Mr. Wright in Suburbia
Believe me if you’d like. Or not. It doesn’t much matter to me. But my husband and I, and the house we built up in the backwoods of Westchester, very nearly changed the shape of the world. Or at least the shape of the suburbs.
You see, after the war a group of us—all couples in our twenties, newly married, and sick to death of the city—got together and bought a piece of land out in the sticks. The man who brought us all together, Davy Mendel, was the most idealistic of the bunch. He was in thick with the cooperative movement, and he always kept a copy of “The Organization and Management of Cooperative Mutual Housing Associations” in his back pocket. Davy was crazy about this one architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. He’d gone to see an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, where this Mr. Wright showed how cities didn’t have to look like cities any more. They would be as green as the countryside but still full of people and schools and offices. Factories and farms, Davy explained, would sit side by side.
And somehow or other—don’t ask me how—Davy persuaded Mr. Wright to be our architect. I think maybe it was the land. It was hilly, and rocky, and full of promontories, the kind of place where Mr. Wright liked to see his houses. Or maybe he was as taken with our youth and idealism as we were with his age and stature.
Anyway, by the time my husband and I took our honeymoon money and put it into the land cooperative, it had already been named Usonia, Mr. Wright’s own word for utopia, and he had drawn a site plan. It didn’t look like any plan I’d ever seen. The building lots were all circles. Mr. Wright said that the circular scheme would give everyone more privacy and the illusion of more space. My husband had another theory. He said that all the trouble in the world had to do with people living too close together and guarding their boundaries too jealously. With round lots it would be as if each family in Usonia lived in their own orbit, but you couldn’t really tell where one orbit ended and the next began. It was a trick. We would have the benefits of boundaries without the liabilities.
Mr. Wright had agreed to design some of the houses in Usonia, maybe half a dozen at most. We surely never would have asked him to design ours. It would have been like asking Frank Sinatra to sing at our wedding. Instead, he chose us. Or rather, he chose our land.
The first time we met him, he came to our site and inspected it: eighty years old and he was bounding up and down the hill like a mountain goat. He explained to us that he was learning our topography, that his physical experience of the place meant more to him than any of the charts or maps we’d sent him.
I remember trying very hard to make a good impression on him. “Mr. Wright, would you like a piece of fruit?” I’d ask. There wasn’t really much of anything else to offer. He’d take an apple and put it in his coat pocket. I wanted him to know that we were worthy of his time and attention, but mostly he was interested in our land. He came up with a plan to merge our house with the hill in such a way that, he said, you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
The design and building process dragged on for years. Our $20,000 house—remember, that was a lot of money back then—quickly became a $30,000 house, and the complexity of executing a plan based on triangles, with a winged roof and almost no right angles, confused the contractor to no end. The builders up in Westchester referred to our community as Insania, and sometimes I think they were talking specifically about my husband and me.
Finally, when it was nearly done, we moved in. We had a roof over our heads and plenty of built-in shelves and cabinets, but we couldn’t afford furniture. Mr. Wright came to inspect the place, and when he discovered that we were building fires in the massive living-room hearth without benefit of a grate, he drew us one. “We always leave these out of the drawings because they make the houses look too expensive,” he said. I started to laugh, but my husband gave me a look. So there was Mr. Wright drawing, my husband and I transfixed like kindergarten children watching their teacher draw a bunny, when in walks my old friend Rosie Levine.
Rosie’s father, William Levine, was the builder who was famous at the time for Levinetown, a massive development out on Long Island. We understood that people moved to Levinetown for lots of the same reasons that we moved to Usonia—that universal urge to leave the old, tired, crowded city behind. Still, Levinetown was diametrically opposed to everything Usonia stood for. It was all about boundaries and uniformity.
Rosie, who’d heard me complain for years about the travails of our house, kept offering to have one of her dad’s crews come up and build us a place. “They could do it in a week,” she’d say. “Just like that.” And she’d snap her fingers. As a result, she was persona non grata around Usonia. But she was still my friend. And there she was gawking at our amazing living room.
I introduced her to Mr. Wright, and she told him all about her father and the houses he was building: 750 square feet, as regular and predictable as railroad ties, one right after another. “That’s very impressive,” Mr. Wright said, “but does your father know about hexagons?” He paced the six sides of the living room, then began following the lines in the concrete floor (which were the same angled lines he’d drawn on the plans), talking and talking. He still had his hat on, that felt skimmer he always wore the way an angel always wears a halo, so you would know it was him. He told Rosie all about how the triangle, not the square, was nature’s building block and how if you looked at a beehive you would notice that they are made of hexagons, and that no one, not even William Levine, was a more efficient builder than the bee.
Rosie was silent, and I couldn’t read her expression. I was worried that she was going to sneer and say, “Come off it, old man.” But when she finally opened her mouth, she asked, “Mr. Wright, would you like to meet my father?”
And the meeting happened. It did. Mr. Levine visited Mr. Wright in his suite at the Plaza. Mr. Wright was often there, working out the endless problems with the design of the Guggenheim. (My husband says that our living room and the rotunda of the Guggenheim are spiritually linked, soulmates, but I don’t see it.) I picture Mr. Levine and Mr. Wright standing by the windows, looking out on Central Park, talking about their shared enthusiasm for concrete floor slabs and radiant heat. I wish I could have been there, but I only know what I heard from Rosie. She said they talked about how to build low-cost quality houses for the masses. It was Mr. Wright’s dream, but it never really worked out. That’s what our house was supposed to represent, some sort of populist ideal—except that it was too much work and too expensive for us, let alone for the masses.
But Mr. Levine, he didn’t bother to dream. He just built. He would just drop one foundation slab after another, and almost instantly a house would pop up. So Mr. Wright told him, “You could fit more houses onto less land if you used organic forms.” And he sketched a city of hexagons, clusters of hexagonal houses surrounding hexagonal parks and hexagonal golf courses and hexagonal shopping centers. Right in the middle of the city was that mile-high tower Mr. Wright was always trying to sell.
Mr. Levine, Rosie said, drank more than a little brandy, and by the end of the meeting he declared, “I like it. By God, I like it.” He said he would call the very next day and have Mr. Wright come out to see the land and meet with the rest of the Levine organization.
Nothing happened, though. Maybe Mr. Levine sobered up and decided that he preferred his squarish Cape Cods just the way they were and never made the call. But here’s what I’d like to imagine: Mr. Wright drove out on the brand-new parkway and arrived at Mr. Levine’s bulldozed fields. And he walked the flat, treeless land. I picture his silhouette—the hat, the coat—as the only landmark in an otherwise featureless landscape. There was Mr. Levine at Mr. Wright’s heels, struggling to keep up with the old man, yakking about how Levinetown could be Mr. Wright’s crowning achievement. But Mr. Wright simply shook his head and drove off. The land didn’t speak to him. Mr. Levine’s potato fields were getting the dreary little boxes they deserved.
To this day, whenever I drive out that way (mostly to visit Rosie at her beach house), I imagine Levinetown as it might have looked if all the little houses were clustered like honeycomb, if the whole 4,000 acres were modeled after my hexagonal living room, and I smile.
“What are you thinking?” my husband always asks as we speed past the exit for the Wantagh Parkway. And I always reply, “Nothing.”