New York Times


June 2, 1994

Paradise Revisited; Where Earth and Sky Meet: A Wright Cottage, for Rent


LAKE DELTON, Wis., May 26— There are Frank Lloyd Wright houses that can be visited because they have become museums, like Fallingwater and Wright's own Taliesin, and there are Frank Lloyd Wright houses that can be bought to live in forever, usually at a substantial price. But there is only one Frank Lloyd Wright house that anyone can possess, in its entirety, for a night. It is called the Seth Peterson Cottage, and it is where people go to decide for themselves what the Wright mystique is all about.

The cottage is one of the most remarkable things that Wright ever designed: A compact, intense composition, an 880-square-foot summary of his late work, it has a spectacular living room of glass and wood that appears to burst out of a simple stone structure. Sharply angled yet serene, the house possesses an extraordinary quality that can only be called monumentality in miniature. It confers on its visitors both the gift of architecture and the gift of privacy, and together these two things create an experience that is equaled by no other Wright building.

It isn't the architecture alone that does it, for this is far from the greatest Wright house: it is a sonnet dashed off late in life by a master of epics. But sitting in isolation on a wooded site above Mirror Lake near here, on land that is now part of a state park, this tiny cottage is a triumphant shout of the spirit in the quiet of the landscape.

The tale of the house is a strange and sad story. It was never built to be rented out by the night. The house was commissioned in 1957, two years before Wright's death at 92, by Seth Peterson, a computer programmer in his 20's who had grown up in Black Earth, about an hour's drive south of here and not far from Wright's home in Spring Green, Wis. Mr. Peterson, who shared Wright's birthday -- June 8 -- admired Wright's work to the point of obsession, and nagged the architect to design a house for him, but Wright, busy with such major projects as the Guggenheim Museum, rejected his overtures. Finally, Mr. Peterson sent Wright a check for $1,000 as a retainer, which the perpetually cash-starved architect quickly spent. Lacking the cash to return the fee, Wright had to design the house.

Construction began early in 1959 and continued after Wright's death in April of that year. Mr. Peterson, whose finances seemed to have had as much of an air of make-believe about them as Wright's, tried to keep down the cost (originally estimated at under $35,000) by doing some construction himself. But Mr. Peterson had neither Wright's bravado nor his consistent ability to deny unpleasant reality, and he grew increasingly despondent as his money grew tight and other personal problems mounted. In 1960, shortly before the house was finished, he committed suicide.

The tiny dream house was bought and completed by a Milwaukee family, one of whose members lived in it for six years with a pack of Afghan hounds. He sold it in 1966 for $36,000 to the State of Wisconsin, which was buying up properties in the area to expand the adjacent Mirror Lake State Park. The state spared the house the fate of demolition that it accorded most of the other properties, but only out of a vague sense that it would not be a good idea to tear down a Frank Lloyd Wright building. In truth, state officials had little idea of what to do with the house, and it was boarded up and left to decay.

And so it remained for 20 years, a tiny, haunted ruin. Enter Audrey Laatsch, a retired psychotherapist from Milwaukee who lived nearby, and who had periodically climbed over the fence to explore the house. It was fairly intact the first time she saw it, Ms. Laatsch recalled, "but we watched it deteriorate." By the time they noticed that there were holes in the roof, with rain pouring through to destroy Wright's woodwork, Ms. Laatsch and several neighbors "just decided we had to do something about it, and I was put in charge."

"I loved Frank Lloyd Wright," she said, "but I knew nothing about preservation, and I had no idea what I was getting into."

Early in 1989, a meeting was called to discuss the fate of the cottage, and 60 neighbors and Wright aficionados showed up, including John Eifler, a Chicago architect who has restored other Wright buildings. He offered his services at a reduced rate, and Ms. Laatsch hired him on the spot.

"I had absolutely no authority, no funds, no legal organization, nothing," she said. "We weren't even sure what to do with the cottage once we restored it. But then I told a friend about it, and she said the idea of this little Frank Lloyd Wright house in the woods seemed so romantic, she would love to stay there. And I knew that was it. I realized that if she would want to come and stay here, hundreds of other people would, too."

The group incorporated as the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy and negotiated a lease with the State Parks Department to operate the house as a rental cottage. The conservancy managed to get a $50,000 grant from the Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources to start the restoration. In the fall of 1989, volunteers took the boards off and cleaned up the debris that had filled the cottage, and the following spring the Wisconsin Conservation Corps took off the deteriorated roof and dismantled the flagstone floor, numbering each stone and mapping it for replacement.

It took years, both because of a scarcity of funds and the conservancy's determination to restore the house as Wright and Mr. Peterson had conceived it, which in some cases meant doing more than fixing what had broken. The original contractor had put in forced-air heating instead of the radiant heating under the floor that Wright had specified, and numerous pieces of furniture Wright designed for the house were never built. The Frank Lloyd Wright Archives provided the original plans and specifications so the restored version could correct the omissions.

