City Paper is not for tourists
Loren Pope moved out of his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in 1947. Since then, he hasn’t stopped living its legend—or his own.
Loren B. Pope, 91, is talking about the “key message” of the small house that was once his.
“I think the lesson of this house, that brings pilgrims and believers from all over the world, is that the true elegance that lifts the spirit and pleases the soul is not a function of size or cost,” he says. His voice is firm and raised for the first time tonight, 10 minutes into his speech. Also for the first time, he lifts his eyes to scan all the eyes of his audience. Cynics could sell snake oil with his conviction, but Pope is selling himself and what he is convinced his former house “means”: “If you can appreciate it and want it, you can have it. You don’t have to be rich to have it.
“I think that’s the thing that appeals, subliminally, or implicitly, to a lot of the people who come here: I could do something like this! I could have it! They couldn’t have a mansion; they can have this.”
Most houses aren’t so grand that they have a key message, impart a lesson, have a meaning, or send subliminal messages. But Pope’s old house does, because it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably the country’s—even the world’s—most important modern architect. And further, Pope’s onetime home, now the Pope-Leighey House on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation in Mount Vernon, Va., has Pope himself to interpret and relate the message.
“It was a spiritual thing, not an artistic or architectural thing to study,” he continues.
Pope is speaking in the living room of the house Wright designed for him. Pope lived in it from its completion in 1941 until 1947, when he left it to move to rural Virginia and go into pig farming. The National Trust for Historic Preservation owns and runs the house now, guiding tours through it 10 months of the year. Pope addresses a group of 30-some volunteers and tour guides this December night, standing in front of the bare brick fireplace and jingling coins in his pocket as he speaks.
“It’s a statement of principle,” he says. “What Wright wrote in his autobiography, to me, was saying the same thing that the Tao or Emerson or Jesus was saying.”
In 1939, Pope hired Wright to design a 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom, one-bath, and no-garage house. The two corresponded throughout the rest of Wright’s fame-filled life, which ended in 1959. Wright paid visits to Pope at the house, and Pope counts him a true friend.
Now Pope is back at the house he left more than 50 years ago. Around him are gathered 30-some of those dedicated to the cause of the master. In their 40s and 50s, a few in their 60s, well-educated and well-to-do, the Pope-Leighey House volunteers are here to take in Pope’s stories of architectural and idle conversations with the great man and the adventure of having him make the roof over your head. Weeks before the event, the National Trust’s staff made plans to record his talk.
Pope has come dressed for the evening. Wright himself was well-known for his mop of silver hair and dandified clothes; he even invented his own necktie knot. Appropriately, Pope wears an ascot, a white shirt, a nicely fitted green sports coat with a white pocket square, and prescription glasses in thick black Wayfarer frames. A full head of silver hair crowns him, too, rising and rolling back Elvis-like.
Pope once told a Wright biographer about attending a public lecture of Wright’s. It was in Washington, on a hot and humid midsummer day’s perspiring evening. As usual, Pope met with up Wright afterward, but for once he was wearing no tie. Wright’s wife was obviously offended; Pope wasn’t going to let that happen again. Ever since he read Wright’s autobiography, in 1938, Pope tells the audience, “His architecture could have been nothing: I believed in the man.”
“Mr. Pope is the only person allowed to bring beverages inside the house,” whispers Rhonda Goodman, who is in charge of training the house’s volunteers. If you’re not Mr. Pope, you need to step into the December air to chug your coffee next to the Thermos, Styrofoam cups, and holiday cookies on the card table under the carport. The house and its interior are a museum, protected and priceless. Inside, original furniture designed by Wright is protected with yellow ribbons stretched over it to prevent further wear. Replicas and folding chairs are set up for the volunteers.
The tables, the shelves, the desk—all made of plywood—and the cypress-wood walls are original. Casually, looking elsewhere even, Pope sets his condensation-sweaty glass of water down on the dining-room shelves. Beading water slips down the sides. Only Pope takes his eyes off the glass. The tour guides among the audience have told their hundreds of visitors to touch as few things as possible. It’s plain that everyone except Pope is making a mental note to get the cup off the shelf as soon as there’s a chance. Later, everyone forgets it; even later, everyone goes home and leaves it there overnight.
Until he discovered Wright, Pope, a 29-year-old copy editor for the Washington Star earning $50 a week, wanted to get a newly built colonial- or Cape Cod-style house—the rectangle with a roof that we’ve all seen in all the suburbs of all the cities in all the country. At the urging of friends, he wrote the “genius” a calculated letter that “no man with even a normal ego could say no to,” requesting that Wright design a house for him. “Of course I am ready to give you a house,” replied the architect.
The house was built on Locust Street in Falls Church, cost about $7,500, and was ready for Pope, his wife, and their two children to move into in 1941. Six years later, they sold it to Robert and Marjorie Leighey for $17,000. Robert Leighey died in 1963, about the same time Virginia highway officials decided to put part of Interstate 66 right through the Leigheys’ property. Marjorie Leighey oversaw the donation of the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1964 and even gave up the state’s compensation for seizing the property to help defray the cost of having the house moved to Woodlawn. She lived in the house there until her death in 1984.
But Pope never stopped protecting the house like an owner. “[T]his work of art by my friend Frank Lloyd Wright was a home created for my family and me,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in 1962. “[T]hat a civilized society could even entertain a proposal to let a road threaten one of the three Wright houses [in the area],” he maintained, reflected a “barbarian sense of values.”
