A Wright house invites visitors to Alexandria Visionary: Designed by the legendary architect and built in 1940, the Pope-Leighey House features his horizontal lines, built-ins and embrace of the out-of-doors.

November 29, 1998|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to The Sun

How dumb can a Frank Lloyd Wright fan be? For years, I have sought out the houses of America's most famous architect, a pursuit that has taken me to far-flung cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Scottsdale, New York City and Mill Run, Pa., where I've ventured twice to see Fallingwater, the visionary's crowning achievement.

But somehow my FLW radar missed the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Va., the only Wright site open to the public in the Baltimore-Washington region. It had been almost two years since I was last in a Wright house, and visiting Pope-Leighey a few weeks ago, I fell in love with the master's vision all over again: the organic siting that brings the outdoors in and extends the indoors out, horizontal lines that make a house more human in scale, modular furniture and clever built-ins, geometrically patterned designs and, perhaps most of all, a remarkable attention to detail. Even the wood screws that hold this house together are placed on the horizontal.

Built in 1940, Pope-Leighey is one man's dream house. His story starts with a letter. "Dear Frank Lloyd Wright," wrote newspaperman Loren Pope in 1939 after reading Wright's autobiography. "There are certain things a man wants during life, and, of life. Material things and things of the spirit. The writer has one fervent wish that includes both. It is for a house created by you."

Now 88, Pope recalls, "I wrote him a letter no man with a normal ego could say no to." Pope, of course, was correct, and after receiving a thumbs-up from Wright, he canceled a contract he'd had with an architect friend for a classic Cape Cod.

The brilliantly simple Pope-Leighey, a spare 1,200 square feet, represents one of Wright's first structures in his Usonian style, his answer to affordable housing for America's middle class. By the late 1930s, Wright had already completed Fallingwater and perfected his signature Prairie House, noted for its flexible, open-plan design and large, sloping roofs.

With the Usonian house, as FLW expert Carla Lind notes in her book, "Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses," the architect applied his principles of organic architecture to the challenge of creating moderately priced housing, continuing his lifelong quest "to destroy boxlike rooms, to wed a building to its site, to simplify the parts of a house, to use materials and technologies in innovative, honest ways, and to build to suit democracy."

Wright designed dozens of concrete-block Usonians, but Pope-Leighey, built for $7,000, is one of only 27 wooden Usonians, in this case cypress that has aged to a warm butternut hue. The two-bedroom house is by no means spacious, but Wright's cunning use of space makes it seem so. Windows with perforated wooden screens filter light into the house as branches on a tree would, and the many windows invite the wooded outdoors in. Also, the L-shaped plan features a living-dining area with a high, high ceiling, lending an airiness to the house. The colors, too, are comforting - Cherokee red, buttercup and sky-blue.

Other Wright trademarks here include slab floors with radiant heat, a central hearth, recessed lighting, a carport and a spare room described as "the sanctum." There are also several built-in bookshelves, featuring titles Pope himself had when he lived in the house, among them Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," Joseph Conrad's "Tales of Land and Sea" and "The Good Housekeeping Cookbook."

For a time in the 1940s, Pope served as national editor of the Washington Star, and he would slink home exhausted in those war-torn years. "I would come into that low entryway, walk down those five steps into my cathedral, and all those tensions dissolved," he told me recently. "Or, said a better way, 'It leadeth me beside the still waters. It restoreth my soul.' "

Pope lived in the house long ago but, clearly, the house still resides within him. "Wright became the way and the truth for me," he says. "To me, what Wright had to say was a religion. He was saying the same thing Emerson or Jesus was saying: This is the way a free man should live. I haven't lived in the house in decades, but spiritually I never left."

Pope-Leighey, oddly enough, is located on the grounds of Woodlawn, a Georgian plantation built in the early 1800s for George and Martha Washington's granddaughter, Nelly, and her family. "They are both someone's dream houses," notes Susan Olsen, who oversees both properties for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Otherwise they have nothing in common."

Pope-Leighey, which attracts 12,000 visitors a year, was originally built in Falls Church, Va. Six years after moving in, Pope, discouraged by city life and the vagaries of journalism, decided to transplant his family to the country to pursue hog farming. To sell the house, Pope took out a three-line classified newspaper ad, listing the house and its furniture for $17,500. More than 100 people responded, but as Pope puts it, "We sold it to the couple we thought would love it the most."

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