Hello Friends and Family,

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David Wright House, Part 1

"In 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home for his son, David, and daughter-in-law, Gladys, on 10 acres in the middle of citrus groves at the base of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. The design elevated the home in the form of a spiral rising from the desert floor, converting the treetops into the lawn and revealing 360° views of the mountains forming the valley. Mr. Wright titled the plans 'How to Live in the Southwest'."

— From the brochure provided by the David and Gladys Wright House Foundation

This photo shows the house (left), the guest house (right center) and Camelback Mountain. For those not familiar with Phoenix, the camel is lying on its stomach with the hump to the right and his head in the center.

"Completed in 1952, the David Wright House is one of three spiral designs realized by Frank Lloyd Wright and the precursor to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The house is regarded as Mr. Wright's last residential masterpiece."

— From the brochure provided by the David and Gladys Wright House Foundation

I first read about the David Wright House in the Arizona Republic newspaper because of a battle being waged which threatened to result in the demolition of the house. Many people wanted to preserve the house and make it available for the public to view. However, some neighbors in what is now a very exclusive (translation: expensive) area complained that it would draw too much traffic, noise and possibly vandalism.

Exactly one day before the bulldozers were set to raze the house, the City of Phoenix announced that a "white knight" had stepped forward with funds and plans to preserve the home. The resulting David and Gladys Wright House Foundation is now preparing plans to restore and maintain the house and grounds.

As you might have guessed, I visited the house around Halloween and it was thus decorated with pumpkins and spiders. The previous evening, they held a party for kids with costumes, music and treats.

I was surprised that the tours are currently free. The explanation that I heard was that there is someone living in the house currently (I presume as a caretaker) and state law does not allow charging admission to a home in which someone is living.

One architectural feature that surprised me is the ramp girding this "tower" section which allows access to the roof. During the tour, I did go to the top and tried to picture what it must have looked like when the property was surrounded by citrus groves. In my mind, the view was spectacular.

This viewpoint surprised me because you could see all the way through the courtyard. Interesting design.

It looks like one spider was having problems climbing the "tower". Either that or he is waiting to pounce on the next visitor to climb the ramp.

The tour guides did not try to hide any of the problem areas of the house. They even stated a common observation that Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect but a lousy contractor. One might expect this type of deterioration on a house by the ocean but to me, it is a bit surprising in the middle of an arid desert.

I have a friend whose business is consulting on the problems exhibited in the David Wright house. He shared the following comments which I think are most informative.

"This is a wonderful piece of property and house designed by FLW. But the deterioration of the concrete and spalling of cement is due to two factors that were not known in those days. Concrete and concrete products in the Phoenix area do deteriorate due to a phenomenon we call alkali silica reactivity due to the high pH of the local aggregate and sand used in a cement and concrete mix.

With modern construction, this affect is counterbalanced by adding fly ash to cement and concrete. Additionally, concrete made using local sand and aggregate do not deteriorate easily due to reactivity if moisture is not allowed to contact the concrete. This house has a grassy lawn that is irrigated regularly to create a micro-climate surrounding the house with high localized humidity that causes some water molecules to get into the concrete.

Besides, the concrete cover below the reinforcements used were minor which is subject to thermal expansion and contraction of rebar higher than the concrete causing cracks that create flow paths for water molecules to get into the concrete which enhances alkali silica reactivity. The reactivity expands the concrete by the efflorescence effect and causes spalling off or alligator cracking and ultimately failures of concrete. So the blame is not totally to FLW. I have been working with this issue at the Phoenix Airport on runways and taxiways and we are very aware what needed to be done."

Here were some additional signs of deterioration, decorative blocks that had fallen off in the courtyard area.

And to think — if that white knight had not stepped forward, this would be a property subdivided with expensive new homes on it. BTW, the white knight is Zachary Rawling, born in Phoenix, trained as a attorney but who changed his career to custom home building in Las Vegas. He now again resides in Phoenix. Thank you Mr. Rawling.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com