On December 17, 2005, I was honored to attend a talk given by Loren Pope in the Pope/Leighey house. A good friend of mine is an architect in a Washington, DC area firm. The father of one of the senior people in the office is good friends with Mr. Pope. This woman arranged for the Holiday Party to take place at the Pope/Leighey house and for Mr. Pope to speak to the firm.
Mr. Pope, now a vibrant man of 95 years, was animated and excited to talk about the home that his heart has never left. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more enthusiastic person about the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. He started talking about how he became interested in having Mr. Wright design his home. The initial credit goes to Mr. Pope’s father. When Mr. Pope was starting to look for someone to build his home, he knew he didn’t want a conventional house. His father suggested he look at the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Loren Pope went right out and found a copy of the Wasmuth Portfolio and was summarily unimpressed. He liked a lot of the original ideas that he saw depicted there, but none of the designs really grabbed his eye and, more importantly, none were attainable on his $50 per week salary as a writer for the Evening Star newspaper.
Fortunately he dug deeper. He purchased a copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography. He hadn’t even read far enough into the book to get to any architecture before he decided that this was the man he wanted to build his home. “It was a story about a boy growing up in Wisconsin,” was the impression that it left on him. He did finish reading the book and that solidified his dream — his sole dream of someday owning a Frank Lloyd Wright home.
He and his wife purchased a 1 1/3 acre lot in Falls Church, Virginia for the sum of just under $500. They paid $25 per month for it while Mr. Pope got up the nerve to write a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him to design a home.
That letter is of some fame. He went through many drafts. His fear was that Mr. Wright would have no interest in designing a home for such a small project. Mr. Pope’s idea was to appeal to Mr. Wright through singing his praises. His letter was quite flattering and it got the desired result. Mr. Wright sent back a two line letter in response saying; of course he’d design a home for Mr. Pope. That was early spring of 1939.
Loren Pope traveled to Taliesin to meet Mr. Wright. On his way he stopped at the Jacob’ first home. He was taken with the design. He’d created a plan for the home himself… written down ideas that he wanted included in the house. On that first visit, Mr. Wright drew a sketch of the house he’d like to design. That design ended up being very close to how the home eventually was built.
Then came the hard part. No-one wanted to finance the building of the home. The mortgage company in the Falls Church area said the house would have no re-sale value. “It would be a white elephant”. The home was eventually financed through Mr. Pope’s work. The Evening Star financed homes for their employees. A few years later when the home was up for sale, it sold for more than $17,000. “White elephant indeed!” was the realtor’s response.
The next problem was that no one wanted to build it. The lowest estimate that they could get from a contractor to build the home was $12,000. “It might as well have been 100 times that” was Mr. Pope’s response. There was no way he could afford that kind of price. When this got back to Taliesin, Mr. Wright sent out one of his apprentices to be the contractor and to hire the craftsmen needed to build the home.
One of the ways that they saved money on the construction was to use surpluss glass for the windows. The glass was many different thicknesses and the doors/windows were adjusted to fit each thickness of glass. In the winter time when the glass would fog up or frost over, you could read the lettering from the different businesses that originally owned the glass. Many of the windows came from a Falls Church drug store that had gone out of business.
Mr. Pope had many wonderful stories about all the different times that Mr. Wright stopped by unannounced. On one of these occasions, Mr. Pope was working on bricking in a small patio. He was using a carpenter’s level to get the ½” slope that he needed for the patio to drain properly. This wasn’t working so well. Mr. Wright told him “For pete’s sake, Loren, use string!” Mr. Pope tore out the bricks that he’d laid, used a string to set the proper slope, and the patio went in perfectly.
On a different occasion, Mr. Pope had planted a magnolia tree near the carport. Mr. Pope had gone to pick Mr. Wright up in town and before they even turned onto the driveway, Mr. Wright said, “Good God, Loren, are you trying to destroy the house?” Mr. Pope cut the tree down the next day.
In 1953, long after Mr. Pope had sold his Wright-designed home, he was in New York covering a story for the Evening Star. He’d arranged to stay at the Plaza Hotel. Since the trip was arranged on short notice, the only room available was a quite magnificent suite. Mr. Wright was living at the Plaza Hotel at the time while he was working on the Guggenheim museum. The Plaza had recently been acquired by the Hilton Hotel chain and had been completely renovated. Mr. Pope’s room was rather drab, with unremarkable carpet on the floor and unimaginative paint on the walls. When Mr. Pope visited Mr. Wright’s suite, it was painted in wonderful colors and had parquet floors with oriental rugs on them. The furniture was all hand made wood and there were wonderful Japanese prints on the wall. Mr. Pope noted that Mr. Wright’s suite looked far more grand than his own. Mr. Wright’s response was that he’d had to have the boys fly in from Taliesin to “de-Hiltonize” his room.
Mr. Pope is definitely getting up there in years. He was definitely as sharp as anyone else in the room certainly more with it than I am. At 95, however, he’s starting to show his age. He’d had to make a trip to the hospital the day before, but was moving around and walking like a man 25 years younger.
Mr. Pope is in the process of writing a book. His original manuscript was one that matched some family history and memoirs of his father with the history of the home and its designer. This original manuscript was rejected…. The publisher didn’t know how the book would be sold. Is it history or is it architecture? Mr. Pope is in the process of re-doing the book as a pure architecture book. He’s including his own thoughts and experiences with building the home and knowing Frank Lloyd Wright. If all goes well, it will be published some time in 2006.
After Mr. Pope was finished speaking and answering questions, we were given an opportunity to tour the home with many of the docents. They patiently showed us around and answered our questions. One of the docents asked how many of us had toured Wright homes before. He then proceeded to tell a story about a tour that he gave to one fellow that was so interested in Mr. Wright’s work that he had a tattoo of one of Wright’s windows on the back of his leg. My friend Chris was standing right next to me and asked, “Is he talking about you?” I nodded. The docent made eye contact with Chris and me. Chris just pointed at me and said “This is that guy”. They didn’t believe me. I rolled up my pants and showed them just the corner of the tattoo. Everyone got a good laugh out of that. One of the other docents suggested that I should put the clerestory windows from Pope/Leighey somewhere else on my body. I commented that I already had the clerestory’s from Kentuck Knob around my thigh. She laughed as though I was joking. Chris told her I wasn’t kidding. She smiled and said “Well you need one on the other leg. We all laughed.
Many thanks to my friend Chris for inviting me along. I was honored to be included in such a group. It was amazing to meet Mr. Pope and listen to him speak.
Thanks for reading.