AS AN ARCHITECT, Frank Lloyd Wright was known as a stickler for control, often telling clients what design features they should incorporate even when it conflicted with what clients wanted. That was especially true later in his career, when he had become world famous and people wrote him from all over the country asking him to design their homes.
But there was one category of residential work where he not only let clients make some design decisions but allowed them to adjust his design to their needs. It was a subcategory of a style Wright called Usonian, which he’d developed for low-cost home construction in the 1930s and then used in almost all single-family houses until his death in 1959. He called the do-it-yourself version of it “Usonian Automatics.”
It was based on a customized concrete block construction system, akin to the textile block system Wright used for several Southern California homes in the 1920s. With this newer system, developed in the early 1950s, owner/ builders took detailed plans Wright had drawn to meet their particular needs, then cast concrete blocks on the site, for building their homes. Lighter and less decorative than the textile blocks and easily fitted together with steel rods and grout, they made home construction more affordable, which was Wright’s intent.
“To build a low-cost house you must eliminate, so far as possible, the use of skilled labor, now so expensive,” he wrote in an article in the early ’50s. Between 1952 and 1957 a total of seven Usonian Automatic houses were owner-built from Wright designs, according to Margo Stipe, archivist at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation; others were constructed from his plans after his death.
Perhaps the ultimate local example of an owner-built Frank Lloyd Wright home — though more of a forerunner to Usonian Automatic homes since it wasn’t made of concrete — is the Robert and Gloria Berger House in San Anselmo. The house, which stayed in the family’s hands for over 60 years until its sale in 2013, is on a one-acre, tree-studded lot along the crest of a hill at 259 Redwood Road.
The Bergers bought the lot in 1950 for its panoramic views of verdant rolling hills. After reading about Wright’s V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco in Architectural Forum, Robert Berger wrote the architect asking if he would design a two-bedroom home that Robert could build for his family of six. He sent the letter “over his wife’s objections that he was crazy and that surely Mr. Wright would scorn a do-it-yourself project,” according to “The House One Man Built,” a December 1959 story in Life magazine. “… Wright replied by asking for his lot size and a description of his property. In a few months he sent the plans along.”
Those plans arrived in the fall of 1950, only to be temporarily shelved while Robert served in the Korean War. He returned home in 1952 and started teaching at Novato High and, later, College of Marin, dividing his time between his job and building the house. It took five years to construct the core of the home with enough space for the family to move in, then about another year to complete the north wing and all the interior finishing work.
During all six years, Robert did most of the work himself, although Wright associate Aaron Green was a consulting architect. Gloria and occasionally the Bergers’ two sons helped with some tasks, including digging the foundation, installing plumbing and pouring concrete. The biggest task for Robert was the 20-foot-tall fireplace shaft, the masonry core of the house, a months-long effort that required pouring 50 tons of rock and cement into a wooden mold. Robert created the distinct inlaid patterns on the exterior walls from local pink Sonoma stone — gathering, chiseling and individually fitting hundreds of stones by hand. (Wright had used similar organic wall material, which he called “desert masonry,” on several other homes.) It was truly “a labor of love,” his son Eric says.
Eric, who lived in the house from age 5 to 21, has distinct early memories of his father working on the house, both before and after the family moved in. “My dad used Craftsman tools and a home concrete mixer from Sears, Roebuck to make all that concrete. And he used wooden dowels instead of nails for most of the joints in the house.” One favorite recollection: “You could look at different angles in the house, and depending on the time of day, the light would create different special effects. It made me appreciate the artistic quality of Mr. Wright’s design.”
WRIGHT SCHOLARS CONSIDER the Berger house a gem of Usonian design. The single-story two-bedroom, two-bath home has 1,760 square feet of living space and a carport under the overhanging roof. A low-angled roofline, horizontal massing and native-stone walls make the structure appear to be a natural outgrowth of the forested hilltop setting. Wright based the design on an equilateral parallelogram pattern, with a hexagonal living room that juts off the north side. The living room ceiling is higher than other rooms, typical for Usonian homes, and the floor-to-ceiling windows give a serene view of the lushly wooded Marin hills. A sliding glass door leads onto the concrete deck, which is shaped like a ship’s prow, another classic Usonian feature, as are the floors, made of concrete slab scored in a hexagonal pattern and stained Cherokee red.
A concrete, raised-hearth fireplace set into the rear living room wall is inlaid with more pink Sonoma stones. Redwood window seats line two of the walls; in fact, Wright designed many built-in cabinets and other features throughout the house for extra storage space. The kitchen, in an alcove behind the living room, has built-in shelves; one section of shelving that juts into the living room has an attached mahogany table for family dining. Behind the kitchen, a small playroom for the Berger children doubled as a study after they went to bed.
Suzanne Berger was a year old when the family moved in, but she still remembers her father climbing ladders with nails in his mouth. Other indelible impressions from over 24 years: “The rock walls were so beautiful, there were great views from the big living room windows, the woodwork everywhere was so warm, the radiant heat in the floors was very comfortable, and the open floor plan gave me a sense of freedom.” Such features are integral elements of Usonian homes and are what endear these houses to so many owners — along with, perhaps, the non-prohibitive price. Wright’s fee of 10 percent of construction budget, Suzanne recalls, was “$1,500, so the total cost was about $15,000, although the actual final amount may have been higher.”
One unique Berger House feature was definitely a client idea — and has taken on a new life of its own. In 1956, eldest son James, then 12, wrote to Wright asking if he would design a home for Eddie, the family’s Labrador retriever. Wright replied that he would when he had time. Some months later the doghouse documents arrived — making James undoubtedly the architect’s youngest client and the only one he never charged any fees. Built by Robert, the doghouse lasted years before being sent to the dump. But in 2011, James, by then a retired cabinetmaker, was hired to re-create the doghouse from the original blueprint, for Romanza, a documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright’s California work. Donated to the county in May 2015, the doghouse was exhibited in the Marin County Civic Center Library from June 2017 until March 2018; it’s now in storage, awaiting a more permanent display location.
ROBERT BERGER PASSED away in 1973; Gloria moved out in 2003; the house was rented until 2011 and then sold, in December 2013, for $1,595,000, to a part-time occupant. It’s not an official historic landmark, but Wright aficionados say it’s one of the architect’s most solidly built Usonian homes. In 60 years there’s been no sign of the foundation settling nor of cracking in the floors — not even any noticeable damage from the ’89 Loma Prieta quake. Which seems to be living proof that an owner-built home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright can stand the test of time, particularly when the builder so faithfully carried out the architect’s Usonian plan.
Some of the information in this article was provided by Laurie Thompson and Carol Acquaviva at the Marin County Library’s Anne T. Kent California Room.