Imagine having the chutzpah to write to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to design your home on a tight budget. Imaging enclosing a $300 retainer, assuming assent.
That’s what Ted and Bette Pappas did in 1954 … and then waited for a reply that didn’t come. But Wright had cashed the check so they poured-on the courage and called. A clerical error was claimed. The Pappas original letter stated the potential of purchasing a three-quarter-acre lot for $2,000-$3,000 and another $19,000-$20,000 to build a home “of either six or seven rooms.”
In the end, the home sits on 3.36 acres and contains 2,310 square feet. There are four bedrooms and two full bathrooms along with living, dining and family rooms. At the end it cost nearly four times their original budget and took a decade to realize. In fact, actual construction didn’t begin until 1960, a year after Wright died, and took four years.
The front of the home sits low under the rows of pine, birch, oak and cherry trees Ted Pappas planted at Wright’s behest to shield the home from the road. One thing was right, Wright told the Pappas to buy a lot as large and as far outside town as they could muster because one day the suburbs would envelop them.
The photo above gives you a taste of this home. It is not just a Usonian home, but a Usonian Automatic. The Usonian homes were supposed to be semi-mass-produced homes targeting the middle-class price point. The Automatic homes took that a step further envisioning homeowners building their own homes from ready-made materials that fit together.
In the Pappas house there were 26 different block patterns that no one was keen to create the molds and blocks for. Finally they found someone who would make the blocks but only on the condition that they reject nothing. While a great many misshapen blocks were ground down to fit, some 300-400 blocks were unusable.
But it wasn’t only the bricks that caused a problem. Contractor after contractor bailed on the couple until finally, their lender called in the note from a lack of progress. The Pappases weren’t about to give up on Bette Pappas’ dream of living in a Wright home. They decided to build it themselves with the help of day laborers. Imagine hauling the hundreds of concrete blocks around the site – including the 190-pound blocks hauled to the roof on a wheelbarrow by Ted Pappas.
One of the reasons (besides necessity) Usonian Automatic homes were thought to be DIY is how they’re constructed. As stated, they’re all concrete block atop concrete floors dyed Wright’s signature Cherokee Red. The blocks have indents in each end to run steel rods that wove the house together. As the levels were raised, any electricity and plumbing were run through them before the concrete blocks’ indents were sealed with grout. Unlike traditional brick, there is no visible grout.
The home’s combination living and dining room contains a “has to be Wright” fireplace. In addition, all the furniture is original to the home and Wright’s design – including the textiles and Philippine mahogany walls and furniture.
Wright fans will think that those more traditional stuffed chairs cant’ be original to the home, but they are. Bette Pappas selected the fabric for it all.
You can also see above why the roof blocks were so heavy. They form a concrete coffered ceiling that also houses lights. What also appear to be tiny windows are in fact concrete blocks with their centers cut out and glass panels installed. In total, some 500 blocks were bored-out and inset with glass throughout the home.
Above is a long-view of the living and dining room with the wall of French doors and pierced blocks forming an intricate pattern of light. Also, you’ll note the corner window that pulls the roof’s load away from the corner to provide a glass edge. Lest it feel dark, the home has several expanses of clerestory windows.
The dining table is also Wright-designed and folds out and turns sideways to accommodate large holiday dinners. Wright was very good at multi-purpose spaces.
The kitchen is still very Wright. Open shelving along with closed cupboards give a variety of storage as well as visual interest. Even the red Formica countertops (also in the bathrooms) are original.
Wright was a master of space. In the first kitchen picture, the ceilings were tall with more roofline windows that give the room openness. Above, the other part of the kitchen has normal ceiling heights with plenty of lighting and direct light to assist in preparation.
Wright bedrooms are Spartan. This is partly because Wright wanted families to socialize and so eliminated distractions in the bedrooms. Here, we see what I suspect was the bedroom used by the Pappas’ twins (the built-in desks).
Swinging back outside for one last close-up of the exterior from the living room patio. Can you imagine the excruciating detail and precision needed to lay those blocks? Add to that boring out the interiors on the corner to inset the mitered glass inserts. Ted Pappas really loved his wife! The couple lived in the home for the rest of their lives.
The home, 19 miles outside St. Louis, has been for sale since early 2018. Currently, it’s listed with Andrew Dielmann and Ted Wright with Dielmann Sotheby’s International Realty for $1.2 million. Earlier in 2019, a non-profit foundation was formed with the purpose of raising the roughly $2 million needed to purchase the home and restore it. Their goal is to turn it into a museum to complement the only other St. Louis-vicinity Wright-designed home — the Kraus home in Kirkwood, Missouri.
And yes, of course, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and has been since 1979 when it was only 15 years old.
Remember: When I’m not stirring up trouble in Dallas, Texas or Honolulu, Hawaii for Candysdirt.com and SecondShelters.com, I’m off scouting interesting locations for a second home. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. If you’re a Realtor with second home clients who’d like me to feature their journey, shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.