book about all the women in his life (can't remember the name right now) later. When I lived in Chicago, I got to see some of his architecture and one of his houses is in Springfield, IL, where you can see some of his influence in bits and pieces.

joyce said...

You know so much about people & subjects I had never heard of. And how special, that these folks happened to have old home-movies of your aunt as a teen! That's a real treasure!

Linda Jo said...

Ohhhhhhh loved this!!! And... I read Loving Frank. What did you think?????

Ruth said...

Wonderful. I haven't seen any of the local houses except the one in White Hills - or maybe it just looks like a FLW.

Where is the photo exhibit of Mumbai on Albert St.?

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful gift - to be able to see your aunt as a young girl.

I had every intention of visiting Fallingwater when I lived in Maryland. I still have every intention of seeing it. I'm going to make plans, dog gone it. You've spurred me on.

It's so interesting here.

Anonymous said...

Jeanie, Imagine...what a small world, that Don had films of your aunt Grace (and btw, I see resemblance there in her picture and those I've seen of you.) I kinda teared up; what a remarkable thing for you to experience. Adn ice cream with Ken Burns. I am definitely going to look for the book. I'm a huge fan, in part, because when we lived in California, we lived near and often visited the Wayfarers Chapel, designed by Wright's son.
In case you want to take a look, go here:http://www.wayfarerschapel.org/your-visit/architecture/
It was a special place, there by the sea.

Wonderful how creative people so wonderfully influence our lives in so many ways! I was thinking of you today, too, as I cruised magazines at the bookstore and several Somerset publications caught my eye.

Anyway, in case you can't tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog and your connection to PBS and to Burns and your loving family.

Anonymous said...


I've not been keeping up with blogs and blogging lately so it was a real pleasure and surprise to read this one.

That evening with you, Rick and the Schabergs, watching Ken Burn's piece in an actual Wright house, is one of my cherished memories and I thank you for making it happen.


Beth Leintz said...

I'm not going to start singing "its a small world" because then you couldn't get that song out of your head.

I'm a big FLW fan- of his work, he sounds like he might have been a real PITA.

We visited the Dana House in Springfield Il and I've been to FLWs house in Oak Brook- seeing them is so much more than a house tour.

I'm going to put the book on my "to read" list- I really enjoyed the Ken Burns show, too- but there hasn't been much that Ken Burns does that I don't love.

Unknown said...

just found your blog and this post. Our book club just finished this book and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed learning about a man I have admired. Enjoyed this post!

psychelyn said...

I'm glad I checked this link, I've learned much from this post post about you and some great people. I always enjoy what you share.

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