Historic Homes with Controversial Pasts and Questionable Futures

A long-standing debate as to whether Frank Lloyd Wright or his former employer, Louis Sullivan, designed two beachfront bungalows in Ocean Springs, Mississippi may have been rendered moot by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.

One of the homes, built as Sullivan’s coastal retreat in 1890, was vaporized by the wind-driven 30-foot swell that surged out of the Mississippi Sound on August 29. The remains of the house and its separate servants’ quarters lie heaped in ragged outcroppings of rubble. The other house and its octagonal guest cottage, built next door the same year for Sullivan’s friend James Charnley, are still standing, but just barely. Knocked off its piers, the house sits crumpled and forlorn, its windows and doors blasted out by the storm. The guest cottage is in a similar state of disarray.

The current owners of the Charnley Summer Cottage have hopes it can be reconstructed but are unsure they have the funds to do so. The Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy has stepped in to assist in the preservation of the structures. They have sent a Taliesin-Fellow structural engineer to the site to assess the damage and are currently in talks with the Mississippi Heritage Trust to develop a plan for its salvation. But without the funds readily available to repair this historic home, its future looks bleak.

Lumber magnate Charnley introduced Sullivan to Ocean Springs in 1889, and the architect was immediately charmed by the quiet, backwater village. Sullivan later claimed in his autobiography that he sketched the designs for his and Charnley’s bungalows and submitted them to a local builder during that initial trip. But Wright contradicts that assertion in his1949 book Genius and the Mobocracy, stating he was in charge of all residential design during the early years of his career when he worked as chief draftsman for Adler & Sullivan. Wright counts the Ocean Springs bungalows among those that “fell to my lot,” and later refers to Sullivan’s stay in “the country house I had designed for him.”

This contradiction has fueled a longstanding debate among architectural historians over the true authorship of the Ocean Springs bungalows. (A similar controversy exists over Sullivan’s design of the Charnley House on Chicago’s Gold Coast, the authorship of which Wright also claimed.) William Allin Storrer, author of The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, believes Wright was considerably more than “the pencil in Sullivan’s hand”, as Wright described his six years at Adler & Sullivan. In Storrer’s view, Wright designed the bungalows, as well as other residential projects, but Sullivan automatically got credit because of his status as owner of the firm. But architectural historian Tim Samuelson says the imprint of both architects is firmly etched on the Ocean Springs bungalows. He characterizes the relationship between Wright and the man he dubbed “Lieber Meister” (Beloved Master) as a symbiotic one. Wright’s position as chief draftsman gave him responsibility for carrying out the details of Sullivan’s ideas, “But that property meant too much for Sullivan to have been passive in its creation,” Samuelson said. “As for the Charnley bungalow, they were good friends of Sullivan’s and it would be a similar working relationship, with Sullivan developing the concept and Wright the details.”

But Storrer notes that Sullivan’s forte was big commercial projects, not houses. Storrer wrote via email, “Wright was Sullivan’s chief draftsman at the time; why would he later claim authorship if the buildings were designed by the one he called ‘Lieber Meister?’”

Clearly, the confusion over the bungalows’ authorship may never be fully resolved – and the future of these terribly damaged homes seem just as muddled.

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