He left the house, the job, and the city, he says, because he was sick of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other Red-baiting public figures. “The superpatriots, the anti-Communists, were ruining people’s careers,” Pope recalls. “This was the day of the afternoon newspapers, when the charges would be made in the morning and the rebuttals would come in the afternoon, and then they’d be carried in the next day’s wrap-up stories. And a lot of careers were being ruined, and I thought the newspapers were letting these demagogues have too much say.
“Also, another one of my heroes, E.B. White of the New Yorker, had bought a farm in Maine, and I said, ‘Why don’t I do that and grow some hogs Virginia-style and make a Frank Lloyd Wright palace in the country?’”
Leaving the house had a cost, however. Virginia hams were supposed to pay for a second Wright design on Pope’s farm, but that never came to be. “Just a few years before Mr. Wright died, I had nightmares that I would never have another Wright house,” he says between sips from his cups of water or coffee. “The nightmares came true, but I’ve been involved with this house [since].”
Leaning back against the brick fireplace, still jingling the coins in his pocket, Pope is nostalgic: “Sitting outside at night, this house looked like a Japanese lantern.”
This isn’t the first time Pope has been eloquent about the house. He’s been eloquent about it for a long time.
Walking inside it offered the same “sense of release and shelter as walking in a forest, where the leafy limbs cut sunlight and space into a continuing succession of mysteries,” he wrote in a 1948 issue of House Beautiful magazine, in a four-page article titled “The Love Affair of a Man and His House.”
Pope-Leighey House guides draw on Pope’s stories and writings when giving public tours, telling as much about Pope’s role in the house as Wright’s. Most of each tour takes place in the replica furniture in the living room. Guides hold up a 1938 Time magazine with Wright on the cover: “Mr. Pope first read about Mr. Wright here.” They point to a beat-up
mustard-colored clothbound book—Wright’s autobiography: “Mr. Pope read each chapter three times before moving on to the next one.” One guide acts out a story about a Wright visit to the house. As she tells it, Wright came storming in holding a small shrub. “If I wanted one of these here, I would have planted it myself!” she says he said, shaking an imaginary shrub in her raised right hand.
During time not spent conversing in the living room, the tour group walks single file through very narrow doorways, a tight hallway exactly as wide as a train car’s passageway, and around hard corners into the bedrooms. Guides open the pillarless corner windows Wright designed and also point out the things Pope built. “The wardrobe in the master bedroom is Loren Pope, design and manufacture,” Pope jokes when speaking to the volunteers. “Also the little counter thing in the kitchen.”
Pope also tells the story of the magnolia tree and the night Wright came to dinner. As they pulled into the driveway, Wright saw the tree. “What are you trying to do? Ruin this place?” he exclaimed, according to Pope. The next day, Pope cut the tree down.
He’s a “hero-worshiper,” Pope explains: “I became a Wright addict, not out of a passion for his architecture—I didn’t know beans about architecture.” But Wright’s autobiography made Pope a convert. “Wright was talking about his philosophy of living as an American and trying to be a better human being,” he says. “And that stuck with me…and that, in short, is the whole story.”
Despite Wright’s stature, nothing of his was built in the nation’s capital. “Grandomania” is what Wright called Greek- and Roman-rooted Washington architecture. “Symbols of authority of a pontifical past,” he called federal buildings. When an apartment complex he designed for north of Dupont Circle was rejected by a zoning commission in 1941, he told reporters that the zoning planners were “a bunch of beaux-arts graduates and goddamn fairies.”
Pope borrowed the master’s style of pen for his 1962 letter to the editor—”Mongoloids with their slide rules and T-squares,” he called authorities—but before tonight’s Wright-adoring audience, he tries to round off the architect’s rough local edges. Talking to the volunteers, he remembers the “goddamn fairies” line as “goddamn prostitutes,” and he is quick to call Wright, no matter what you have heard or read elsewhere, the kindest and gentlest man he ever met.
Still, after the speech is over and the volunteers approach him individually, Pope doesn’t protest when he’s treated like a surrogate for the master. They praise Pope for his house, stressing how much they like it and what being in it has come to mean to them. Fred Hecklinger, a retired college dean and a regular guide, tells Pope it is “only after you’ve been in it a while that you truly come to appreciate it in a deeper sense.” He points up to the effect of the indirect lighting: “Like that reflection of the bare light bulbs on the waxed cypress-wood ceiling. In the daytime I never notice it, but at night here it is just another magnificent new thing to notice.” Pope thanks him.
Today, Pope has moved back to the close suburbs, where he lives in a house not by the master, but it “carries the same genes.” He has spoken to architecture students, shown friends and business clients his former house, been interviewed for Japanese television in front of it, and given speeches on the house’s 25th and 50th anniversaries. Now he’s working on a book about it.
Plus, he gets to be the only one who can have coffee inside the house and leave wet cups on the wood. Which are good things: A house is meant to be lived in, after all. But the Popes and the Leigheys are the only ones to have known the house not as a museum.
Nonetheless, someone else seems to have brought in a drink for the speech. As the volunteers file out of the house, everyone notices an 18-inch-long blotchy brown stripe running down the light-slate-blue carpet near the kitchen. No one says anything.
Everyone knows that Pope doesn’t spill. CP