Pope Leighey House, 2003 Mount Vernon, Virginia

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Peter Beers*
Written By Peter Beers*

Pope Leighey House, 2003: Mount Vernon, Virginia

Late Spring is a perfect time to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House.  I had some spare time over the weekend so I took advantage of one of the few days this month without rain to take an in-depth tour.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to do some comparative analysis of the Pope Leighey house and look at its past, present and future.

Pope-Leighey House:  June, 2003

Though it was commissioned in 1939, it was built during the first half of 1940.  I thought it would be interesting to do a little comparison between the Pope-Leighey house and the other historic home on the site, Woodlawn Plantation.  Now I know its kind of like comparing apples and oranges, but it certainly makes a dramatic contrast.  Above is a good view of the private side of the Pope-Leighey house (the side away from the street if it were on its original site).

Woodlawn Plantation: June 2003

Above you have a fish-eye view of the front of the 17th century Woodlawn Plantation.  The homes are barely 400 meters apart, yet they couldn’t be more different in styles.  The overwhelmingly formal and vertical Woodlawn couldn’t be a more dramatic contrast from the horizontal and modest Pope-Leighey house.

Hidden Front Entrance of Pope-Leighey:  June 2003

Where’s the front door?  As in many of Wright’s homes, the front door is not easily visible from the street.  The way I like to think about it is a privacy thing.  If you haven’t been invited to the home, you won’t feel comfortable walking up to the door.

Non-Hidden Front Entrance to Woodlawn Plantation: June 2003

The front door couldn’t be more front and center than this.  There is NO doubt where this front door is.

Private Side of Pope-Leighey: June 2003

I’ve toured the Pope-Leighey house many times in the last few years.  I’ve talked about the basic history of the house on this page.  I would, however, like to share some of the things that I learned from the in-depth tour that I took this weekend.

Herb Planter: June 2003

One of the nice touches that Wright designed into this home was an herb planter outside the kitchen window.  The above photo shows this planter along with one of our guides (Rhonda).  What you can’t see is the lower part of the window into the kitchen.  It opens onto the herb planter so Mrs. Pope could reach out and clip some fresh herbs and add them to what ever she was cooking.

Living Room Wall: June, 2003

Mike and Rhonda were fantastic docents.  They both had a great knowledge of the house and its history.  Much of the interesting history of this house comes from the people who lived here over the years.  Mr. and Mrs. Pope truly loved this home.  They both put a lot of work into house both while it was being built and in contributing to the decorating.

Living Room Wall and Windows: June 2003

Wright really wanted tan colored carpets for the living room.  Mrs. Pope thought that turquoise would be a much better choice.  After a bit of wrangling, Wright finally gave in and turquoise was the color.  When I first thought about turquoise carpets, I wasn’t too enthused.  But when I took a critical look at the floors and the room, the color is PERFECT for that room.  There needs to be something in the room that isn’t basic earth tone in order to offset the red color of the floors and the tidewater cypress wood of the walls.

Living Room shows light pattern on carpet.  June 2003

The other amazing thing that was demonstrated for me during this tour was the lighting.  Wright really had a talent for orienting homes so the lighting would be just right.  Even though this home is oriented a few degrees off from what it was on the original site, the light is very similar.  When you’re sitting in the living room in the morning, the patterns of the clerestory windows appear on the carpet and floor.  When its windy outside and the leaves are moving around a lot, the patterns seem to move and dance across the floor.  Still photos are not enough to show how cool this effect really is.  They can give you a basic feel for the way light affects the room.

Bedroom Windows.  June, 2003

The Leigheys lived in the home in Falls Church from the time they purchased the home (1947) through the early 1960s.  Mr. Leighey’s health began to fail him about this time.  In 1961, they received a first notice that their home was in the path of a new highway being built.  They didn’t appear to do anything at this time.  Soon after Mr. Leighey died in 1963, Mrs. Leighey received the definitive notice that she needed to vacate her home to make way for I-66.  This is when she really swung into action.  She arranged a deal by which she would donate the house to the Trust for Historic Preservation and it would be moved in conjunction with the National Park Service.  This also involved her donating the $31,000 dislocation allowance that the state had paid her for the value of her home.

Whole House from end of Bedroom Wing. June, 2003

None of the original masonry or concrete foundation could be moved with the house.  That was all left and replaced when the home was rebuilt in its new location on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation near Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Since the walls and roof were relatively flat, they were transported on a flatbed truck to the new location.

Mrs. Leighey went to Japan to work as a missionary during the moving process.  The terms of the agreement to save the house stipulated that she’d be allowed to live in it for as long as she liked.  She was required to give tours of the home every weekend and rather enjoyed this.

Dining Room through Windows.  June, 2003

One of the designs that was very important to Wright was bringing blurring the line between the interior of the house and the beauty of the nature outside.  Often times that lead to having the ability to see right through the house.  That is evident in the Pope-Leighey house.  It is quite easy to look in through the dining room doors and right out the living room doors on the opposing walls.

