The Bay Area work of the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, both the ten or so projects that were built and twenty or so more that only made it to the design or sketch phase, has now been chronicled and thoroughly documented in a new book from Yale University Press, Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco. Written by Wright scholar and emeritus professor of art at Stanford Paul V. Turner, the book tells the complete story of Wright's unusual affinity for the Bay Area, in spite of his famous dislike of cities in general.
"Wright's Bay Area works are distinctive mainly for their diversity and the unprecedented nature of many of them," writes Turner. "They demonstrate, perhaps more than his buildings in any other location, the amazing variety and innovation of creations, and the fertility of his imagination."
Favorites among local residential architecture lovers include the Buehler House in Orinda now available for weddings and other events the Hanna House on the Stanford campus, and the Berger House in San Anselmo, commissioned by a young college professor, Robert Berger, in 1950, and which Berger then built by hand over the course of 20 years. Notably, Berger's son Jim Berger, who still owns the home, asked the architect to design an adjacent dog house for the family dog, which Jim Berger reconstructed several years ago after his late mother had destroyed it.
Wright's thirty or so projects in the Bay Area, beginning in the 1910s though a mysterious sketch of an unbuilt house in Oakland from the year 1900 is the first evidence of Wright's interest in the region and ending with one of Wright's last completed public buildings, the Marin County Civic Center in 1959, represent an incredibly diverse collection of buildings, some of them among his most ambitious and dramatic.
One example is his unbuilt "Butterfly Bridge" design to span the Bay from Alameda to San Francisco, a duplicate effort of then 12-year-old Bay Bridge but more elegant, complete with a public park in its center, which he unveiled with great fanfare in 1949, including displaying a model of it at Stonestown shopping center.
Another is an unbuilt cliffside home in the Seacliff neighborhood for one of his most loyal clients, the Vere Morrises, for whom he also designed the V. C. Morris gift shop on Maiden Lane in Union Square, which still stands today. The Seacliff mansion, for which Wright would design several schemes over multiple years, is one that Turner considers among the architects "most tragically unbuilt" projects, as well as a skyscraper for the San Francisco Call, commissioned in the years after the 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed the paper's original headquarters.
The grand Marin County Civic Center, visible from the 101 in San Rafael, like so many public projects, faced plenty of opposition before breaking ground in 1961 (two years after Wright's death), as the Chronicle explained in this piece last year. Ultimately fully completed in 1976, Turner tells SFist he thinks the building "is one of his most powerful works. Moreover, it is beautifully maintained by the county administration and the various boards and organizations that oversee and support it."
But probably the most wildly ambitious, beautiful, and unfortunately unbuilt of Wright's local projects, and one that could have been among his great masterworks, was the headquarters of nascent technology firm The Lenkurt Electric Company, commissioned by early Silicon Valley telecom pioneers Lennart G. Erickson and Kurt E. Appert. Lenkurt had a promising construction budget of $1,000,000 in 1955 (about $9 million in today's dollars) which quickly grew to almost double that as their construction plans expanded. They ultimately wanted an office and manufacturing facility of about 50,000 square feet on land they'd purchased in San Carlos on the Bayshore (101) freeway. Wright would devise a grand scheme based loosely on his famed Johnson Wax Company building in Racine, Wisconsin (completed in 1939), with much of the building's structure supported on a series of 240 "lily-pad" columns, with natural light allowed in across coned skylights between the columns. Different from the much smaller building in Wisconsin, this one would be raised up by the columns allowing for a one-story parking structure to occupy the entire ground level. For the project, Wright's team would draw one of his dramatically colorful nighttime renderings on black paper, as shown above, with one side of the building flanked by a reflective moat.
Ultimately, the project would prove ill-timed for the clients and possibly un-buildable for various reasons with Erickson indicating at one point that Wright's local people, including his main San Francisco architect Aaron Green, weren't capable of spearheading such a complicated project, and with Wright himself approaching 90 years old by the time construction would have been set to begin. And, by 1959, Lenkurt would be a victim of its own success, and in a great Silicon Valley tradition would get acquired by General Telephone and Electronics, allowing Erickson and Appert to retire early and abandon the building project for good. (And ultimately, Lenkurt, which made carrier equipment for telecoms, would become a division of GTE Communications, and be subsumed by Lucent in the 1990s.)
Check out photos of the Lenkurt Electric Company and more in our slideshow.