The House That Made Me Become an Architect

This is the home I owned before moving to New York in the mid eighties. It is a true home set with nature not onto nature. It was designed by Penrose K. Spohn, born 1903, a young architect who worked under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin as in intern. All the images were taking on my recent trip to Pennsylvania.

Mr. Spohn said: “The first act of home-making – for man or animal –  is leveling an area. But too often the level area is lost by setting a house on it. So I set the house over the level area at right angles.”

The house was about clarity, order and simplicity, set on three acres of beautiful woodland property. It was unique at the time where the outside was brought inside through walls of window, and the inside out with the interior use of natural materials, like all the fir paneling. There was a congruity with both realms. You can readily see the influence from the time it was built in 1960. The house was heated by radiant heat panels below the ceiling joists. This house really had new and innovative technology for the times.

I can easily talk about the unique construction from an architectural and engineering standpoint, but Vierendeel girders, patterning of bolt heads and Tectum roof planks are not of much interest to most of you. But, you can understand driveways.

The use of a gravel drive was a very environmentally sound decision, but I am not sure of the idea that it should be white. This was a conscious consideration by the architect, chosen to contrast with the green environment. I most likely would have taken a different direction, since the main theme generating the design was one of which the built environment would blend with the natural surroundings. To pull out such an insignificant element of the design and give it such importance, contradicts the underlying premise.

The white surface does mitigate heat, aiding in a cooler environment, but it does command visual attention.  I planted four dogwood trees in the four original granite lined planting beds in 1981, but these are now gone. They softened the entry and made the drive fit in better with the surroundings. You can see, only one remains.

This area was not needed to park cars or as use as a turn around, so the trees were a benefit to the landscape. There were four planted beds with tulips and Muscari footing the dogwoods, but only the tree remained. These people must have removed them to enlarge the white gravel driveway.

The bed behind the drive still has the lupins, iris and Delphinium from what I can see.

This home influenced my desire to become an architect and to work with the environment. Mr. Spohn lived next door and I was a constant visitor, absorbing all the philosophical counsel I could muster. He was happy to entertain me knowing I was on a path similar to his.

I too had a very influential and well written mentor myself when I finally started working for a firm here in Buffalo. He was a very forward thinking, environmentally conscious architect, whom I greatly admired. And, best of all, he gave me free reign on all my designs. I was able to grow as a professional, be creative and innovative. I don’t talk much of my profession, but this is how I entered the field of architecture.

The house was set into the mountainside and the gardens were terraced with paths trailing through the woodland.

The woodland had many native wildflowers like Mayapple, phlox and Trillium.  I could not see the gardens behind, but what I could see looked overgrown. There are two more stone walled, garden terraces which I could not get in an image. Maybe they are gone as well. The wildflower images you see here are from across the street from where I was photographing.

Something simple, but…

I remember feeding a family of raccoons here, under the huge oak where they lived out back.  You can see the stairs out back in the first image of the home at the beginning of the post. I descended them every morning to feed my furry friends. The mother was a three-legged, tree climbing marvel, raising her family of four demanding and pesky young kits. Also a skunk family with the cutest of babies, six little tails held high, lined up soldier style behind her, awaiting a breakfast of the previous evening’s scraps. I never got sprayed, but my lab did a few times. They did not enjoy seeing him.

This is the entry to the main living area from the small foyer at grade. The diagonal side walls were fir, the floor, flagstone, making the connection of inside to out with the material choice.

Just for interest, to understand a bit of what an architect does while designing…

The diagonal planking of the entry core is functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. It acts to brace the structure from horizontal wind loads. You knew I could not throw in a little architecture stuff.

Sorry for the moiré pattern in the image. It is from House and Home magazine, November 1961, and this magazine was given to me by the architect.  I kept it all these years.

This home was set in the mountain forest and spanned over a fast running stream running beneath the home, hence the home atop four wood columns. Each side of the home becomes a truss to bridge terraces, stream, and retaining walls in one single span. The four columns are the only portion firmly ground supported.

The simple floor plan is seen to the left.

Mr. Spohn was influenced by Wright’s design at Falling Water. And I was greatly influenced by him. I only wish he was around to know what an impact he had on me.

Next post… another garden tour in Pennsylvania.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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62 Responses to The House That Made Me Become an Architect

  1. My mother loves Frank Lloyd Wright and often purchased homes that had that connection with nature inside and outside. It was really interesting learning about how you were influenced to become an architect. Your former home somehow reminds me of the Northwest. Isn’t it disappointing to see changes to your former home and garden. Whenever we sold a home I always felt there should be a clause that it can only be sold to “garden people”.

