Frank House in Shadyside a modernist masterpiece
For architecture buffs the world over, Western Pennsylvania is known as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece Fallingwater. But only a few know of another masterpiece in our midst.
Tucked on a hilltop near Chatham University in Shadyside sits a hidden architectural gem, the Alan I W Frank house.
Designed in 1939 by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Marcel Breuer (1902-81), the 17,000-square-foot house is one of the “most important modernist houses in this country,” according to Barry Bergdoll, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University and curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
Gropius was founder of the revolutionary German design school Bauhaus, and his student, Breuer, a Hungarian-born architect and furniture designer, is widely considered one of the masters of modernism.
Featuring gently swelling curves set in facades of long horizontal lines and exterior walls of warm pink-sand-colored Kasota stone over a steel framework, the project gave Gropius and Breuer the chance to do things they never had the opportunity to do anywhere else, Bergdoll says.
“It's the biggest house they ever did, and the only house for which they designed every piece of furniture,” he says.
True to their Bauhaus “total work of art” philosophy, Gropius and Breuer designed every aspect of the house and its site, including furniture, draperies, cabinets, mechanical systems and landscaping.
It was built to be the private residence of Robert Frank, co-founder of Copperweld Steel Co., and his wife, Cecelia, an ardent supporter of the arts. Today, Alan I W Frank, Cecelia and Robert's youngest child, lives in and owns the house.
Currently, Frank is devoting much of his time and resources into restoring the house and building a foundation (thefrankhouse.org) to provide for its care well into the future.
The house was commissioned in 1939, after Frank's father sat in on a lecture Gropius gave in 1938 at Harvard, but Alan Frank says it was his mother who invited the architects to come to Pittsburgh. “My mother kept up with everything that was going on in the worlds of design and architecture. She was always interested in that,” he says.
Bergdoll says Gropius first came in 1937 to Harvard to head the graduate school of design. “He was the person who transformed Harvard into the flagship of American modernist architectural education, when all of the other schools focused on beaux arts, traditional, neoclassical,” he says.
“Gropius had been, in a sense, called to Harvard. He was in England. He had already left Hitler's Germany and was practicing in England — with not a great deal of success — when he got the call to Harvard. And then he brought Breuer, who had been his student at the Bauhaus and helped set up the furniture workshop at the Bauhaus in Dessau. They had collaborated for a while architecturally in the 1920s in Germany, and then they reformed this partnership in Cambridge, Mass., out of which the Frank House comes.”
Spanning four floors, the house includes 12,000 square feet of interiors and 17,000 square feet of living spaces, including exterior terraces that are part of the house.
Bergdoll says a large percentage of the furniture pieces Breuer would create during his American years were created for the Frank House and exist nowhere else, including the elegant pear wood-topped tables throughout that sport Lucite legs.
“The most interesting thing about these tables is that they are on clear Lucite legs,” Bergdoll says. “Lucite is a pretty new material at that time. The wooden tops of the tables appear as if they are floating atop these Lucite legs. So, you can imagine at nighttime, when the lights are on, there is this floating plane of a table, and you can see through the legs and right under it.”
Bergdoll says Breuer was interested in two things: “Always in new materials, and always creating a kind of collage effect of different materials,” he says. “He liked always to experiment with mixing different types of materials, tubular steel and cane, fine wood and Lucite.”
As far as Gropius' most innovative contributions, Bergdoll says the curved, cantilevered staircase in the center of the house tops the list. “When you are looking in the window (from the outside), what you see are the stair ends, as if they are floating in front of the window. But they're not,” he says.
Bergdoll, who has been researching a book on Breuer, says when Alan Frank invited him to first visit the house nearly 10 years ago, he was amazed to find, “all of the correspondence, blueprints, even the first photographs were still there.”
An engineer and inventor, Robert Frank contributed significantly to the project as an engaged architectural client, right down to the lightning rods on the roof, which were a Copperweld invention. His and Cecelia's correspondence with the architects runs to hundreds of pages. During design and construction, suggestions, instructions and queries sometimes filled three eight-page, single-spaced typewritten letters a week.
“Not only was the family avant-garde enough to choose these German and Hungarian designers,” says Bergdoll, “but also to tap Ezra Stoller (1915-2004), this almost unknown architectural photographer, who we now recognize to be one of the great photographers of 20th-century architecture.”
Bergdoll says he counted 80-plus photos by Stoller among the cache. “He did the house's portrait, as it were, making it one of the best-documented important modernist houses in this country. It's amazing.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.