What is it like to live in a work of art? Experience the process of building and living in a home designed by one of America’s greatest architects in “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara: A Mid-Century Dream Home,” an exhibition making its East Coast premiere at Pennsylvania College of Technology, in Williamsport.
An opening reception is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, in The Gallery at Penn College, with the exhibition running through March 29. Also on Jan. 16, Jack Quinan, founder of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and a renowned architectural historian, will present a lecture at 3:30 p.m. in the college’s Klump Academic Center Auditorium. Admission to the exhibition and lecture are free and open to the public.
Via an impressive compilation of original furniture, architectural fragments, rare archival materials, home décor ephemera, books, video footage, and reproductions of photographs, documents and architectural drawings, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara” tells the story of a young couple from Indiana and the world-famous architect working together to build an American dream home.
The exhibition explores how John and Catherine “Kay” Christian worked with Wright in the 1950s to create their home that the architect named Samara for the winged seeds from trees on the Christians’ property. The immersive exhibition gives visitors a unique, behind-the-scenes view of the communications between Wright and his clients, and how the family’s values worked in tandem with Wright’s vision. It also shares the story of how the Christian family continued to honor the architect’s vision long after his death. (Photo gallery)
As early as the 1930s, Wright had been thinking about ways to create affordable homes for the American middle class. His answer was what he termed the Usonian home, a moderately scaled one-story house that was designed to be cost-effective and relatively easy to build. During his career, Wright created more than 100 Usonian designs.
John and Kay Christian first saw a Wright Usonian when they visited one in Pleasantville, N.Y., in 1948. Inspired, the couple, who had met while working at Purdue University, approached the topic of Wright with the zeal of true researchers, visiting multiple Wright homes and collecting everything that they could read about him. The Samara exhibition includes a sampling of books about Wright from the Christians’ library, as well as magazines they later consulted during the furnishing of their home.
After John Christian contacted Wright in 1950, the architect agreed to accept the commission in 1951. It then took four more years before construction started.
The Samara exhibition shows how Wright managed the design process and the Christians’ expectations largely via correspondence. Objects and graphics in the Samara exhibition illustrate how he worked with them to clarify their needs and wants, negotiated details of the home and its final layout, and conveyed the architectural vision of the work through drawings and diagrams. The exhibition also explores how Wright scaled the home to the Christians’ limited budget by designing elements that he knew they might want to add, years later, when money allowed. The exhibition demonstrates how the Christians fulfilled Wright’s vision by completing those design elements, including perforated window panels, furniture and roof details.
The final sections of the Samara exhibition welcome audiences into a glimpse of the family’s life in the home. Vintage movie footage, family scrapbook photos, and oral-history memories reveal how John, Kay and their daughter, Linda, lived in their dream house.
Wright never actually saw Samara. Like most of his Usonian creations, the home’s construction was overseen by a representative from his architecture school, the Taliesen Fellowship. Samara was designed and completed at the end of Wright’s career. He was over 80 when he accepted the commission; he died three years after the home was completed, at the age of 91, in 1959.
Today, Samara, also known as the John E. Christian House, remains a private home in West Lafayette, Ind. John Christian, over 90 years of age, still resides there; Kay Christian died in 1986. Along with his daughter, Christian founded the John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust in 1990 to preserve the home as a living example of Wright’s Usonian architecture. Samara is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open every summer for public tours. John Christian still welcomes visitors personally.
“Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara” exhibition is among the events launching Penn College’s Centennial celebration, taking place throughout 2014.
The college began offering adult education classes in 1914, and through its years as Williamsport Technical Institute, Williamsport Area Community College and its present-day special-mission affiliation with Penn State, the college has expanded its commitment to applied technology education. The Samara exhibition celebrates that focus as it encompasses architecture, construction, design, environmentalism and respect for earlier technologies.
“To kick off our Centennial celebration, my goal was to find an exhibition that had a connection to our earlier days as Williamsport Technical Institute,” said Lenore G. Penfield, executive director of The Gallery at Penn College and director of facilities utilization and college events. “Coincidentally, I received a notice that this Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition was to begin touring, and with woodworking, drafting and construction being some of our earliest offerings, it seemed a natural fit. We believed an exhibition of Samara would appeal to not only a wide audience of our current program majors, but to the general public, as well.”
Enthusiasm for the exhibition is already stirring, says Penfield, who added: “We’ve had numerous inquiries from out-of-state groups who are interested in viewing the exhibition. Part of the appeal is because The Gallery at Penn College will be the first venue in the East to host the exhibition; thus far, it’s only been exhibited in a few Midwest venues.”
Interest is also high for Quinan’s exhibition-opening lecture. In the historian’s presentation, Samara will be seen in the context of a representative selection of Usonian houses of differing typologies and often eccentric geometries.
Quinan specializes in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Arts and Crafts Movement, American architecture of the 19th century, Utopian communities, and the relationship of architecture and phenomenology. He is the senior curator and a member of the board of directors of Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo. He has written five books and numerous articles on Wright’s architecture. Quinan is a State University of New York distinguished service professor.
Located on the third floor of the Madigan Library, The Gallery at Penn College is open Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2 to 7 p.m.; and Wednesdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Saturdays and Mondays).
In addition to serving as an instructional resource for Penn College students and a cultural asset to the college and community, the gallery is dedicated to promoting art appreciation and understanding through its exhibits of traditional and contemporary art in a variety of media.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos copyrighted by Alexander Vertikoff and published courtesy of Samara