    • Your mom has the right idea. My whole career I have looked to the inside/outside connection. The site of the home really does have a northwest vibe, although I never did get to see Oregon or Washington state. The only two states I missed in my travels.

  2. GirlSprout says:

    Donna, what a wonderful mentor to have as a neighbor.

    • I have been really lucky in my life to have had a number of people take me under their wings. I am sort of a sponge too. I love learning and never stop, so when I find someone that knows stuff, I love to learn from them.

  3. I didn’t know you were so famous.

  4. Little Sis says:

    Just beautiful. Thanks for sharing. I love homes that live within nature.

  5. See I knew you were famous 🙂 What an incredible house and experience to have influencing you……all those wildflowers in the woods and the home in nature…wow now that is heaven to me. I love Wright and his architecture. I really became interested when I moved to AZ and went to ASU in the early 80s. Gammage is an incredible building and his last commission, but the campus and surrounding area were greatly influenced by Wright and his School in Scottsdale.

    • Ha, not famous by a long shot. I am very private about my work and always stay in the background even at big events. Penrose was a great guy and I really enjoyed his friendship too. His wife was really nice also. I like Wright’s work, but he was a control freak designing everything in and out all the way to the furnishings. This house had built in cabinetry and that was the extent of the ‘furnishings’. One thing that also was integral to the home and unique, was inside there are sliding drapes on all the windows. They were motorized, so with a flick of the switch, all the drapes would slide over the panels inside. It meant no artwork on the walls, but I use easels for a lot of my work anyway to display,

  6. Donna, I would like to hear more about architecture from you. What a beautiful house and setting. It must have been very hard to leave. I would like to use gravel in some of my garden areas, replacing the grass on the terraces, but I wonder how to keep it clean with all the leaves, etc., from the many large trees. How did you handle this?

    • It was vacuumed by a company. But I used a, hate to say it, leaf blower myself. Each year the gravel driveway is refreshed with new stone too. This driveway was a major pain if you can gather by my comments. I would have used permeable paving, even turf stone. It is just as eco friendly and allows a little green on the surface, since you grow a groundcover or grass in between the units. It is really long and wide too, with the parking area, and the turn around. I did not show that side in my images because a car was in the driveway.

  7. This has to be my favorite garden post of yours yet! The house is very neat. At first I did not realize it was set on posts. The stream is still under it? I agree with you on the white driveway. A natural gray or brown would’ve been much better.

    • The stream is still there, it make a loud noise. When you are sleeping inside the house, you can hear the stream running below. The architect did site the bedrooms at the other end of the long structure though. I am sure he considered this. I would have had to walk onto the property to see more and a car was in the driveway, so I did not. It looked like it may have been a teenager’s car, and I did not want to knock on the door if only a kid was home. I am going back for a family reunioun in September, and may contact the people if I get a chance. I would like to pass on the magazine of the home since it was kind of revolutionalry for the times. The title of the article is New forms integrate engineering and design. And the article was under the main catagory of Architecture in Transistion.

      Sorry, Tina, there was not much gardening. I looked for the photos I took when I lived there, but could not find them. I had great photos of my dogwoods and bulbs blooming at the same time on that white drive. It was a beautiful sight.

  8. Jeanette says:

    Donna, this is so interesting. Most bridges are built with a little sway, not that I know anything more than basic greenhouse design, but was your house built with a little bit of sway? Very, very complex how you must deal with the elements. I am glad you could visit and share with us. Thanks. Wish the gardens and dogwoods were as you had visualized when you planned this site initially.

    • The Vierendeel girders are so stiff, that by specification and under maximum load they deflect only 1/4 inch. But if you notice in the one image, it appears that over time this show a bit more. The supports at the downhill side of the house are constructed 3 inch galvanized pipe anchored into the concrete footing. The brackets joining the posts to the girder have slots to form sliding bearings. It is a pinned connection at the top.

  9. Indie says:

    I saw the first picture and immediately thought, I’ve seen a picture of that Frank Lloyd Wright house! It definitely has a lot of that influence. How fabulous to have been able to live in such a house with a great architectural history, and to have known the man who designed it!

    What nice memories of the house as well. I’m sure it is a little sad to go back and see parts of the garden overgrown or removed. It’s a strange feeling to see past houses looking differently and not how one remembers.

    • This was actually a ‘starter home’ if you can believe it. The fact that it has only two bedrooms and a small galley kitchen makes it not suitable for a bigger family. Same with retirees. It is a difficult house for older folks because of the terrain, and stairs.

  10. Victor Ho says:

    Fascinating story. What a great history of the architecture. As time passes nature matures and other things die and are replaced. We have a house since 1991 and the trees and surroundings have changed dramatically looking back in retrospect. Currently there is an ever growing copper beech which is now crowding the house. It will break my wife’s heart to remove this tree one day.

