Rent a Frank Lloyd Wright gem
Immerse yourself in the great architect’s vision
Even the local wildlife knows this place is special. A deer munches contentedly by the Teahouse. Suddenly a fox appears and as quickly vanishes down a garden path. As for the scampering chipmunks on the terrace, they are oblivious to the serenity of this stunning house, tucked into a grassy knoll in the leafy woods of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
A small masterpiece of American architecture, the perfection of the Palmer House was created by the coming together of an architectural genius and clients who stuck to their guns to get what they wanted. Considering the architect was Frank Lloyd Wright, who had a Donald Trump-sized ego, that was no small accomplishment.
Today you can stay in this remarkable house (for a minimum of two nights) and have it all to yourselves -- after the owners have given you a brief tour and departed. In Wright homes, such as Falling Water in Pennsylvania or the Robie House in Chicago, touching the furniture, let alone sitting in a Wright-designed chair, is strictly verboten. But in this house you are invited to simply make yourself at home. You can even take a nap on the couch where Wright himself slept on one of his visits in 1957. For that, the present owners must be congratulated: they have placed inordinate trust in those who find their way here.
In 1950 when Billy and Mary Palmer commissioned Wright to design a house for them, the great man was 83 years of age and at the peak of his abilities -- which were soon to diminish. Only 186 square metres in size, it is said to be one of the last projects to which he gave his full attention. The house is a variant of Wright’s “Usonian” principle: small, single storey dwellings conceived in the 1930’s Depression era, and characterized by no attics or basements, not much storage, radiant floor heating and carports (a term originally coined by Wright who said “a car is not a horse and it doesn’t need a barn”).
About 60 Usonian homes were built across the US over the next decades. Many of them have deteriorated over the years, due partly to the materials used, but the brick Palmer House was built to last. The house is also one of many that Wright based on the hexagon or equilateral triangle with absolute consistently: there is scarcely a 90-degree angle in the whole place.
He called her “Sister”
Although rude and overbearing to many of his clients, Wright formed a close friendship with the Palmers, especially Mary who he took to calling “Sister.” The architect usually resisted changes to his designs but his rapport with the Palmers even led him to agree to reorient the entire house so that the terrace led to the gently sloping lawn.
In December 1952 they moved in and the house remained in the family for 57 years until March 2009 when it was purchased by the present owners, Jeffrey and Kathryn Schox. Jeffrey’s parents, Sue and Gary Cox, manage the property.
“When we took possession,” said Sue Cox, “the house was a little tired but still well maintained, apart from the garden which needed a lot of work.”
The house was essentially as Mary had left it, including her books and other personal items. Browsing through the library in Billy Palmer’s study, a letter from Mary falls out of a book about Wright. And that’s what makes the experience of staying here so unique.
You reach The Palmer House by a twisting, narrow dirt road that curves around a small knoll. Just before a right-angled turn, a driveway leads up to the carport and a view of the entire house. The immediate impression is how the house seems to emerge from the knoll itself, which slopes dramatically up to the roofline of the bedroom wing and Billy’s partly subterranean study.
From the driveway a walled entryway leads to the spatial compression of the partly concealed entrance -- a typical Wright touch. Once inside, a dog-leg turn takes you up three steps to the narrow book-lined corridor which then gives onto the bedrooms and study. That jog means the bedrooms remain quiet from the main activity of the house. Turning left from the low-ceilinged entrance gives directly into the soaring great room that is a triumph of Wright’s art.
The room is one magnificent triangle after another. Three sided with the corners cut off; one by the two piers flanking the entrance to the terrace, another by the large brick fireplace and a third by the hidden entrance to the kitchen. Around it all runs an alcove with concealed lighting. The concrete floor is Wright’s favourite Cherokee-Red colour and runs throughout the entire building. The room appears much larger than it really is because of the three cypress clad triangles that come together to form the peaked ceiling.
Other than Mary’s grand piano, the room retains most of its original furniture, including the slightly tippy chairs around the dining table, the hexagonal occasional tables and stools, the “origami” chairs -- even Mary’s pieces of driftwood. The Palmers challenged Wright to design a home in which music would be a unifying feature and this is the room that epitomised that vision. It became the stage for the Palmer’s lives and hosted a steady stream of recitals, celebrations and community events. As the Palmer’s daughter, Mary Louise, said of her mother: “She realized her nature in the house.”
One drawback of the house for the Palmer’s two young children was that there was nowhere for them to play or leave a mess -- as kids always do. But they both later realized that, unlike their friends, they grew up in a piece of art and when, on a dark winter’s night, the fireplace threw dancing shadows on the brick and cypress interior they were clearly enchanted.
Waking up in the room that had been Billy and Mary’s bedroom for more than five decades is a novel experience. Just to lie back in the hexagonal bed and admire how brick, glass and wood come together to form the ceiling while looking in vain for a right angle is not something that happens to you every morning. Then notice the design of the fireplace and how the wide roof overhang narrows the height of the windows -- and you’re not even out of bed yet.
The house is quiet. No one else is up. Walking into the great room the early sun throws dappled patterns on the red floor and Wright’s origami chairs. Just beyond the continuous floor-to-ceiling windows the trees seem to form an integral extension of the house. Brew a cup of coffee, sit back in one of those chairs and just let your eyes wander over the details of this sublime space.
It’s still quiet. Step onto the terrace and take the path down to the Teahouse, a place for contemplation and refuge designed in 1964 by John Howe, who had supervised the building of the Palmer House for Wright. The bricks Howe used had been weathering in a large pile left over from the main building, and what’s left of them are a few steps away -- still weathering.
The other special time of day is just after sundown. Stand on the terrace -- both Palmer children were married here -- and look back at the house, maple and locust trees towering protectively over it. With its cypress-lined surfaces lighted from the inside, the house exudes a sense of warmth and calmness; an almost primeval feeling of shelter and security enhanced by the dramatic cantilevered roof. No wonder the Palmers loved this place almost as though it were a living thing.
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