Sunday, October 30, 2011

TRACING OUR NEIGHBORHOOD TO FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT

My neighbor Jacky and I were walking our dogs the other evening, when we met a man heading down Meridian Street, a dead end. Up by the top of Hallwood, Jacky and I usually cut through a path to the back of Jacky and his wife Sara’s house.

"You folks from the neighborhood? I was just visiting a friend down here," he said. "Name's Bill English." We reached the corner house. “But I live over this way – so I’m going to take a very old shortcut through these woods…” He had an affable manner and looked to be in his mid forties.

"I didn’t know you could cut through these woods," I said.

The property on the far end of Meridian Street extends to the sound wall for route 66. There are trees and a creek which runs along on our side.

"Sure you can, Amanda,“ Jacky said. “That’s where all the deer come up from."

"That’s right," said Bill.

"Also foxes," Jacky said. He was holding his head on one side, like the country squire, trying to size up our acquaintance. The men seemed to take a liking to one another – being about the same age and friendly disposition.

"Yup," said Bill, "there are a number of dens back there as well."

Jacky has a way of engaging people on our walks – Janet who is watering her trees, or Nancy who is moving to DC, or Hank on the corner of Gordon whose basement flooded a couple months back. So we stood with the dogs while Bill told us his family had been in the area many years "since back when all of this was woods," he said. "In fact, there used to be a house back here designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”

"No kidding!" Jacky said.

"When they put in Route 66, they took the whole thing down, numbered all the pieces and reassembled it up on 95," said Bill.

"Hey, is that the Pope Leighey House?" asked Jacky.

"Sure is."

"I know of that place. I’ve seen signs for that many times," he said. "And you have too, Amanda."

"Have I?"

"It's on the way to Ikea."

"It was Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of a working man’s house – built around 1940 for a guy in the newspaper business," Bill told us.

"How incredible," I said. "And right here in our neighborhood?"

"Right here, where the road continued through before they put in the highway. See how the trees on this side are thinner than the ones over here? That’s because the road went straight on though."

When I got home, I looked up our neighborhood on Google maps and saw that there was indeed a sizable wood behind Meridian. To think it had been there all this time – and we'd owned a property one block away for twenty years, but I’d never even thought to explore it!

Last Sunday I told Ben and the boys all about it, while we were sitting outside enjoying the autumn sunshine. I had a notion I wanted to explore those woods. Alex and Elliot were carving pumpkins on the terrace and Ben was relaxing with a cigarette. "But why are you so interested?" Ben asked. "Do you think you’re going to find indigenous peoples back there?"

The boys and I laughed. "That’s right," they joked. "People who have stopped having their newspapers delivered – and have been waiting there all this time to reestablish contact."

"Who knows what you might find," I said. "Don’t you think it’s interesting?"

"Not really, Mum," said Elliot. "I’ve been in those woods many times, and there’s nothing special about them."

I didn’t believe him. They had captured my imagination, like a secret garden. I loved the idea of Bill English cutting through those woods, as he had since boyhood. And also the idea of that special house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, right in the middle of our neighborhood.

So two days ago, on Friday, Alex was going down to visit Elliot at VCU – they were going to a Halloween party, and after my sculpture class I said I’d drive him down. It would be a chance to talk on the way to Richmond, and a chance to think and listen to music on the drive back home. Then, once we got on the road I had another idea. "Hey," I said to Alex. "How about visiting the Pope Leighey house!"

Alex thought it was a splendid idea. We got off the highway and followed the back roads and the signs until we found ourselves at an estate called Woodlawn – where the Pope Leighey house was now constructed.

The estate was a throwback to another time, apparently an old slave plantation – but we parked the car and went up the brick path and inside bought a ticket for the tour.

A crumpled man sat in the corner of the visitor’s lobby. “Tour will start at 2:30," he said. "So you can wait up here or…"

“Can't we stroll around the grounds?” Alex asked.

"Sure you can," he said.


Down a winding path, past many silver maples in full autumnal splendor we found the house nestled at the bottom of a hill, on a stretch of grass.

It was constructed of brick and timber – long wide planks laid horizontally – so that it appeared more expansive than it really was. The front door was sheltered by an overhanging roof – and the layout was simple and inviting, reminiscent of the houses we had recently visited at a sustainable architecture exhibit in Potomac Park.

We strolled around, looked into windows and waited on a bench, chatting, until the same crumpled man from the visitor's lobby ambled towards us and welcomed us into the house.

We found ourselves in an open vestibule – with brick floors – off to the left was the bedroom wing, like a row of ship's cabins – but down the steps in front of us was the expansive living area – small kitchen to the right – storage space on the left side of the stairs, obscured by wooden hinged planks that harmonized with the rest of the timber interior.


The house was aromatic and woody with light pouring down through the many small windows set one on top of the other for visual interest – in a stencil pattern reminiscent of native American artwork. The furniture was module – we were told that the several identical tables positioned in various different parts of the house, could be laid end to end for large dinner parties – and that chairs – all identical simple and comfortable, could be positioned at the table or arranged like a sofa.

Large french windows near the dining area and off the living area, as well as in the bedrooms, invited the outdoors into the home. They could be opened entirely, expanding the living space into the terrace areas.

We chatted with our tour guide, and asked many questions, told him why we were so intrigued by the place.

"Imagine that!" he said with pleasure. "You’re the first visitors who have ever come here from that neighborhood. But funnily enough, an intern was trying to pinpoint where the house might have stood only the other day. We couldn’t locate it on the map. We thought perhaps it was on the other side of 66."

Alex and I were able to tell him exactly where the house had stood, and how long we had lived there – and how the houses in our neighborhood built in 1947, seven years after the Frank Lloyd Wright house, had evidently drawn just a little inspiration from this place, with their concrete floors, cunning use of space and underfloor radiant heat. Our houses were built from post war materials - and although they are decidedly blue collar dwellings, they were built to last - not with frills or ostentation, but with integrity and thought to their design.

All the way to Richmond, Alex and I mused about the little Pope Leighey house. Even when we got into horrible traffic we didn’t much mind – because we’d made a connection to the past that had entirely captured our imagination.

Today when Jacky, Sara and I met up to walk the dogs, as we usually do on a Sunday morning, I told them about the visit. Instead of heading to Haycock Woods we decided to check out the wood where the Frank Lloyd Wright house had been located.

It felt a little magic – slightly like stepping into Brigadoon –as we followed the path along the end of the creek and into the woods behind the final house on the corner. The ground was full of brambles and undergrowth, but we found a path and on the other end, Jacky wanted us to keep going. There was a house – and he thought it might belong to our acquaintance, Bill English.

We found ourselves on a private road, running beside the woods which buffer us from route 66. And here we found several small and interesting houses, shaded by the trees.

"I think we should all move here, don’t you," suggested Sara. She loves to pipedream like this – imagining us all going to Mexico, for instance. Last week she was contemplating property in Bulgaria – "You can get amazing villas there for really good prices~" This was right up her alley.

"I like this little stone one," she said. Further along, we passed an old style ranch with white clapboard sides and wooden decks around it. The trees arched across the road providing a beautiful golden light.

"We can tell Ben that we've found our indigenous people after all," she joked as we stepped onto the main road – and found ourselves next to a familiar Korean church.

We walked back to ours – and had a cup of tea and biscuits on the terrace. "I’ll have to run down there," Ben conceded, when we told him all about it. "It does sound interesting."



For more information, or to visit the Pope Leighey House: www.popeleighey1940.org

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