    • I know what you mean, Victor. I was sad to see the three other trees gone, but there was room for them to mature, that is why I think the driveway space was desired. It made a nice entry walking in under the flowering dogwood. I picked dogwood because they have a sentimental meaning to me. When I was a kid, at the home my parents built (I did not show this one) there was a dogwood right outside my bedroom window. I used it to escape my parents many times. It was like a friend in need. Down I would climb and off to freedom. Their house was build on a mountain too and the forest was only meters away.

  11. b-a-g says:

    It’s like a luxury tree-house. Fabulous!

  12. Brian Comeau says:

    It is really a beautiful and unique looking home (and property). I personally like homes that stand out.

  13. debsgarden says:

    In another life I would be an architect. I have always loved studying house design and floor plans, and homes that are integrated into their surroundings have always appealed most to me. When I saw the first photo, I immediately thought the white driveway should be a more natural color! I have always dreamed of living in a house similar to Falling Water, perhaps my favorite of the Frank Lloyd Wright homes. Lucky you to have lived in a home built under its inspiration. It must have been hard to move!

  14. I would love to have a stream at my house. How cool! But I wouldn’t like a gravel driveway– they’re hard to shovel.

  15. It’s strange and difficult to go back, isn’t it? It’s a beautiful place, and I can see why it was your inspiration. Thanks for sharing your impressions and photos of the house. Frank Lloyd Wright had a huge influence here in Madison and in Chicago–you’ve probably seen some of those homes, too. Thanks again for the tour!

  16. joey says:

    Thank you for sharing … amazing info/photos of you and your loves/gifts. Reminds me of Ayn Rand and Fountainhead!

  17. What a lovely little home. I love the floor plan; it has that nice mix of modern open-plan combined with a more conservative – and liveable – separation between private and “semi-public” spaces within the home.

    Also, this house seems to “touch the ground lightly”, as Glenn Murcutt would have said. I have always had a thing for buildings with minimal footprints!

    • The utility core makes for the separation, yet the galley kitchen is still partially viewed from the living area. The house lightly touching the ground, is about as lightly as possible too, with only the four columns. It really was a unique house, but those loving a changing interior environment were out of luck. There was not much decoration to be done. The house was all about the outside.

  18. Fantastic post. I like the idea of a gravel driveway. We have asphalt. It think I will go with gravel next time. The landscape and the house are beautiful. You live in a pretty traditional house now. Which do you like better?

    • Mary, I do like many types of architecture. I live in the house I live in because, I purchased this house in haste at the advice of in-laws. Not being from around here, I did not know the area and what was available. You get a lot of house for the money, but not much else from this city. Taxes are the highest anywhere, and for what? I love old homes like I showed in the previous post, but this area is so financially depressed, that buying a fixer upper was a big mistake. I renovated the interior, but now I am at the limit of resale, so that prevents me from restoring the open porch to the home. I would love to move and get a house that is simpler to care for.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Hi Donna, I live in a one hundred + year old traditional home, but if I had to choose again, I might just as easily go for a mid-century modern home. The simple lines appeal to me.
    This is a perfect example of that sort of architecture. How wonderful to have the architect as a mentor right next door!

    • Old homes are great. My house here in the Falls was designed by Simon Lark in 1923, a pretty well known architect here. It has much architectural detail. Really the home is an eclectic mix of period styles, with all golden oak woodwork on the interior. I like simple too, but get a little bored when I cannot change up the interior, like in the house in the post. The entire interior was fir paneled and floored. I decorated with contemporary furnishings, unlike what I have in my home today. But I used the same oriental carpets in both homes. Some things you just can’t lose in your surrounding.

  20. Astrid says:

    Hi Donna
    We were recently in Buffalo and besides shopping and dining 🙂 we decided we would add some culture to our trip this time. We visited the Albright Knox Gallery, which was spectacular, and then searched out the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House complex as well as William R Heath house in Elmwood Village. They were both wonderful!! So is the one you have featured – and as you said, displays “…clarity, order and simplicity…” Too bad about the wildflowers – they would have been beautiful to see.

    • It was great you got a chance to experience the area. Buffalo has some of the nicest architecture around our area. Once a successful industrial area, it attracted many people of wealth and influence to build and settle.

  21. HolleyGarden says:

    How absolutely wonderful to have lived in such a beautiful home. And especially lucky that you lived next door to the architect, and could talk to him about something you were both interested in, and to be able to learn from him. Funny how our lives are influenced in small but powerful ways.

