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A Frank Lloyd Wright geek searches for his gems in metro area

I enlisted Minneapolis architect Tim Quigley, a Wright aficionado, to learn more.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Paul Olfelt house in St. Louis Park.
MinnPost photo by Judy Keen

I’m one of those Frank Lloyd Wright geeks who plan vacations around pilgrimages to the famous architect’s buildings.

So I was thrilled to discover when I moved back to the Twin Cities a few months ago that there are some Wright gems right here in the metro area.

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The two Wright-designed homes in Minneapolis and the one in St. Louis Park are privately owned and not open to the public, so I had to settle for admiring their exteriors.

I enlisted Minneapolis architect Tim Quigley, a Wright aficionado and former member of the board of directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, to describe the interiors and assess the significance of each home.

Wright’s work is important because it represents “America’s first real foray into modern architecture,” Quigley says, and his surviving buildings are “total works of art inside and out.”

Much of Wright’s organic architecture, Quigley says, contains elements that are precursors of today’s home design, including open, informal living spaces and visual links between houses and their natural settings.

“They’re still magical houses,” says Larry Millett, a St. Paul architecture critic who has written about Wright and taught classes on his work. Owning one is like “buying an Italian sports car,” he says.

Most important house

The oldest and most important of our Wright houses is the Malcolm Willey house on Bedford Street in southeast Minneapolis, Quigley says.

Malcolm Willey, a University of Minnesota sociology professor, and his wife Nancy asked Wright in 1932 to design a house for them.

house photo
MinnPost photo by Judy Keen
The Malcolm Willey house was built in 1934 and Wright called it Gardenwall.

Commissions for the architect at the height of the Great Depression were scarce, Quigley says, and Wright wrote “Eureka — a client” on the letter.

The house was built in 1934 and Wright called it Gardenwall. It originally was intended as a two-story home, but the Willeys couldn’t afford such a big house, so the design was scaled down.

Quigley says the Willey house includes elements of what would become a Wright signature: Usonian homes meant for middle-class Americans. It also features frameless corner windows, which would later be used in Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater, widely regarded as Wright’s masterpiece.

Quigley, who helped form a nonprofit group that once tried to buy the decaying Willey house, says the restoration completed a few years ago by the current owners is “as good as any Wright restoration I’ve seen.”

The website documents the house’s rescue and explains the limited availability of private tours.

The Willey house is among 20 featured in a book Millett is writing for the Minnesota Historical Society on the state’s greatest houses. He calls it Wright’s “version of the great American rambler.”

The Paul Olfelt house in St. Louis Park is notable in part because it still is occupied by the couple who hired Wright to build it. The low-slung home was completed after Wright’s death in April 1959.

The Olfelt house’s interior remains much as it was when Wright designed it, Quigley says. The architect often designed furniture, lighting and even housewares for individual homes. Outside, the most distinctive features are a sweeping gable that extends to form a carport and a ship-like glass prow.

‘Totally different’

The Henry Neils house on Burnham Boulevard in Minneapolis is “totally different” from other Wright designs, Quigley says.

house photo
MinnPost photo by Judy Keen
The Henry Neils house in Minneapolis.

The window framing is made of aluminum, not wood, and the exterior is stone. Neils was associated with companies that produced construction metal and stone, he explains.

The famously irascible and occasionally pompous Wright told the Neils their traditional Italianate home was an abomination and advised them to tear it down, Quigley says.

They declined, but Wright made certain their old-fashioned home — which is still standing — could not be seen from the new house.

Wright’s design includes “a grand living space with a big vaulted ceiling and a great glass prow overlooking Cedar Lake,” Quigley says.

Legend has it, Millett says, that Wright was unhappy with the color of some of the exterior marble and dispatched an apprentice to paint it a more suitable hue.

There are 13 surviving Wright buildings in Minnesota: the three Twin Cities homes; a house in St. Joseph; two homes on a single Stillwater property; a commercial building in Hastings; three houses in Rochester; one home in Austin now used as a bed and breakfast; and a home and gas station in Cloquet.

An important Wright structure in Minnesota has sadly been lost, Quigley says. The Francis Little house, a grand summer home built in Deephaven starting in 1913, was razed in 1972. The living room, including its furnishings, was reconstructed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Millett calls the Little house “one of Wright’s last great Prairie [School] houses.”

Wright’s visit to Twin Cities

Wright made news in the Twin Cities when he visited in 1956 to address a Citizens League meeting. He toured Southdale Center, which had just opened, and Minneapolis’ Prudential building, then a couple years old.

In his public remarks, Wright was blunt and none too generous about our area’s architecture.

He called Southdale “a flight from Egypt” and said the Prudential building was a “desecration of a park area.”

As for downtown Minneapolis, he suggested that most of its buildings “be blown up, and only a few tall buildings left standing with room enough to cast a shadow.”

Wright called the Twin Cities’ lakes and parks a “beautiful gift from nature,” but the Wisconsin native had no praise for Minnesota’s biggest city.

“Minneapolis,” he said, “is just too far north.”