When Frank Lloyd Wright asked Dr. John and Catherine “Kay” Christian what the word “samara” meant, the two sheepishly had to admit they were stumped. The couple had hired Wright to design a home for them in West Lafayette, Indiana, in the ‘50s, a town near Purdue University where they both worked. After establishing a working relationship with the architect, they weren’t surprised by the left-field question.
“Well, you better learn,” Wright supposedly said, “since that’s going to be the name of your home.”
Samara referred to both the winged seed found inside a pine comb, which could be found all over the lot where the Christians wanted to build their dream home. It would become not just a name, but a familiar symbol for their home, nature-inspired iconography found in the shape of a bench, the profile of a lantern, or the pattern woven into a rug.
Considering Wright’s propensity to design more for what he thought the site and the client needed, as opposed to their actual requests and needs, taking it upon himself to name a client’s home isn’t out of character. But while Samara is an exceptional example of Wright’s work in the ‘50s, it’s also the result of one of his more unique client relationships, one that found the future homeowners on more of an even footing that most Wright benefactors.
This particular architect-client relationship was different because of the way it began, and the time both parties invested in making sure the home fit the Christian’s vision. The couple came across the architect’s work during a trip to New York City, when they took a side trip to the Wright-designed community of Usonia and fell in love with his style, and felt it would be a great fit for the home they planned to build back in Indiana.
After researching Frank Lloyd Wright, they discovered their hope might be a little harder to realize than they initially expected. Wright was in the midst of one of the busiest periods of his career, working on great civic projects such as the Guggenheim, Marin County Civic Center, and Price Tower. Dr. Christian also admitted that he had “limited resources,” according to Linda Eales, the associate curator of Samara, a polite way of saying they probably couldn’t pay Wright the fee he would be expecting.
But that didn’t stop Dr. Christian from calling Wright’s office in Taliesin. Somehow, despite the presence of dozens of other architects and apprentices, the 83-year-old architect picked up the phone, and agreed to consider designing a home based off his Usonian principles.
Dr. Christian’s straightforward and direct manner would set the tone for the relationship he and his wife formed with Wright. The home was designed over the course of a five-year period, which gave the architect and client a chance to get to know, and more importantly respect, one another.
Dr. Christian was doing groundbreaking work on pharmaceutical research, which impressed the architect. And according to Eales, Mrs. Christian was also incredibly smart, and happened to be gorgeous, “which didn’t hurt anything with Mr. Wright.” They formed a mutual admiration society, and the architect even invited them for long weekend trips to Taliesin, which gave him a chance to explain his style and philosophy.
The Christians, however, also presented their ideas to Wright. Mrs. Christian created a 26-page document laying out the entire site, down to an exacting topographic maps—the site has a 14-foot slope from the top to a valley below—drawings of where trees stood in the lot (with measurements of their precise diameter), as well as a list of rooms and the activities the family expected to enjoy in each room. There was even dossiers for the couple and their daughter, Linda. Despite his reputation for being inflexible, Wright welcomed the feedback.
With that information at hand, Wright could design the 2,200-square-foot home to fit the couple’s lifestyle. The huge living room, which could hold 50 people, was ideal for the couple’s frequent salons, and even boasts a Wright-designed podium. The entertaining would continue on the adjacent covered terrace.
The home’s bright color scheme also reflected Mrs. Christian’s desires for a more exuberant interiors (Wright supposedly argued about this, but his own wife, Olgivanna, heard the disagreement, and told him she’d work on the design with two apprentices).
“There’s a fabulous flow to the home,” says Eales. “It’s always felt like a party house.”
Created late in Wright’s career, Samara also found the architect addressing a central part of late 20th century domestic design, the television. The family was given custom TV trays designed by the architect, and the television itself pops out of what Wright referred to as an “open sesame,” a cabinet that rises out of the floor.
The Christians found a unique solution to their self-professed lack of resources. They added elements as time and money allowed. When they moved into the home in 1956, it wasn’t fully completed; landscaping was unfinished, many decorative elements hadn’t been finished, and part of the living room was still functioning as a wood shop. Wright had given them extensive plans for every aspects of the home—150 blueprints for everything from the built-ins to the mailbox—and the Christian’s meticulously maintained and added to the home over the years. The now iconic copper faccia, made of hand-stamped copper, wasn’t added until 1991.
The home now offers one of the most complete arrays of Wright designs in a residential setting, a fitting tribute to the Wright-Christian connection. After Kay passed away in 1986, and Dr. Christian passed away in June of 2015, Samara become a historic home and arts venue, maintained by a trust set up by the family. Dr. Christian was able to see the vision of his home completed, as well as the learn that it had been named a National Historic Landmark that previous April.