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How to Install Air-Conditioning in Your Frank Lloyd Wright

And other architect-specific queries, answered.


Illustration by Patrick Morgan  

Q: Do I need special insurance for my Walter Gropius?
If your acoustical-plaster ceiling is damaged in a leak, you’ll want a policy that will repair and replace materials with ones as close to the original as possible, to “make sure the structural and architectural integrity is restored,” says Brian Milnamow of Fireman’s Fund Insurance, one of a few companies—Chubb and National Trust are others—that offer this type of specialized high-end coverage. Of course, it comes at a price; premiums will likely cost more—at least 20 percent, according to bankrate.com—than typical home insurance. To find the right insurer, visit nationaltrust-insurance.org.

Q: How do I add a heating-and-cooling system to my Frank Lloyd Wright?
Carefully. Airflow is a signature feature in Wright’s homes; adding any old HVAC system seems anathema, ripping up all that gorgeous woodwork sacrilegious. “It’s not just a trip or two to Home Depot is what we say,” says Mary Roberts, executive director of the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, a six-structure complex that FLW built from 1903 to 1909. “We thought long and hard if air-conditioning was appropriate.” Luckily, advances in modern technology make it easier than ever to address concerns. The Martin House, for instance, uses a custom duct system, which in turn will heat and cool the air in the home. Stewards of Taliesin West, Wright’s masterpiece in the Arizona desert, turned to geothermal technology to address HVAC needs and installed solar panels. His Robie House in Hyde Park relies on a fan-coil system that distributes cold air through pipes installed in cabinets that also hide radiators. Before embarking on your retrofit, check in with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (savewright.org) for guidance; it can provide information on everything from the right paint colors to building materials.

Q: Can I build an addition to a Mies van der Rohe?
First, understand that any renovation you embark upon may inspire debate among fervent fans. In other words, expect some angry letters to the editor of your local newspaper—not to mention outright opposition. Building an addition is probably less controversial than a total demolition, but you may still be under scrutiny. Finding the right architect is key, says Peter Gluck, principal of Gluck Plus, a New York firm that undertook an addition to a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed estate in Connecticut, and that means making sure yours has experience in working with significant properties and understands the vision of the original architect. Be sure plans don’t just mimic what’s already there—a common but misguided approach. “If you try to make it the same, you tend to ruin the integrity of the original,” Gluck says. “We have wonderful old buildings that are surrounded by really cheesy copies that were done in the name of context, but in fact, what you do is lose any sense of the authentic.”

Q: Should I install curtains in my Philip Johnson?
Not every house Johnson designed was as glassy as his New Canaan masterpiece, but many do have large windows. In some cases, according to Hilary Lewis, an architectural historian, Philip Johnson owners have been known to use solar shades, especially to protect their art collections. (Johnson’s museum pavilion for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, for example, had drapes designed by the architect; he also used curtains in his own Manhattan duplex.) Those who buy a Johnson usually don’t mess with his concept by adding just an average window treatment. Your best bet is to consult architects who’ve worked with Johnson (Alan Ritchie, his design partner for years, still runs a practice) or commit to his vision fully and go without—given Johnson’s meticulous attention to a structure’s placement in relation to its landscape and out of view of neighbors, you probably have more privacy than you think, anyway.


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