Measuring a scant 260 square feet, the small, low-slung structure still manages to make an outsized architectural statement. The guest house’s slanted roof, lined with a saw-tooth metal fascia as jagged as the surrounding agave plants, hangs over a row of windows that frame the main property off in the distance. The view of the main residence is the property’s real joy, which is not surprising, since the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, wasn’t shy about showcasing his own work. In this case, that’s the circular David and Gladys Wright House in Phoenix, Arizona, a nautilus-like precursor to his Guggenheim Museum.
“The main house is a spiraling diva,” says Victor Sidy, preservation architect, former dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture from 2005 to 2015, and one of the leaders of an ongoing effort to restore the smaller building. “This guest house is like the backup singer.”
Built in 1954, two years after the completion of the main home, as a type of accessory dwelling unit that would give the owners more space, the undersized guesthouse has always stood in the shadow of the main home. But as it cleans up and comes into focus due to a $100,000 renovation set to finish next month, the David and Gladys Wright guesthouse offers a look at the great architect’s mastery of small spaces. Reflecting on many of the main precepts of Wright’s work—including efficient use of space, harmony with the surrounding landscape, and customized built-ins and furniture—the project could be called the master architect’s own take on the tiny house.
“It is way easier to design a larger space than it is to design small space,” says Sidy, “just as it’s way easier to write a sprawling essay than a concise article or a tweet. This is a tweet. He took account of every inch of the building’s 260 square feet.”
Wright completed many other smaller homes and buildings, including the Seth Peterson Cottage in Wisconsin and his string of Usonian designs, family dwellings focused on compact, affordable, and efficient layouts. This shed-like guesthouse, made of concrete blocks and mahogany boards, isn’t widely known for the same reasons the main home has only recently been rediscovered by the wider architectural community.
After a burst of publicity when it was finished, the David and Gladys Wright House, which the architect had designed for his son on a large patch of land at the base of Camelback Mountain, fell out of the public eye and the architectural canon due in part to the owner’s desire for privacy. Purchased in 2012 by Zach Rawling, who saved it from demolition and restored both its physical structure and reputation, the home has only recently been rediscovered.
The guesthouse was even more obscure, tucked away in the northern part of the property and, for most of its existence, hidden away among citrus groves that used to fan out across the land.
Victor also believes the “odd duck” of a building slipped under the radar due to its simple, unfussy horizontal layout. With little space to work with, Wright created an extremely efficient work-live layout, fitting both a kitchenette and fireplace, sleeper sofa, extensive built-ins and custom furniture to save space, and a large bank of windows that act like a lens to frame a view of the main house and surrounding mountains, all while bringing the outside in, supporting passive solar heating, and creating the illusion of extra space. In many ways, this design achieves Wright’s oft-stated goal of simple, affordable construction for the common man without sacrificing attention to detail.
“It’s not until you use it on a day-to-day basis that you respect the efficiency he designed into the space,” he says.
Much of the current restoration project has focused on long-ignored issues that resulted from inferior initial building practices, according to Sidy, including the roof, constructed with shoddy materials. The goal isn’t to bring it back to mint condition, but rather to “respect its age,” and the fact that it has picked up some beauty marks over the last few decades.
Once it’s fully renovated, the guesthouse will host Taliesin scholars from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, a rotating residency to be supported by a still-to-be-assembled endowment.
Sidy sees the effort, part of a larger plan to preserve the main residence and replant citrus trees on the 6-acre site, as more than just the restoration of the larger property and the architect’s vision. He views the project as a turning point for the Phoenix preservation community. Just as the restoration of the main David Wright Home rallied the city’s restoration world, he hopes that preserving the small Wright structure will mobilize more energy around saving the city’s period and midcentury modern architecture.