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Sunday, September 8, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

The Wright Idea -- This Famed Architect's Design Was Both Art And Labor

THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST HAS grown in its reputation as a place where local architects respond to the rich variety of site conditions, light and native materials in designing residences that harmonize with their environs. But that doesn't necessarily require local architects, nor is it a newly emerging trend.

In 1956, on less than an acre in Normandy Park covered in blackberry vine, salal and seedlings, there arose a remarkably sophisticated residence that is both a prominent architectural statement and respectful of its wooded bluff. The owners, Bill and Elizabeth Tracy, knew they could count on their architect: Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Tracys had admired many of Wright's buildings, especially his "textile" block houses, such as the Aline Barnsdall residence (1917-1921) and Charles Ennis residence (1924-1926) in Los Angeles. Textured concrete block provided Wright with a versatile medium for a rich tapestry of ornamental forms.

By the time the Tracys were ready to build their own home, Wright had gained national press for his Usonian homes. Begun in the late 1930s and continuing through the 1950s, his solution to affordable housing consisted of a standard plan based on a modular system. It usually consisted of a living/dining room designed around a central hearth, a utilitarian kitchen and three bedrooms squeezed into 1,200-square-feet, with built-in furniture and storage.

Wright hadn't been the Tracys' first choice. That was Seattle

architect Milton Stricker, a Wright apprentice. But when he saw the wooded view lot, Stricker thought it so dramatic that he suggested Wright design it. Stricker wrote to Wright on the Tracys' behalf, describing them and the site. It helped that the builder would be Ray Brandes, who had completed a house to Wright's design in Issaquah in 1951.

Despite his reputation, Wright was no more expensive than other architects at the time, with fees of 10 per cent of the construction cost.

Wright never came out to see the lot. But with good aerial photographs, topographic maps and a list the clients drew up ("He wanted a compete description of our lifestyle and us"), he went to work on a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom house on one level.

"When the preliminaries came in, we were overjoyed," says Bill Tracy. "One of the remarkable things about this design was what genius was able to make out of such a small lot. It's pretty much a city lot, but you don't sense that when you look at the place at all." The only change they made was to suggest enlarging the kitchen by two feet. Construction eventually cost $25,000 - not including countless hours the Tracys spent manufacturing the blocks.

Tracy graduated in architecture from the University of Idaho in 1952 and was working for Boeing at the time. He took special interest in the condition of the concrete used in the blocks. "I had test cylinders poured about every month." He added more rebar than was called for in the codes, and made the ceiling blocks an inch thicker than Wright stipulated.

The couple built all the blocks themselves - 1,700 all told, in 11 different forms - on acreage that adjoined their rented duplex in South Park.

They took the drawings of the blocks they wanted to a metal fabricator, Century Metalworks, which made shop drawings for steel forms. Milton Stricker made some plywood forms. Each concrete block had to be exact and the forms had to be perfect.

In theory, Wright's blocks were a modular system that could be efficiently constructed for inexpensive housing. The Tracys' experience suggests otherwise.

The blocks were heavy - roof blocks of 160 pounds, parapet blocks (joining the roof and walls) of 180 pounds - and difficult to hoist into place.

"It's a good way to build a work of art, but it's not practical," said Bill Tracy. "The blocks have to be handmade. Finding a contractor able to put them together is unrealistic. Only about 23 of these textile-block buildings were completed; they are too difficult to put up."

Brandes and his crew also did the interior work of solid redwood and redwood plywood. Wright sent design plans for furniture, as well. While Tracy had little experience in woodworking, he built living-room seating and dining-room chairs, and Elizabeth finished them. Wright's drawings also called for indirect lighting, using light boxes hidden within bookshelves and piers.

Bill Tracy recalls, "When I looked at the electrical drawings and saw no ceiling lights, I really wondered if they hadn't made a mistake. Then I realized that Wright was well known for his lighting and resolved to go ahead and build it as he wanted. It's been very satisfactory."

The couple moved in the day after Thanksgiving, 1956.

The house is compact but comfortable, unlike some of Wright's work, where very narrow hallways and low ceilings can spark claustrophobia.

The concrete-block-and-redwood wall system does not accommodate art well; Wright once insisted: "Furniture, pictures, and bric-a-brac are unnecessary because the walls can be made to include them or be them."

The decorative quality of the materials - contrasting dark wood and light concrete, the vertical and horizontal planes and angles formed by the textile blocks - has made the home a pleasure for 40 years, Elizabeth Tracy says.

"We have new experiences almost every day in this house because of the shadows and the picturesque patterns that are formed. We never tire of it."

Says Bill Tracy, "Wright told some client, `You'll see something different in your house every day,' and I know what he means. It's very true."

Lawrence Kreisman is author of six publications on regional architecture and historic preservation. He writes regularly for Pacific Magazine. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times photographer. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Wright in the Northwest

THE ANNUAL CONFERENCE of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy takes place in Seattle this year, Sept. 25-28. Several outstanding Usonian houses will provide the centerpiece for three days of tours, lectures, panel discussions with nationally recognized architects, on-site demonstrations and presentations featuring crafts people, scholars, legal specialists, Wright homeowners, clients and site directors, as well as others concerned with the preservation of Wright's architecture.

Registration for the full conference is $400 for members, $460 for nonmembers. Partial registration for individual workshops, tours and programs will be accepted on a space-available basis (fees range from $20 to $85).

For registration brochure and information contact The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, 343 S. Dearborn St., Suite 1701, Chicago, IL 60604-3815. Telephone: (312) 663-1786. For local information: (206) 232-7726 - Lawrence Kreisman

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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