Frank Lloyd Wright and the Making of the George D. Sturges Residence

BY GREG CERIO

Herewith sketches for the Sturges.
I think it is self explanatory. Take it to them for their reaction.
It is one of the simplest things we have done and one of the best.

—FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, LETTER TO JOHN LAUTNER, FEBRUARY 11, 1939

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) was the greatest architect that America has ever produced—a fact Wright himself was well aware of. He saw excellence as the standard for all his designs and accepted praise as merely his due. Hence the self-satisfaction Wright expressed in a message to John Lautner—the former apprentice who would oversee the construction of the project and go on to design several of the most iconic modernist houses in Southern California—about his plan for the George D. Sturges Residence in Los Angeles is telling. Wright knew, even by his high estimation of his own work, that in the Sturges Residence he had created a special gem.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, 1939 | Photo © Grant Mudford Courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, Photo © Grant Mudford

At the time, Wright was at the pinnacle of his genius. The year 1939 saw the completion of two of Wright’s most superb projects: his residential tour-de-force Fallingwater—a modernist miracle which floats above a rushing creek in the woodlands of western Pennsylvania—and the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin—a commercial cathedral marked by a streamlined exterior and the engineering feat of its slender and soaring “lilypad” structural columns. Two years earlier, Wright had built the first of his “Usonian” houses, the start of an architectural curriculum that aimed to provide models
for economical, gracious, airy homes for the middle class. The Sturges Residence embodies the DNA of all three projects—it is a tidy masterpiece; a compact compendium of Wright’s finest work.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, 1939 | Photo © Grant Mudford Courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, Photo © Grant Mudford

The story of the Sturges Residence begins in early 1938, when George Sturges, an engineer for the Lockheed Corporation, and his wife, Selma, saw the January edition of that year’s Architectural Forum magazine. The issue was devoted entirely to Wright’s work. The Sturgeses were particularly attracted to an article about low-cost houses that included the plan of the Herbert Jacobs Residence in suburban Madison, Wisconsin, a project completed in 1937. George Sturges sent Wright a letter of inquiry; the architect responded favorably. Sturges sent Wright a detailed drawing of the building site, and within a few months the designs were finished. After presenting them to the Sturgeses, Lautner wrote back to Wright to say that the couple found the plan “magnificent—they are all smiles, and I can see why.”

Even on paper, anyone could see the allure of the Sturges Residence. The drama of the form, its energy and dynamism—the design is breathtaking. The most prominent features of the Sturges Residence—its stunning 54-foot-long cantilevered terrace and overhanging pergola roofline—relate directly to Fallingwater, where two concrete terraces are thrust out above a cascade on Bear Run creek. The result is achingly lovely. Fallingwater is widely regarded not only as Wright’s residential masterwork, but as the greatest American house ever designed. Indeed, the members of the American Institute of Architects went further: in 1991 they cited the house as the “best all-time work of American architecture.” Wright designed Fallingwater as a rural retreat for Edgar J. Kaufmann, a Pittsburgh department store magnate and a patron of modern design. The house, situated on a rocky outcropping, is the fullest expression of what Wright called “organic architecture”—a building completely in tune with the surrounding natural environment. Like Fallingwater, with its dense central massing composed of stone and masonry, the brick and wood Sturges Residence seems to emerge directly from the earth of its hillside site on North Skyewiay Road.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, 1939 | Photo © Grant Mudford Courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, Photo © Grant Mudford

And yet the Sturges Residence is also much like a powerful machine. The long, horizontal lines of lapped heart redwood cladding on the terrace and exterior walls give the building the look of an aircraft in flight. The façade represents Wright’s embrace of the popular Streamline Moderne design style of the 1930s—a progressive American complement to the sleek, sculpted lines of the Art Deco movement in France. Objects and buildings—from cars to cocktail shakers, radios to Radio City Music Hall—were designed with smooth surfaces, horizontal lines, and curved edges that suggest speed, forward motion, agility, and industry. Wright explored the style most extravagantly in the Johnson Wax Headquarters, with its sweeping curvilinear forms inside and out, and walls faced with “Cherokee Red” bricks and raked mortar that accentuate the flowing, low-slung lines of the building. And surely Wright’s creativity would have been sparked by George Sturges’ employment with Lockheed. As the architectural historian David Gebhard wrote: the “Sturges House arguably expresses the architect’s most abstract expression of his attachment to the ideals of speed and movement of the 1930s.”

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, 1939 | Photo © Grant Mudford Courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, Photo © Grant Mudford

The vigor and excitement of the Sturges Residence notwithstanding, at its heart it is one of Wright’s noblest ideas. The Jacobs House—the project that prompted the Sturgeses’ interest—was the first in the architect’s “Usonian” program to be built, a term Wright coined to describe the people of the United States and its national character. (Essentially, it is a compact form of “United States-ian.”) Wright believed that the nation’s greatest achievement was the creation of a broad middle class, and from it the country derived its strength and integrity. The “Usonian” house reflects his aspiration to establish an architectural model for simple, healthful, affordable shelter for the common man. As with other “Usonian” homes, the Sturges Residence includes attributes such as warm, natural, lo-cally-sourced materials, overhanging roofs that provide shade for passive cooling, an open plan layout, a direct connection to the outdoors, and moderate construction expenses. Wright intended such structures to offer a “sense of spaciousness and vista” that would “liberate the people living in the house.” Wright’s dearest hopes are fully borne out in the Sturges Residence.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, Photo © Grant Mudford

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, 1939 | Photo © Grant Mudford Courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The George D. Sturges Residence, Photo © Grant Mudford

So, too, were the hopes of its owners. As construction went on apace, Selma Sturges—an ever-effusive correspondent—would write to her architect to tell him how wonderful the house looked “springing out from the hillside … It’s a picnic to have people come look it over.” There would be problems, of course. The Los Angeles city buildings department took issue with Wright’s structural schemes and materials and forced him to add steel beams to support the cantilever. (“We are being fined for coming to the region with upsetting ideas!” Wright thundered in a telegram to Lautner.) Later the Sturgeses bickered with the architect over a leaky roof—a problem endemic to Wright buildings. But both its owners and its architect were ever proud of the place. “Your house is a remarkable aristocrat among houses,” Wright said in one of his last letters to George Sturges.

The Sturges Residence is more than that, though. It represents one of the boldest imaginative expressions by America’s finest architect, even as it exemplifies his most principled and democratic ideals. The house grew out of the visionary aesthetic and practical skills of one of the most original and ambitious minds the country has ever known. The Sturges Residence is a paragon and a jewel: a crucible of architectural history in a sterling fusion of simplicity and grandeur. It is a work of art.

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