Walking into a Frank Lloyd Wright house is a little like entering a National Park. Something shifts and suddenly everything around you is richer, calmer, more beautiful than the rest of the world.
The first stop on yesterday’s sold-out bus tour, “Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School Structures in Minneapolis,” was Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church, one of the few Prairie-style churches ever built. Architects Purcell and Feick designed the 1910 church with horizontal lines and square motifs reminiscent of city blocks. Inside the churchy-smelling sanctuary, restoration architect Robert Mack showed us how his firm hid a baptismal font behind the wood-paneled altar. He stepped back, and the panel descended, revealing a tub, Murphy bed-style. “That was one of the more clever things that I’ve done,” Mack said. (The National Trust gave an Honor Award to the project in 2001.)
On the bus, people shushed their chatty neighbors so they could listen to our tour guide tell us about the next stop: the 1913 Purcell-Cutts House, by Purcell and Elmslie, who, next to Wright, were the most prolific designers of Prairie-style houses. Horizontal eaves stretched out at us like the prow of a ship. The outside of the was so ornate—about 80 art-glass windows, all created for less than $500—that it looked like an interior space. The Purcell-Cutts House had been in bad shape before its restoration, architect Sam McDonald told us. “The roof was like a trampoline,” he said.
We slipped off our shoes and explored the marvel of small rooms, window seats, collapsible desks, built-ins, a sunken living room with a tented ceiling, even a Pullman-style bed. When I put my shoes back on after wandering, I somehow felt calmer than before.
After a cookie-and-coffee break at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where we strolled through a Prairie School exhibit, it was time to start the first-ever public tour of a Wright house abandoned for seven years and almost lost to demolition by neglect. Our bus deposited us on a modest street next to a whooshing highway. “An unlikely neighborhood for a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” one busmate observed.
The charm of the 1934 Malcolm Willey House creeps up on you. Although our tour guide said “it unfolds into the landscape,” the first thing you see from the street is a boxy garage. And let’s just say the narrow, low-ceilinged entry walk is not basketball-player friendly.
Our group of 48 crowded into the brick living room of owners Steve Sikora and Lynette Erikson-Sikora. Steve told us that for the five-year restoration, which they had just finished, he and Lynette had dug original parts out of the garage and completed the built-ins that Wright had designed but never installed.
“The house was in horrible shape when we bought it,” Sikora said. “In an odd way, this is the first time the house has been complete.”
The Willey House felt like a ship, all funky angles, narrow hallways and doors, and small rooms. I liked it all, even the sleek bathroom. Not knowing how long it would be before I ever saw the inside of a Wright house again, it was hard to get back on the bus.