Wright or Wrong? Debate over Massaro House Authenticity Rekindled

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Friday, November 16, 2012
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Frank Lloyd Wright's Massaro House. (Ahalife)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Massaro House. (Ahalife)

The story goes like this: In 1949 an engineer named A.K. Chahroudi commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home on Petra Island in Lake Mahopac, New York, which Chahroudi owned. But the $50,000 price tag on the 5,000 square foot house was more than Chahroudi could afford, so Wright designed him a smaller, more affordable cottage elsewhere on the island.

Fast forward to 1996 when Joseph Massaro, a sheet metal contractor, bought the island for $700,000, a sale that also included Wright’s original yet unfinished plans. Though he says he only intended to spruce up the existing cottage and not build anything new, one can hardly fault Massaro for wanting to follow through on a home Wright once said would eclipse Falling Water. In 2000 Massaro sold his business and hired Thomas A. Heinz, an architect and Wright historian, to complete and update the design, a move that incensed the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, who promptly sued him, stating he couldn’t claim the house was a true Wright, but was only “inspired” by him.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Massaro House. (Ahalife)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Massaro House. (Ahalife)

Massaro was able to complete the house in 2004, fending off lawsuits by stating his intent not to sell. Now, however, he’s ruffled the Wright Foundation’s feathers once again by putting the house on the market for $19.9 million, 11-acre island included. Even though the house is not recognized by the Foundation, that hasn’t stopped Massaro from listing it as a true Wright. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times he said, “You hear these purists that talk about how no unbuilt Frank Lloyd Wright house should ever be built because Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t here anymore. And then you take a look at this masterpiece of his—I’m sure Frank would rather have it built than not built at all.”

That may be true, but those purists are an outspoken bunch, citing four details in Massaro’s house that Wright would never have approved of had he been alive to see its construction. First, the decorative “rubblestone,” a Wright trademark, is not flush in Massaro’s home, but protrude from the wall—a major Wright no-no. Second, the home’s 26 skylights are domed, not flat, a choice Massaro apparently made citing flat skylights’ propensity to leak (sealants, anyone?). Third, an exterior stairway that appears in several of Wright’s original drawings was nixed by Massaro, as it would have landed in three feet of water due to the island’s changed coastline. Lastly, Wrightians claim that the copper fascia are too shallow, a seemingly petty point of contention, but as Wright house owner Rich Herber pointed out, “It’s the small details we’ll never know about.”

To be fair, Massaro seems to have tried to stay as true to Wright’s original intentions as possible. When the late Walter Cronkite, who knew Wright personally, visited the property he said, “I feel Frank in this house.” Whether or not it’s technically authentic and officially condoned by the Foundation, or the result of a Wright/Heinz collaboration, the world is probably a better and more beautiful place for the existence of the Massaro House, which interested buyers can arrange to visit to through Ahahlife.com.

All images courtesy Ahahlife.

2 Responses to “Wright or Wrong? Debate over Massaro House Authenticity Rekindled”

  1. Pedro Karst says:

    Being the most truly admirer of Wright´s work, nevertheless I think “my beloved master” would like his ideas to be shared and to be fertile, inspiring, not only admirers, but we all. His message, putting it in a messianic view, was an early appeal to most of the issues regarding environmental crisis and the strongest regard back to mother earth. So, to the question about if Frank would approve this house to be built, I would say yes. Anyway, it is quite true that the criticism exposed in this blog is absolutely reasonable. If it is true that “god is on details”, it is also true that one expert in Wright´s work, as I consider myself, would notice immediately the wrong options. As a follower of Wright’s models, ideas and details, I also find the same problematic moments of project and construction, which potentially can conduce to bad conclusions. Organic architecture means the respect to “the complete work of art”. The detail must absolutely follow the all scheme and idea. Of course it is needed a strong discipline that gets into conflict with budget and the capacity of contractors and, sometimes, even with the client understanding and culture. So, to be conclusive, one recognizes what is obvious, it is not a Wright’s masterpiece, it could never be. But it could have been, it is also obvious. Details betrayed the architect that put it up, as the owner who seems so proud about it. Lacks of faith, I think. We are sons of the same God, but one adores him with the limitations one have.

  2. Vitto says:

    Its the Wynand house by Howard Roark!!!!

    Seriously, the owner states its “Wright Inspired” and while its doesn’t adhere rigidly to the original plans I might point out that there are several FLW homes that were built without Wrights supervision, both during and after his life, do they not count?

    I agree that something being built is better than not being built, especially considering that other important structures by other important architects (Schindler, Lloyd Wright for example) have fallen to the wreckers ball in recent years or are threatened with. I wont argue about the how religious one should be adhering to the details, that’s the owners perogotive, but what would you prefer, something interesting that echos Wright, or a big dogpile of Southern Colonial horror that could have been much more likely built by someone who could afford this lot??? Chew on that my Wrightian friends…

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