Owner wants to make architecturally significant Frank House a museum

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If you mention Pittsburgh and architecture, many people think first of Frank Lloyd Wright's transcendent Fallingwater or Henry Hobson Richardson's imposing stone courthouse.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photos
Mr. Frank on the terrace of his home, which was commissioned in 1939 by his parents, Robert J. and Cecelia Frank.
Click photo for larger image.

Some day, if the preservation stars align properly, devotees of design will travel here to tour a seldom-seen triumph of modern architecture -- the largest private mansion ever designed by partners Walter Gropius, founder of the revolutionary German school called the Bauhaus, and Marcel Breuer, an architect and furniture designer.

Set atop a secluded, wooded knoll and completed in 1940, the Shadyside home was commissioned by Robert J. Frank, an engineer who reviewed every blueprint, and his wife, Cecelia, an ardent supporter of local arts groups.

Sheathed in creamy kasota stone that glows in the sun, the Frank house is an inspired blend of sensual, sculptured walls and sweeping staircases, elegantly proportioned rooms lined in pearwood or English sycamore and four terraces that overlook stately old trees.

The three-story house, which incorporates fieldstone, concrete, glass block and stainless steel, has 12,000 square feet of living space, including a dining room that seats 24 people, massive travertine marble fireplaces and a glass-enclosed swimming pool that is 40 feet long and 20 feet wide.

The home's resident historian is Alan IW Frank, a Harvard graduate and an inventor whose innovations include clear and foam cups as well as a forerunner of the cell phone. His grandfather, Isaac W. Frank, was a civil engineer, a pioneer in steel manufacturing machinery and one of Pittsburgh's leading philanthropists until his death in 1930. Mr. Frank's late father, Robert, was co-founder of Copperweld Steel Co.

Mr. Frank plans to transfer the property to The Frank House Foundation, a nonprofit he established on July 1. That new entity, he hopes, will raise funds to acquire, restore and operate the 66-year-old home as a museum.

"My parents entrusted this place to me. Though not always an easy responsibility, it has been a joyful one not only because our home is still filled with my family's presence, but because of this place's role in the heroic, inventive era of American architecture, which has changed the world.

"We see it reflected in the places in which we live and work, the chairs we sit on and the clothes we wear, and the continuing desire and dream to make life better for everyone."

No public financial commitments have yet been made, but the leader of one of the region's largest foundations believes in the project.

"I think it is as potentially important to our region as Fallingwater," said Maxwell King, president of the Heinz Endowments.

A sculptured concrete staircase leads to the second floor.
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Two armchairs designed by Marcel Breuer occupy the first-floor reception area of the Frank house. A sofa is nestled in a sculptured wall made of travertine marble.
Click photo for larger image.

Mr. King, who has toured the house, calls it "a unique treasure that Pittsburgh must take very seriously and must figure out how to save. It's just an astounding place. The fact that it's the same as when they built it -- even the fabric, much of which is very worn, is still there."

The house is well-known among people who study architecture or revere modernism as a creative earthquake that transformed the way we live, right down to the style of cups and saucers in our kitchens.

In the summer issue of Columns, a magazine published by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the home received multiple votes. One respondent called it "a real sleeper. If this house were in suburban NYC there would be coffee table books and Ph.D. dissertations written about it."

Barry Bergdoll, who chairs the art history department at Columbia University, was recently appointed to run the department of architecture design at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Mr. Bergdoll is researching a definitive biography of Mr. Breuer, who designed all of the furniture for the Frank house, including the curtains. For Mr. Breuer, the Frank house presented a rare opportunity to stretch his imagination.

"It's a whole encyclopedia of furniture. In Germany, he never had a commission like that," Mr. Bergdoll said.

Mr. Breuer experimented with materials ranging from Lucite to zebra skin to plywood.

"You could bend plywood. You could get enormous strength. He's pushing the envelope of how you used plywood. He reinvented himself every decade. He was to modernism what William Morris was to the Arts and Crafts movement," Mr. Bergdoll said.

The architects integrated the home with its two-acre setting.

