Thursday, August 1, 2013

A VISIT TO THE ROLAND REISLEY HOUSE IN USONIA NEW YORK


Roland Reisley House, Usonia, Pleasantville, NY (1951) (New York Post photo) 

Plan, Reisley House with dining room childrens' wing added in 1955

The story of the creation of Usonia, in Peasantville, New York, has been ably told in Roland Reisley’s book Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001).  Usonia the community  was the brainchild of David Henken, an architect who served an apprenticeship with Wright in the early 1940s and approached Wright about designing the Westchester County community for 47 families in 1946. Wright designed three of the houses, the rest were designed by Henken and numerous other progressive architects. The Reisley House (1951) was the last of the three by Wright. I had visited and toured the house briefly on two occasions in the past but this time my mission was to ask Roland questions of a phenomenological nature, that is, I was seeking insights of a direct experiential nature, insights that are not only about the visual but those that involve the tactile, the sonic, and the kinesthetic. My project turned out to be quite challenging. Coming from Buffalo where I have had a long exposure to Wright’s local Prairie houses I found the geometries of the Reisley House distracting as we talked but wonderful to experience. The planning grid consists of equilateral triangles 40 inches on each side (as opposed to the square grid of the Martin House). Such a grid offers a 120 degree angle for wide vistas but also narrow 60 degree angles that can be difficult to use. Roland commented that Wright was ingenious at finding locations and uses for such angles. Wright made the triangle the theme of the entire house with roofs, prows, balconies, and a 1955 addition (for the children) all darting off in different directions from its lofty wooded hillside site. As a result everything about the house is experienced on the bias as opposed to the conventional rectangularity that most of us live with. Moving through the house is akin to experiencing a jazz-like rhythm. While negotiating this unconventional geometry everything – fine, horizontal cypress walls and ceilings, panoramic windows, stone masses that glide effortlessly past sheets of glass, cantilevered prow-shaped roofs – conspires to draw one's attention out into the surrounding landscape. Although this is not unusual in Wright's houses the sixty and one hundred and twenty degree angles feel more natural and engaging. 


Reisley dining room, added in 1955
In my brief stay I was fascinated by the complexity of the ceiling and the roof structure for which Roland created a model so that the carpenters could decipher Wright's drawings. (Consider that Wright built over 400  houses and rarely, if ever, repeated the same roof configuration.) 

Roland Reisley's letter to Frank Lloyd Wright with sketch of unfinished roof and his model of the roof structure (Photo from Roland Resiley, Usonia New York: Building a Community with Frank LLoyd Wright, p. 140) 

The living room, seen below in one of Roland's photographs -- a serious photographer, he had Wright include a darkroom in the basement of the house -- warrants close study. The bookshelf at the right has no back and functions as a semi-transparent screen particularly when approached from the master bedroom. A greater transparency occurs as floor-to-ceiling windows and inset doors cross the south end of the living room, pivot 120 degrees at a triangular granite pillar and continue as the door and window wall of the dining room. Nature wraps itself around the house. It is no wonder that Roland Reisley has lived in his home for sixty two years and continues to find beauty in it every day.

Living room, Reisley House (Photograph by Roland Reisley from Roland Resiley, Usonia New York: Building a Community with Frank LLoyd Wright, p. 144

(My thanks to Susana Tejada, Curator of the Martin House Restoration)

2 comments:

Bailey Baerwolf said...

Hello Jack,

Thank you so much for sharing such insightful information! I am a student at Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan and Frank Lloyd Wright is my greatest inspiration. I am originally from Wisconsin where, as you could imagine, I was always surrounded by his work. In the City, however, it's difficult to have such experiences. I am researching Usonia in Pleasantville and I would absolutely love to visit the area. My only concern is that I might arrive there and not be able to see much of the private, tucked away residences.

Anyway, (I apologize for the length of my comment) would you possibly have the contact of someone that I may be able to speak with in regards to a visit to Usonia? I would truly appreciate any help in making this trip.

Feel free to e-mail me at b.baerwolf@gmail.com. Thank you so much, I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,

Bailey Baerwolf

Sara Giaveno said...

Dear Mr Quinan,

I am attending the last year of Architecture at the Politecnico of
Turin, in Italy. I am developing a master thesis about the
“Architectural preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings”.
Your article will be very useful to me, because the main theme of my research is the Usonia II in Pleasantville.
I know that you are an expert on the Wright's field, thus I would like
to ask you if you could gave to me some information:


-Can you suggest to me some texts about the restorative measures that took place on Sol Friedman House, Reisley House and Serlin House?
Are the houses in excellent conditions or suitable for some restorative measures?

- Do you know if I can visit the site freely, and develop a land survey and an analysis of the facades?

Feel free to e-mail me at giavenosara@gmail.com

I thank you in advance for your attention and your kindness.
I look forward to receiving your response soon.
My best regards,
Sara Giaveno.
Politecnico di Torino