Eventually, the restoration cost roughly $300,000, and the job was completed in mid-1992 only with the help of a last-minute grant from the Jeffris Family Foundation in Wisconsin, and several gifts of such materials as windows from Pella and a refrigerator from Sub-Zero, companies whose products were specified by Wright for the house. Mr. Eifler added some Wrightian furniture to finish the interior, and the cottage was in business.

The conservancy has never advertised the cottage, but the network of Wrightophiles is apparently advertisement enough: It is fully booked through November, and some people have already reserved dates well into 1995. (One visitor has come from as far as Perth, Australia.) Since Mirror Lake State Park has cross-country skiing trails, it has become attractive as a winter destination as well as a summer one, and the one-bedroom cottage has already been the site of several weddings and numerous honeymoons and anniversary escapes.

The house is Frank Lloyd Wright boiled down to his essence: Powerful geometric form; low, contained spaces played off against exuberantly high ones; a sense of natural materials put together into a composition that at once seems to hug the earth and blast off from it. From the outside, it is at once serene and energetic. A solid section of stone, barely bigger than a chimney, anchors the center. The low horizontal of the bedroom ceiling comes off from one side, and the high, raked roof of the living-dining room bursts out from the other. The solids and the voids, the lows and the highs, the horizontals and the verticals, are in harmony.

There is none of the Buck Rogers air of some of Wright's other work done at the same time. The comrades of this house are really Wright's "Usonian" houses of several years earlier, the simple, straightforward houses built to prove Wright's lifelong belief that his architecture could be affordable on a middle-class budget. (It rarely was, but most of the Usonians are marvelous nonetheless.)

But the Seth Peterson Cottage has an energy, even an exuberance, that carries it beyond many Usonians to recall several other Wright houses from the 1940's and early 1950's -- like the Sturges House in Brentwood, Calif., or the Rose Pauson house in Phoenix -- where Wright also used stone to anchor wood and glass, and the house at once embraced the earth and soared above it. Whether the Peterson design took the form it did because Wright did not want to bother giving Seth Peterson his very latest ideas, or because he saw this vocabulary as right for this wooded site high above the lake, no one will never know. But it is clear that, whether he wanted to dispose of Mr. Peterson quickly or not, Wright delved back into his work to produce here something that was not a replay of what he had done before, but a nearly perfect, miniaturized synthesis of a critical phase of his career.

There is only one real room to this cottage, a glass-walled living-dining area that rises to true monumentality as it confronts the woods and the lake below. It is dominated by a vast hearth, and the walls are lined with the relatively uncomfortable built-in seating that Wright favored. The kitchen is a small alcove off this room, and the bedroom and bath, while private, are low-ceilinged and unexceptional.

The door takes visitors directly into the high main space, uncharacteristic for Wright, who preferred to squeeze you under a low ceiling at first so as to enhance the experience of grand space later. The economies of space at the Seth Peterson Cottage made Wright's normal mode of tight entrance impossible, since the last thing Mr. Peterson could afford was a vestibule. But I suspect there was another reason Wright did the little cottage this way, and I realized it after I spent the night: The moment of entrance that really matters is not when you arrive at the building's front door, but when you awake in the morning and move from the bedroom into the living room.

There, suddenly, it all opens up, from the tiny, cocoonlike bedroom, a retreat from the world, back into the world. The symbolism is all of opening, more and more with each moment, as you go from the bedroom, which is off the back of the living room where the ceiling is low, and move around the huge hearth into the center of the living room itself. The ceiling rises higher and higher with each step, the windows grow taller, and the view of the landscape looms ever larger.

That was what Wright was after: An architectural expression of awakening, a chance to move through space in a way that would symbolize the literal return to the world that awakening means. It was not merely for economy that he designed the bedroom to be as small, and as enclosed, as it is; it is nothing but a protective tent, symbolizing the night as the great space symbolizes the day.

It is for the day, and the great space, that the house exists. It is trite to speak of Wright in terms of connections with nature, but in fact when you sit in the living room and the whole feeling of the space changes as a cloud passes over the sun, it seems not trite at all, but very real. It's no accident that the guest book in the house is filled with comments from visitors who are awed at the serenity they feel, and who observe that the house has brought them closer to some sense of themselves.

It was never Wright's goal to erase the distinction between humankind and nature, and certainly not to defer to nature; Wright's architecture is so assertive that it forces you to think of him as much as you think of the landscape you are looking at. But this house, this balcony perched within the woods overlooking Mirror Lake, intensifies our sense of nature as a frame focuses attention on a picture. Yet it forces attention inward, too, and this is perhaps its greatest gift. The cottage is at once a protective enclosure and a stage projecting us out into the landscape; it nurtures and it energizes, all at the same time.