"That house is as much a part of its site as Fallingwater. The driveway makes that sweeping curve. It's a house that's about receiving," Mr. Bergdoll said.

He also admires how Breuer and Gropius designed window treatments so the Franks could control natural light by closing their silk shantung curtains. The architects' use of mirrors in the first-floor cloak room is effective, too.

"You feel as if you are in an elegant theater," Mr. Bergdoll said.

Toshiko Mori, a New York-based architect who heads Harvard University's department of architecture, toured the house last October.

"It's one of those rare occasions when you enter a house and it's absolutely authentic. Mr. Frank has preserved the house in its totality -- equipment, furniture, fixtures, even original textiles and wall coverings. It's all intact."

The house, which Mrs. Mori says has a European flavor, is an example of what the Germans called "total design" because the architects oversaw every detail, right down to the china.

"It's highly atmospheric without being highly decorative. It's a very exquisite balance of architectural proportions, textures and colorations with machine age aesthetics. Everything is very functional," she said.

The architects' use of different woods, curvilinear forms and luxurious fabrics make the home sensuous, Mrs. Mori said. Mr. Breuer commissioned Annie Albers, the wife of painter Josef Albers, to create some of the textiles.

The home also reflects the Franks' gracious lifestyle.

"You can see the family was social. They had a reception area and dancing in the dining room. Whenever you see a house, it's kind of a portrait of a family."

"You can just feel a joy, of a very private, yet close family, which really seemed to like fine, intimate moments. I think that's quite touching. That I think anybody would understand," Mrs. Mori said.

Will the public get the chance to experience that feeling? Only if local foundations, museums, scholars and preservationists join the effort.

"I can tell you that at both the board level and the staff level, we fully understand the tremendous artistic and architectural importance of this house," Mr. King said.

Mary Navarro, one of the foundation's arts and culture program officers, is working on fashioning "a grant for our fall agenda that would help define the scope of the work that is to be done at the Frank house," Mr. King said.

Doug Root, a spokesman for the Heinz Endowments, said board members will be asked to approve a $13,000 grant for a feasibility study to assess what it would cost to restore and manage the home. The grantee would be Carnegie Institute.

Richard Armstrong, the Henry J. Heinz II director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, calls the Frank house "unusually large and unusually grand and unusually rich and unusually intact. It's a real eureka from an era that's getting increasingly more distant to us."

"The case would have to be made that this is a national site, and I think it can be made easily," Mr. Armstrong added.

Mr. Frank's efforts to keep the home intact will make it easier to restore than the Darwin Martin House, a Frank Lloyd Wright structure in Buffalo, N.Y. The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan championed that home's restoration, which took more than two decades and cost about $20 million.

In an interview two years ago with an architecture critic from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mr. Frank estimated that restoring his home and converting it into a museum would cost between $12 million and $15 million. Fallingwater, completed in 1936, cost $155,000 to build and $11.5 million to restore.

Isabelle Hyman, a New York University professor, architectural historian and author of "Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings," said when the Frank house was planned, Breuer estimated it would cost $250,000.

Other major funders are aware of the home's significance. Last year, the Hillman Foundation acquired four examples of Breuer furniture from the Frank home for $200,000 and donated them to the Carnegie Museum of Art.

On display in Scaife Gallery 12 are a low circular table, an upholstered desk chair and a wall-mounted piece that combines a desk and bookcase. An armchair made of plywood and upholstered in pony skin is being restored and will be exhibited when that work is completed.

"For us, it was a crucial acquisition," Mr. Armstrong said. "We didn't have any evidence of this property in this collection. We have many gaps. We don't have that many opportunities."

The Frank house offers an opportunity the region cannot afford to squander, Mr. King said.

"The era when that house was built was such an interesting era in Pittsburgh history because it was during the Depression for most of the United States, and yet there was still enormous wealth in Pittsburgh. And, of course, Gropius and Breuer are terribly pivotal architects in the 20th century."

The textured wallpaper in a guest room at the Frank house features an American Indian theme.
Click photo for larger image.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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