Thursday, December 28, 2006

NEWS: About NYC's only residential building by Frank Lloyd Wright

From the Staten Island Advance (also known around the HDC office as "the paper")

One family's quest for a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home
William and Catherine Cass had one of the architect's pre-fab homes constructed on Lighthouse Hill

Thursday, December 28, 2006

JAMES G. FERRERI
Most of us detest wasting anything, whether it be our cell phone minutes, the last drop of milk in the container or, considering today's sky-high prices, the gas in our car.

Why, then, do we allow the waste of our irreplaceable buildings? Nearly every day, here in New York's fastest growing county, buildings that never can be replaced are destroyed simply because they have no protection from predators.

Fortunately, there are success stories. One unique home that has avoided the wrecking ball is "Crimson Beech," the home built by the late Catherine and William Cass on Lighthouse Hill. It is the only residence in New York City designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and one of only two buildings the world-famous architect designed that is still standing in New York.

There are two reasons for this building's good fortune: The Cass family and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Although Wright is perhaps best known for his residential projects for well-to-do clients, he also had an interest throughout his career in producing well-designed, moderately-priced housing. He believed that "the average American was entitled to a home that could also be a work of art."

Wright knew that if this home maxim was to apply to the lower-income home, it would require either pre-fabrication or a systems-built method of construction. It meant, he explained, that the home would have to go to the factory, rather than the skilled labor coming onto the building site."

PRE-FAB HOMES

As early as 1901, Wright produced a series of designs for moderate-cost model suburban houses for the "Ladies Home Journal," which included "A small house with lots of room in it," and a "Fireproof house for $5,000."

Wright continued to experiment with his idea of moderate-cost homes through the next four decades, until one night in September of 1957, when the architect was interviewed on television by Mike Wallace.

William and Catherine Cass were watching the program from their living room in Queens and became fascinated both by Frank Lloyd Wright and his idea of pre-fab homes. Cass, who worked for an employment agency, was a fan of Wright's work, and he and his wife decided to contact the master architect to see whether he would be interested in building a home on their property on Staten Island.

At first, Wright's firm was reluctant to commit to working on a home on the East Coast, but Cass was persistent.

Years later, Cass would explain, "I told him I wanted him to give me a home for around $35,000. Mr. Wright referred me to his associate, Marshall Erdman. We met Mr. Erdman, who pointed out that we could save from 30 to 40 percent on the home by using a pre-fab. I decided that was for me."

The lot the Casses owned was on Manor Court, land that at one time had been part of the Platt Estate. The couple especially liked the site for its views overlooking Richmond Town, and the presence of a several hundred-year-old copper beech tree.


CONSTRUCTION EGINS

Construction began in 1958: The numbered components of the house were brought to the site by truck from Madison, Wis. It took only four or five days to erect, although it took four months to complete the entire house. The Casses had anticipated a budget of $35,000. The costs of the house and shipping were $20,000; local contractors, however, added another $35,000 to the total.

Publicity about the project garnered the couple a donation from Follansbee Steel Corp. of West Virginia of a "terne" metal roof. Made of lead-tin alloy set on a steel sheet base, terne metal roofs were of high quality and employed by Wright on several of his buildings in the 1950s.

Marshall Erdman and Gaylord Nelson, governor of Wisconsin, attended the opening ceremony when the house was completed. The Casses invited the public to view it during an open house during the month of July, 1959, prior to their moving in. The couple had named their new home "Crimson Beech," after the old tree then located in the front yard.

Wright never visited Crimson Beech. He had planned to visit the site in 1958, but cancelled the visit due to ill health and never had the opportunity after that. He died in April 1959, leaving this house and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan as his only completed buildings in the City of New York.


L-SHAPED BUILDING

Crimson Beech is a long, low-slung building. Being L-shaped, its design allows for the shape of the lot. The home appears one-story from the front, but actually is two stories when viewed from the rear. The long wing of the home contains four bedrooms, a gallery, a slightly sunken living room and a basement level, while the shorter wing contains a kitchen/family room and carport. The rear side has continuous double rows of windows and sets of varnished mahogany-and-glass doors, which lead to red concrete terraces on both levels. The copper beech tree that was so beloved by the Cass family was killed many years ago in a freak tornado.

The Cass family lovingly maintained the home for years. William Cass passed away in 1983. Catherine Cass, a longtime community activist and Staten Island Advance Woman of Achievement, remained in the house until 1999, when she sold it and moved to Westerleigh. She died in 2004.

Frank Lloyd Wright is gone, but, happily, due to the New York City landmark designation the home received in 1989, Crimson Beech is with us to this day. In the five decades since Mr. and Mrs. Cass first thought about having their home designed by one of the preeminent architects in the world, Staten Island has become a large city, in all respects totally transformed from the bucolic paradise it had been in the mid-20th century.

Imagine what might have happened to the three-quarter acre Crimson Beech site in today's rat race of boom and bust, had it not had that designation as protection. We might not be able to claim Staten Island as the home of New York City's only Frank Lloyd Wright residential structure.

Wouldn't that have been a waste?

Present, Past, Future appears on the last Thursday of the month in Home. Marjorie Decker Johnson assists in researching the history of properties featured in Present, Past, Future, which is a project of the Preservation League of Staten Island. Do you know of an endangered building on Staten Island? If so, the Preservation League wants to hear from you. Contact them through their Web site: www.preserve.org/plsi/ and open the list of endangered buildings to find the e-mail address, or write to PLSI, 54 Port Richmond Ave, Staten Island, N.Y., 10302.

© 2006 Staten Island Advance