A Frank Lloyd Wright House In New York City
Aside from the Guggenheim Museum, there is only one Frank Lloyd Wright structure in all of New York City. The Crimson Beech, a rare example of Wright's prefabricated houses, stands on Lighthouse Hill on Staten Island.
Everyone knows that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum, but even the savviest of New Yorkers may not know of another Wright structure in New York City. As an older man the architect experimented with prefabricated housing for middle-class Americans. There were only nine identified such houses built and one of them is on Staten Island.
“Crimson Beech” stands since 1959 on the side of Lighthouse Hill above historic Richmond Town on Staten Island. The exterior has horizontal laid mahogany battens, horizontally accented brickwork, and typical Prairie eaves. Its coloring is very like the leaves of an ancient copper beach that stood next to it until it fell in a 1967 storm. Like Wright’s other “Utopian American” houses, it stretches itself along the ground, appearing as part of its natural surroundings.
The site is so precipitous the house appears to be clinging to the cliff. Yet it is the perfect location for a long, low house at front, with broad expanses of glass that open onto two levels of terraces at the back. From two hundred feet above sea level and unobstructed by any buildings or trees is the full glory of the Lower New York and Raritan Bays and the Atlantic Ocean.
Known as Prefab No. 1, the designs were made for a Wisconsin builder named Erdman in an attempt to provide moderately-priced, but high quality housing. The homes are also known as “Erdman Prefabs.” Wright saw to every detail of his houses, down to the furnishings and draperies. “Crimson Beech” retains Wright’s furnishings, built in cabinetry, and mahogany paneled walls. The original homeowners once refused an offer on the house, because the buyer wanted to remove the mahogany.
Catherine and William Cass of Corona, Queens watched Frank Lloyd Wright do a television interview in late 1957. On impulse, they decided to commission a Wright prefab and moved into it in 1959. The house arrived in pieces numbered for assembly. Wright insisted on a Japanese screen imported from Tokyo for above the couch, a Fisher 100 turntable stereo, a grand piano, and a Nutone intercom. He even designed the mailbox outside. All of the features have remained with the house.
“Crimson Beech” is a recipient of a Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy Award and is a designated New York City Landmark. The Casses considered themselves stewards of the property more than owners, and meticulously maintained Wright’s vision. Except for a swimming pool installed following some serious brush fires in the 1960s, they succeeded remarkably.
Their common statement would be, “You wouldn’t change a Picasso.”
In 1959 the house cost $20,000 in materials and $35,000 to build. In 1999 it sold at an indecently low price around $1 million.