Wright's sole NYC house saved

December 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Houses by famous architects are notoriously impractical. So when Frank and Jeanne Cretella bought the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in New York City three years ago, they were worried that the roof might leak.

As it turned out, "there were more than 50 leaks," Frank Cretella. "No kidding. We had to put pots under them to catch the water."

"We didn't have enough pots, and we're an Italian family - that's how bad it was," Cretella said with a laugh.

But Cretella, who is both congenitally cheerful and - luckily for him - the owner of a large construction company, wasn't deterred from the task of renovating the house in Staten Island's Lighthouse Hill neighborhood.

Raised just a few blocks away, he had admired the building since childhood. "The school bus stopped in front of the house every day, to pick up the Cass girls," he said, speaking of the original owners' children.

Cretella's wife, Jeanne, a restaurateur, also grew up on Lighthouse Hill. The couple met 35 years ago, when they were 12. She fell off her bike, he helped her up, and neither has ever dated anybody else.

Recently, Frank Cretella led a visitor around the house, which has spectacular views of the eastern shore of Staten Island, while Jeanne Cretella cooked lunch in a large, bright kitchen that is nothing like the galley Wright intended for the house.

The Cretellas took down a couple of walls to make room for professional appliances - not, Frank Cretella pointed out, the pseudo-professional appliances designed for residential use. There are built-in woks and griddles and three prep sinks.

The stainless steel range hood, more than 8 feet long, is the size of some Manhattan kitchens. "It's a rule - when you come into this house, you have to eat," said a friend, Ellyn Amesse, while Jeanne Cretella dished out escarole and beans and crisp Italian bread.

The house - one of about 400 designed by Wright in his more than 70-year career - is a long, low L, with wide-hip roofs. The exterior is red brick; much of the interior is mahogany. Its original owners, Catherine and William Cass, had it manufactured in kit form in the Midwest and shipped to Staten Island.

Wright, who died in 1959 - the year the house was erected - never got to see it. To some, it is known by the name the Casses gave it, Crimson Beech. Wright scholars call it Prefab No. 1.

By the 1990s, the house had fallen into disrepair. In 1996, the Casses sold it for $800,000. The new owners quickly took in six stray dogs, according to Vinnie Amesse, Ellyn Amesse's husband, a commercial photographer who lives in the neighborhood. Vinnie Amesse was distressed by the deteriorating condition of the house - and the school bus parked out front.

When he learned that the owners planned to put the dogs into the bus and move to Alaska, he called Frank Cretella, an old friend, who had been living in Manhattan but was planning to return to Staten Island.

Cretella made an offer, which he said was about the same as what the owners had paid six years earlier. The house never went on the market. "We were both really, really excited about it - it's not like Frank needed to sway me at all," Jeanne Cretella said.

In addition to renovating the kitchen, the couple removed an interior doorway to make the stairway to the basement more inviting and turned a storeroom into a large wine cellar. (Frank Cretella makes his own red wine.) And they turned one of Wright's tiny bedrooms into a master bathroom, with a large shower and tub. (The couple has avoided changing the exterior, which has been a New York landmark since 1990.)

Now, with the renovation pretty much complete, "we're just doing upkeep, like any other homeowners," Jeanne Cretella said. Her husband declined to estimate the cost of renovation, which was mainly the work of his own company, Black Dog Construction.

The couple's daughter, Madeline, 12, said she has been spooked by strangers looking through the windows and has had to ask people to leave - something it's hard to imagine her father ever doing.

"If people want to see it, I try to be nice to them," Frank Cretella said. He doesn't mind that architecture students often show up, unannounced, or even that the nearby Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art has begun giving out directions to the house to people who ask if there's anything else worth seeing in the neighborhood. (Many other owners of Frank Lloyd Wright houses try to deter visitors.)

If the Cretellas have one problem with the house, it's that much of their furniture and art - including Santa Fe-style pottery, Victorian antiques and red leather chairs - doesn't really complement Wright's architecture. "Our old house was completely different," Frank Cretella said, explaining the mismatch.

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