Interior of Living Room: Fish Eye lens.  June, 2003

This fish-eye shot of the living room makes it look a little larger than it really is.  The ceilings are almost 12′ high, which adds to the feeling of spaciousness in this home.  Though its only 1200 square feet for the whole home, in many ways it feels much larger.

Dining Room.  June, 2003

Its very easy to see that there is little difference between the inside and outside of the dining room area.   Open the floor to ceiling doors, including the one that has no corner, and you feel like you’re sitting out on the brick patio, rather than in the dining room.  The tables from the living room can pull together with these in the dining room to extend the table to comfortably seat 8.

Dining Room to Garden.  June 2003

This shows how open the dining room is when the corner door is opened.  The garden is a natural extension of the brick patio and dining area.

Dining Room. June, 2003

The original plywood chairs and tables go well with the cypress wood and red brick that makes up the other building materials in the home.  The original telephone still sits on the shelf here and is still used in in the home.

Living Room.  June, 2003

This shows what a lovely, light, open space the living room is.  The high ceilings and clerestory windows combine to make this a very warm, welcoming room.   I could imagine sitting here and reading for hours, though I might want more comfortable chairs.

Fire Place.  June, 2003

The central fireplace is a beautiful Wright design, though it didn’t include a fire screen.  Mrs. Pope knew that would be an issue since she had small kids living in the house.  She got Wright’s apprentice to make her a fire screen.  This one is quite utilitarian, but it meets the need and fits the design of the house.

Radio Table.  June, 2003

I loved the lamp and radio on the table next to the fireplace.  They are a nice touch to the decor of the house and very fitting with what would have been there in the ’40s.

Living Room from Back Wall.  June, 2003

The photo above gives a good idea of how things are placed in the living room.  Off to the right is the dining area (or nook) and straight up the stairs is the front door.  The kitchen is located behind the fireplace.

Living Room Table. June, 2003

This photo gives a good view of some of the furniture that Wright designed for the home.  The simple, 3-ply plywood materials still looks good after all these years.  It is obvious that these were done on a budget, but they are useful and match the wood in the house nicely.  The lamp on the table was built by one of the Pope-Leighey house tour guides.

Kitchen.  June, 2003

The kitchen is very useful.  Though some people think it is quite small, the space is very typical for the time.  My wife and I lived in a 1930s bungalow for a few years and the kitchen was no bigger than this.  We had less cabinet space and were expected to have a small table and chairs in it as there was no dining room in the house.  The refrigerator is the same one that Mrs. Leighey had in the house.  It no longer works, but is kept in the house for authenticity.  The small freezer is big enough for a little ice cream and some Birds Eye frozen peas… the only two frozen foods available in the 1940s.  From here you can see the small lower window that opens out onto the herb planter.  The other feature to notice is that all the cabinets open facing the natural light so as to minimize the need for electric lights.  Most people think everything in this room seems quite low.  Though the cabinets are a little lower than normal, one of the reasons it feels a lot lower is that the ceilings are almost 12′ high.

View from Front Door.  June, 2003

In the process of moving, they found that the wood that was used for many of the cantilevers was not holding up.  It wouldn’t support the house for many years to come.  During the reassembly process, steel beams were used to reinforce them, insuring that they will be strong for many years to come.

This was a proven solution to some of the problems that existed with Wright homes.  Former Wright apprentice Edgar Tafel loves to talk about the time he was fired for adding steel to a cantilever of a home he was overseeing the construction of.   Olgivana later convinced Wright to hire him back.

Living Room Wing from Children’s Bedroom. June, 2003

The garden instantly becomes part of a room when the windows are so high and the light comes flooding in.

Children’s Bedroom. June, 2003

During her time in the house, Mrs. Leighey had a piano in the children’s bedroom.  She loved music and it seemed like the perfect place to put it.  The difficult thing was getting it into the house.  The hallway was designed by Wright to be the same width as a Pullman car.  There is no way that an upright piano would fit down the hallway or around the corners.  As a result, they brought it in the window.  The Trust for Historic Preservation still has the piano in the basement of Woodlawn Plantation.

Children’s Bedroom.  June, 2003

This shows off the windows at the end of the bedroom wing.  In addition, it shows how much the garden becomes part of the room.  There is very little line between inside and out in this room.  Open these windows and you’re part of the garden.

Children’s Bedroom.  June, 2003

All this talk about opening doors and windows begs me to talk about screens.  Mr. Wright did not originally intend there to be screens in this house.  During the building process, Mr. Pope found that they were absolutely necessary.  The Popes also wanted to add a screened porch off the living room since they could not afford a third bedroom.  Mr. Wright finally agreed to these additions, though he stipulated that they use copper screens.  The color of the copper screens is such that you look through the screens rather than at them.  Samples of the screens are still in the sanctum.  For the rest of the house, the tracks have all been removed.

