History, History Column

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House

©2017 Sarah Becker

by Sarah Becker


Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian master work, the Pope-Leighey House is situated in a wooded hollow, an accepted part of historic Woodlawn’s 19th century landscape. Built for journalist Loren B. Pope, in 1940, the 1200 square feet house was moved to Woodlawn in 1964-1965 for preservation purposes. The Pope-Leighey House was originally built on a 1½ acre lot in East Falls Church, Virginia.

Wright, born 150 years ago, on June 8, 1867, in Richland, Wisconsin, is widely remembered. The American Institute of Architects describes him as “the greatest American architect of his time.” In 1914 The Washington Post “credited [Wright] with being among the first in this country to design a bungalow.”

Wright, who survived the Great Depression and two World Wars, found Americans want for moderately priced houses fascinating. His goal: “to reduce the actual cost of residential building and at the same time give the family whose income is perhaps $2,000 a year a modern comfortable home.” Like many of today’s millenials Pope, a $50 per week copy editor with The Washington Evening Star, could not afford a costly northern Virginia dwelling.

Undeterred Pope wrote architect Frank Lloyd Wright an appealing six page request. Wright responded favorably recommending a “classic of the Usonian type of architecture;” a functional, inexpensive, 1800 square feet, one story house. Pope approved the plans in October 1939.

Pope’s contractor, cabinet-maker Howard Rickert, proclaimed Wright’s scaled down two bedroom one bath, L-shaped design “the most logical house he had ever seen.” The cost: $7,000.

In 1939 Frank Lloyd Wright was considered a great, if not over-the-hill architect. At age 72, his critics thought him well past his prime. “Wright’s surge of creativity after two decades of frustration was one of the most dramatic resuscitations in American art history,” biographer Robert Twombly wrote.

Architect Wright’s Usonian homes were the smallest of his structures. Among the Pope-Leighey House’s innovative features: a central brick or stone chimney with fireplace core; radiant heating [hot water pipes installed in gravel beneath the concrete floor]; prefabricated walls [a cheap and efficient building technique]; an open floor plan; a carport [a new design] and a cantilevered, hard gravel roof.

“The Pope-Leighey House is an outstanding example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic [inside to out] architecture,” Craig Tuminaro said. A garden “hemi-cycle” surrounds the house.

“A house, we like to believe, can be a noble consort to man and the trees,” Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in his book The Natural House. “The house should have repose and such texture as will quiet the whole and make it graciously one with external nature.”

“Wright’s style is one of verticals and horizontals, compression and expansion,” Tuminaro continued. “He thought people were too noble to live in hot boxes.”

To cool the house in the summer Wright relied on natural air currents. Rectangular clerestory windows are hinged such warm air can escape while drawing cooler air in underneath. Clerestory, plate-glass and large-patterned windows were used to facilitate both natural light and airflow.

The living room and library are the largest and highest spaces in the house. Banks of single-pane glass doors give both the living and dining rooms a spacious look. The reverse board-and-batten “sandwich” walls, his space saving fabricated exterior and interior walls were built as units: Wright’s unit system of design. The long hallway, or gallery, is the width of a Pullman car.

In 1939 women mostly prepared the family’s meals at home. Wright’s center placement of the undersized kitchen “liberated housewives.” Their workspace was “no longer confined to the back of the house.”

Wright’s furniture, made of cypress veneered plywood to match the cypress trim, was either modular or built-in. His decorating scheme was limited to four colors: blue, green, yellow and Cherokee red. The concrete floor, scored in a grid pattern, is tinted Cherokee red.

In 1946, after six years, the Pope family sold the house. He traded journalism for hog farming. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Leighey purchased the intact house for $17,000. It was not location that guaranteed the price increase. Rather it was the Leigheys’ understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and the construction materials used. [Cypress, brick, concrete and glass]

In 1961 the Virginia Department of Highways “notified Marjorie Leighey of its plans to use the property in the construction of Interstate Highway 66.” Stopping the house from being leveled by bulldozers “has nothing to do with me,” Mrs. Leighey said. “My house was saved because it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.” The Pope-Leighey House is one of 27 Wright-designed Usonian houses.

“The home’s uniqueness was in the act of saving it,” The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation explained. “It is the first preservation example of a national 20th century house. It is also the first time a major political leader [then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall] objected to an intruding highway.” It was Secretary Udall who brokered the transfer agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, in turn, Woodlawn.

“Unfortunately Wright’s persona now overpowers his designs,” Tuminaro concluded. “A deeper architectural appreciation is needed especially his vision for affordable housing.” Frank Lloyd Wright, “a great man for firsts,” had devised “nine different cost saving construction methods” by 1932.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation now celebrates Frank Lloyd Wright’s sesquicentennial year. Flamboyant, a thrice married father, Wright designed more than 1,000 works 532 of which were built. Architect Louis Sullivan, of the firm Adler and Sullivan, was a mentor [Form Follows Function] and Thomas Jefferson an achetype. “Our democracy was Thomas Jefferson’s idea,” Wright declared.

Frank Lloyd Wright did not fear death. “Walt Whitman is the guide on that,” Wright said. “If you want to talk, to consult him—read Leaves of Grass!” When asked if he went “to any specific church” Wright replied “I put a capital N on nature and go there.” Wright died April 9, 1959, in Phoenix, Arizona, at the productive age of 91.

“It will take time, even in a preliminary way, to evaluate Wright’s greatness wisely and well, to gauge his true influence and perhaps even understand and appreciate him with full profundity,” The New York Times reported in 1959. “His deepest regret was that so very, very few understood—and even fewer practiced—the principle which may ultimately turn out to have been his most significant contribution: the reiterated principle of organic architecture.”

“Though Wright is justly famous for his monumental industrial structures, it was in the beauty of his private homes that his architectural genius flowered,” The New York Times concluded in 1963. Tokyo’s Hotel Imperial (1916), New York City’s Guggenheim Museum (1943-1959) and Mill Run’s Fallingwater (1935-1937) are other outstanding examples of his work.

The NTHP’s Pope-Leighey House is located at Woodlawn, 9000 Richmond Highway, Alexandria, Virginia, 22309. For more information, including June 8 Cupcake Tours and related events visit www.woodlawnpopeleighey.org.

Lawrence and Nelly Custis Lewis’ Woodlawn was designed in 1805 by architect William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com.

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