  22. stone says:

    That house is beautiful… Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ comes to mind, along with “Sheelba of the Eyeless Face” who had a walking house…
    I see a bit of glass in one of the walls, but no mention of which direction the wall faces.
    The house I built had south facing glass for the winter heat, and my plants… And the summer sun was overhead, and not an issue.
    I always want to see homes that work with the environment…

    • Identical windows line the rear wall also for cross ventilation. The house is set in an slight South East/ West orientation to maximize sun, but the house was very energy efficient, although it looks like it might not be. The longer axis of the building is oriented east/west. By facing it in this direction, the longer dimension of the home predominantly faces sunny south. The optimum position for maximum solar benefits is true south but you can vary the orientation within 20 degrees of that direction with minimal effect. It is hard to tell in the image because I was there near noon.

  23. Patty says:

    I have always loved gravel drives and do own one. The biggest problem is the weeds. Snow can easily be shoveled (by hand) leaving a snow base. But it is the sound of footsteps walking on gravel or the sound of a car slowly crunching along the drive that I love. It can be difficult to revisit a home you’ve loved as it is never the same. However this one helped to make you who you are and that is an inspiring thought.

    • We always had the drive done for us, but you are right, it can be shoveled, just being careful not to pick up too much stone. I always liked the sound of cars coming in the driveway too.

  24. Grace says:

    Hi Donna. Sorry I’ve been away so long. What a cool house. I bet you loved going back to see it again. I love the rock-terraced gardens too. That lavender geranium is really a stunner. Thanks for showing us your muse.

  25. Andrea says:

    I’ve been late here, but this post is really wonderful, we are privileged to know you better. I read some comments and just like them, you are destined to be famous, been molded by propinquity! I love having a house in the woods blending with it, but i can’t imagine having a stream beneath it.In this country, that cannot be done, as streams are very unpredictable. If i have big funds i will make a house in our property which will also conform with the terrain and the elements. We have undulating landscape so it can be a good area for architects. You are blessed for being with the best.

    • Very nice thought, Andrea, but I have no desire to be ‘known’. I am pretty private in my work and always am a bit uncomfortable when I do get awards and recognition. One thing great about architecture, it really is a team profession. So many individuals are involved in bringing a building to fruition.

      The stream below the home was really a nice sound to have around me, peaceful and a real commune with nature.

  26. Donna, this was really fascinating. I love learning this about you. You owned the house quite young, and to live near door to Mr. Spohn, what a wonderful opportunity in molding your passions. Where did you go to school? Did I miss that? One of my daughter’s best friends from high school went to UVA and is now apprenticing. Did you go over to Lisa’s house in Asheville? (the flurry of faces in the different places, I can’t remember seeing you there) You would have loved it.

    • I was 25 when I bought this home. I went to architecture school in Buffalo. I was in pre-med at Albright College in Reading, PA. I mentioned a change of direction in the post. With three years of study, I had the grades (3.9) to pursue medicine, but not the passion. I was working as a fashion illustrator (to pay for my studies) while attending college, hence the art background. Everything evolved from there. Architecture was my calling as I found out at the University. I had a 4.0 average in grad school and graduated first in my class. You never know where life might take you and what you learn along the way. I still love science and am always reading up on all kinds of new developments.

      I did not get to Lisa’s house because Carolyn and I left a day early. She had to get back to her nursery. My schedule was more flexible, since I do most of my work over the computer. I don’t always have to be in my office to do my work.

      • I thought you all had left early, but sometimes when thinking back to the blur of the weekend, I wasn’t certain. You are one smart cookie, how wonderful to be have been able to follow your passion. You would have been a wonderful doctor as well, you have a good heart.

        • Thanks Janet for such a kind comment. The kind of doctor I was going to be was a veterinary doctor. My love of animals was what actually made me change direction, ironically. We were ‘operating’ on live animals with no anesthesia and I found this repulsive, so I quit in my forth year and looked for a new option in life. My college adviser tried to make me reconsider and go into people medicine, but the whole experience turned me sour. They don’t use live animals like this anymore and I could not understand why we were then either.

  27. I visited Wright’s Falligwater on two occasions and appreciated his organic approach to designing structures so that they are part of the landscape, not dominating it.

  28. I visited Falling Water years ago; I also love your photography (I really need a decent camera). If my math teachers had given me the help I begged for I would have pursued architecture. However, I am seriously considering going back to school. How does one become an architect and what should I know if I were to seriously become one?

    • You do need good math skills, but also an artistic flare if you want to become successful. It is very hard work and requires much commitment. To be admitted to architecture school, you need to present a portfolio. This includes drawings, writings and anything to show leadership and creativity. I added leadership because most architects are driven to succeed and will at some point in their career lead and mentor.

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