Reading Desk in Children’s Bedroom. June, 2003

Book Shelves in Children’s Bedroom. June, 2003

Even the book shelves in the children’s bedroom are cantilevered.

Hallway, Fish Eye.  June, 2003

Wright designed the hallway to be the width of a walkway in a Pullman car.  Though the fish-eye lens accentuates this, the halls do feel narrow.  Luckily the clerestory windows add light to the hallway making it seem wider than it is.

Bathroom. June, 2003

The bathroom is large and useful.  IT is well designed and would function well even today.   There’s a small cabinet with shelves just outside the bathroom for storing toiletries and towels.

Master Bedroom. June, 2003

The master bedroom is small, but very useful.  The platform beds are original to the house.  They are two twin beds that are pushed together.  Again, the main feature of the bedroom are the windows that integrate it with the garden.

Master Bedroom and Garden. June, 2003

Notice the shelf above the bed.  Wright did not intend for people to sit up in bed and read.  There is no way anyone bigger than Gary Coleman could do so.  People who live in a house like this were supposed to meet and read in the main room.  The bedroom was not a place that was intended for private time spent awake.  It was meant to sleep in and get dressed in the morning.  That is all.

Master Bedroom. June, 2003

Loren Pope had some good carpentry skills.  He built a set of drawers in the master bedroom closet that added some much needed storage space.  He also built a vanity and mirror for his wife in the bedroom, skillfully mounting the mirror on the wall in a way that it matched well with the décor.  It is rumored that Wright looked at both additions and commented that Mr. Pope did good work.

Master Bedroom Closet. June, 2003

Master Bedroom Vanity. June, 2003

Hallway Looking towards Children’s Bedroom. June, 2003

Though this photo is slightly burred, it gives you a better view of how wide the hallway is.  All furniture is moved in and out of the rooms through the windows.  There’s no room to get things in through the hall.

Sanctum. June, 2003

This was originally Mr. Pope’s office.  You can see the screens on the windows to the right.  The Pope’s ended up using this as a nursery when their third child was born.

Sanctum. June, 2003

Notice that the copper screens don’t change the view out the windows at all.  You look through them rather than at them as Wright intended.

Writing Desk in Sanctum. June, 2003

Today in the sanctum, you’ll find Loren Pope’s desk and a typewriter of similar vintage to the one he would have used.

Outside Bricks and Light.  June, 2003

Outside the house, this photo gives a good close-up of the brick work.  The mortar for the vertical joints is colored red to match the bricks.

Brickwork Close-up.  June, 2003

This close up shows how the horizontal joints are raked out to accentuate that line in the house.  The brick work was expertly done on the most recent renovation.  With all the structural work that had to be done at the home’s last move, the cost of renovation topped $700,000.

Clerestory Windows. June, 2003

The clerestory windows show that this is the public side of the house.  The garden side has floor to ceiling glass for the dining room and knee to ceiling glass for the bedrooms.  What a contrast the public side of the house is.  It provides privacy for the house so that people can’t just look into the home from the street.

Whole House from Bedroom Wing.  June, 2003

This photo really accentuates how long the carport cantilever is.  It looks like it sticks out almost as far as the living room wing on the other side.

Dining Room from Outside.  June, 2003

This shows how easy it is to look into and through the house on the private side of the house.  Mr. Pope added this brick patio to the house with Wright’s approval.

Whole House from Garden. June, 2003

The private side of the house is very beautiful.  You can still see the cypress wood getting its silver “patina” as it weathers.  It was sanded smooth with the last renovation and the wood on the living room wing (to the left) is much more like the color the house is intended to be.  On the bedroom wing (to the right) it is protected from the weather and is changing color more slowly.

End of Living Room from Below.  June, 2003

Worm’s Eye View of Pope-Leighey House.  June, 2003

Pope-Leighey’s original Neighborhood. June, 2003

Mike, our docent, told me where the house was originally located and I went for a drive through the neighborhood.  In the 1940s, this area was quite rural.  Falls Church, Virginia had a population of about 2500.

Next door neighbors. June, 2003

Locust Street (where the house was located) was a dirt road.  The Popes owned a lot that was a little over an acre.  During WWII, Mr. Pope had raised pigs on the lot in Falls Church since meat was not easily available at this time.   This would later influence some of his choices as he moved to a farm near Leesburg, Virginia to be a pig farmer and later a dairy farmer.

Pope-Leighey Neighborhood. June, 2003

At this point, the site where the Pope-Leighey house was located is in the middle of Interstate 66.  It is located right before exit 68 on the eastbound lane.

Tune in for more on the Pope-Leighey house in the near future.

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Written by Peter Beers*

CEO & Lead Interior Designer

Brad Smith is an experienced interior designer and the founder of OmniHomeIdeas.com. With a Master's degree in Interior Design from Pratt Institute and a passion for creating safe and healthy living spaces, Brad shares his expert insights and innovative design ideas with our readers. His work is driven by the belief that home is where every story begins.