In 1987 philanthropists Mike and Penny Winton decided that they needed a guesthouse to complement their Philip Johnson–designed home in Orono, Minnesota. In 2007 owner-developer Kirt Woodhouse decided that the University of St. Thomas needed that same guesthouse for its Daniel C. Gainey Conference Center campus in Owatonna, Minnesota. In the 20 years since the Wintons hired an up-and-coming Santa Monica–based architect who seemed to be onto something with his use of vernacular materials and mishmash approach to buildings, the name Frank Gehry has gone beyond household, and the guesthouse has become more than just a place to sleep.
The Winton Guest House comprises a 2,300-square-foot collection of discrete shapes that form one building (one can see in its separate cohesion a precursor for Mississippi’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum). It is clad in brick, plywood, and black and galvanized sheet metal—the same types of materials Gehry used on his own Santa Monica home, the design that launched the Frank O. Gehry Associates frenzy.
Woodhouse bought the Lake Minnetonka property from the Wintons in 2002. “If you like architecture, and you can pick up an important Philip Johnson home and a Gehry home in the same transaction, why wouldn’t you?” he asks, rhetorically of course. It was such a no-brainer, it never occurred to Woodhouse that he didn’t actually need the houses. “I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with them,” he says. “I had just completed a home for myself—otherwise I would have moved into the Johnson house.” Solid financial sense took over, and less than a year after he’d bought the property, Woodhouse sold Johnson’s house to “a wonderful couple from Connecticut.”
While the Davis house “was easy to take care of,” the Gehry guesthouse was a little trickier to unload. “It isn’t something you’d sell to someone to live in,” Woodhouse says as if it makes complete sense to talk about a house—something designed pretty much exclusively for someone to live in—that way. Although, to be fair, living full-time in a guesthouse would be tough. And that’s why he’s donating it. As Woodhouse sees it, he took care of the house, acting as its steward, but now it’s time for someone else to take over.
Marlene Levine, director of the Gainey Center at the University of St. Thomas, an executive-retreat center, is happy to play that role. She faces two big challenges: first, getting the house to Owatonna (it will arrive in sections on trucks sometime—they hope—this summer), and then figuring out what to do with it. “We plan to operate it as a house museum,” she says. They’re still working out the hours—“It depends on what kind of demand there will be”—but when it’s not open to the public it just might be occupied by visiting organizations during brainstorming retreats, its “What box?” architecture inspiring their out-of-the-box ideas. “People give their artwork to museums every day,” Woodhouse says in reference to his philanthropy. “I’d rather this be in the public domain than for my children or my family or my own private enjoyment.”
As architecture removed from its program and site—two of the discipline’s essential components—and donated as art, the Winton Guesthouse is part of a turning point: this Midwestern gift marks an art-historical moment. Seen against the backdrop of events such as Richard Serra’s refusal to move Tilted Arc and the still current debate over what exactly constitutes architecture and what amounts to sculpture, the move is tremendous. If this once site-specific guesthouse works just as well on new grounds, it will imply that architecture doesn’t always need context. And just wait until someone buys Bilbao.