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Calvert Vaux and Frank Lloyd Wright: Two Architects, One Vision

By Barry Benepe

SUSAN LAWRENCE DANA HOUSE (1904): Located in Springfield, Illinois, this house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect (Museum of Modern Art: 1994).
W.E. WARREN HOUSE (1857): Located in Newburgh, New York, this house was designed by Calvert Vaux at a cost of $11,967.60. Photo courtesy of Calvert Vaux, Architect and Planner by William Alex (Ink Inc, New York: 1994).

Art is a form of searching where artists sometimes independently reach a common form or truth. I found this to be the case with Calvert Vaux and Frank Lloyd Wright who were two generations apart. Vaux was brought over from England by his mentor, and later his partner, the horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing. Vaux is best known for his design of Central Park and many other major parks in partnership with Frederick Law Olmsted in New York City. Ninety years later, Wright prepared his first drawings for the monumental spiraling Guggenheim Museum facing that park. Vaux and Wright also developed distinct yet similar approaches to the design of private country residences.

In Villages and Cottages, published by Harper & Brothers in 1864, Vaux wrote:
“Good architecture of some kind must spring up in any society where there is a love of truth and nature…Every sect agrees that there can be but one Creator, therefore all our created organs, sensations, and capacities must emanate from this fountain-head.”

Vaux then explores the form of a domestic dwelling and how it relates to the land and its occupants. He thinks like a landscape architect:
“The great charm in the forms of natural landscape lies in its well-balanced irregularity…that makes the stirring, unconventional, free-spirited man so much more interesting…the design has to be adapted to the location, and not the location to the design.”

Vaux also thinks like a painter:
“The colors should be carefully varied, often cheerful and light…every rural building requires four tints.”

Architecture for Calvert Vaux became an all-embracing religion, a deep embodiment of universal values that shape our lives:
“If excellent architecture can give innocent pleasure, it is certainly worth having, and all Americans ought to have it with as little delay as possible.”

One of his most outstanding houses was designed and built in a Gothic vernacular for William E. Warren in Newburgh, New York. It is sited along Montgomery Street on a stone-terraced embankment overlooking the Hudson River. It has a broad veranda embracing the view, with bold decorative verge boards along the protruding edges of the slate roof. The painted brick walls contain numerous projecting porches, bay windows, and hooded windows and doors.

Similarly, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote the following in the March 1908 issue of The Architectural Record:
“There should be as many kinds (styles) of houses as there are kinds (styles) of people…A building should appear to grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonize with its surroundings…Colors require the same conventionalizing process to make them fit to live with that natural forms do; so go to the woods and fields for color schemes…Buildings like people must first be sincere, must be true and then withal as gracious and lovable as may be.”

Like Vaux’s Warren House in Newburgh, Wright’s design for Mrs. S. L. Dana, completed in 1904 in Springfield, Illinois, breaks with the conventional box of more classical symmetrical houses. The Dana house is shaded by broadly projecting roofs over complex multi-axis projecting wings with complex openings and voids. Wright of course, during that time, moved to a broader horizontal motif. His work can be reviewed at the Museum of Modern Art show, Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, through October 1st.

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