Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Thomas C. Lea near Ashevillle, North Carolina in 1949 based on the summer cabins he originally designed for Lake Tahoe California in 1923 and later on the E. A. Smith house.
The design is beautiful and shows a hexagonal plan around the fireplace which houses the daytime area and a raised wing following the topography with the bedrooms. The bedroom closest to the living room has a balcony that overlooks the room below.
The current owner contacted me a few weeks ago and told me the story of the design, which I found very interesting and which I reproduce here with his permission:
David: Did you ever dream of finding a treasure at a yard-sale? A Picasso hidden behind a poster or perhaps a 64-mustang convertible under a tarp in an old barn? Well, that is kind of what happened when Marianne and Robert walked down the driveway to the Thomas C. Lea house for the first time.
About 1949, Thomas C. Lea built a house on the property next to Robert’s grandfather’s summer cabin in the NC mountains. Sixty-Five years later, never having seen the Lea house, Robert and his brother Jeff bought the property, not for the house but for the acreage adjacent to theirs.
Walking down the long curving driveway for the first time, the house comes into view and Marianne said, that’s a Frank Lloyd Wright. Robert smiled, reminding his wife that there is not a single FLW home in the entire state of NC. Imagine his surprise a few weeks later, after the closing and while planning the rehab, as interesting tid bits started to emerge.
As it turns out, Tom C. Lea had previously lived in Chicago where he was supposedly a friend of Wright’s son-in-law Wesley Peters. He also had a friend named Harry, a Yale educated, Quaker who was a chemical engineer and who, along with his wife Julia, was instrumental in the urban development experiment, the Hyde Park-Kenwood community conference in Chicago in the 1940’s.
In 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression, while Tom and Harry were building their lives and careers, a wealthy Chicago industrialist decided to underwrite the founding of a 1200 acre communal settlement 600 miles away in the Western mountains of North Carolina. This Quaker friendly, pacifist community was based on ideals of cooperation between residents and care for the natural environment. The goal was simple but adequate living, raising their own food and in doing so conserving the land while living harmoniously with the land and their neighbors.
Given his interest in urban development, we understand Harry visited this communal settlement sometime in the 1940’s when it was reportedly struggling to recruit and retain members, perhaps due to its pacifist roots and objections to WWII. They must have been excited when Harry offered to buy 70 acres on the northern edge of the settlement where he and his friend Tom would build their homes and live out their years.
When Tom Lea decided to leave Chicago and move to the NC Mountains, he asked his friend Wesley Peters if his father-in-law would draw a set of plans for the house he was going to build. In the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, there are a few pieces of correspondence which reference a courier that missed a train, plans that were mailed too late and stories that highlight the difficulties of communications in these once remote areas.
There is also correspondence between Peters and Lea asking if an apprentice would be necessary. Wright obviously knew the remote project would likely be built without his supervision. All that kind of explains how the Thomas C. Lea house came to be built, not to the exact plans and without Wright’s help.
And here’s the story. Sadly Wright’s design was never built, although the house that Thomas Lea eventually built reproduces, in part, Wright’s work.
The house that Thomas C. Lea built
Arriving in the remote NC mountains with his elaborate Frank Lloyd Wright plans, did Lea quickly realize he had to scale down the impressive two-story stone house with four bedrooms, two baths and a teepee to something more in keeping with the neighborhood? He apparently had the material, skill and resources to create whatever he chose to build.
Instead of the original plan, Tom Lea built his house in the Frank Lloyd Wright style, using the plans Frank Lloyd Wright drew for him, creating a scaled down version without the teepee or the bedroom wing on that site in the “fir tree forest.” The house he built has two bedrooms and 1-1/2 baths. It does open onto two terraces, one of them on a prow. It has a two-level concrete slab poured on-grade with plumbing and tile-lined HVAC chases below, a carport for two cars by the hidden front door, a massive central fireplace you can walk around on four sides and floors that are painted red.
The home also has spring water, a cistern, a fire hydrant and a swimming pool for a water feature, something not commonly seen at that time. The pool was dug by hand, has a boulder, too big to remove, left in place as part of the floor and a diving board installed at the shallow end of the pool so you dive over the shallow end and down into the deeper end near the house.
We may never know if Wright or one of his assistants visited the site but FLW did intentionally place the house in a certain direction on a topographic map that shows the driveway and retaining wall as it still exists today.
Interestingly, Wright was just a few hours away in May 1950, a year after finishing the Thomas C. Lea plans, perhaps while it was under construction. During this trip he addressed an audience of over 5,000 people in the newly completed Reynolds Coliseum at NC State College. This was perhaps the largest audience he would ever address, one of the largest audiences ever to hear an architectural lecture in the United States, and was to signal the importance of the School of Design in American architectural education.
Tom Lea was in his late 40s when he moved to NC and died some fifteen years later, leaving his widow to live out her years in the house he had built. She, and her second husband and then his family after them, all lived in the Thomas C. Lea house for almost 65 years. The original, hand colored FLW plans, all the while, sitting in the original mailing tube in the closet in his home gathering dust while the memories faded. The connection with FLW and how all this came to be slowly perished after Lea.
The House that Thomas Carlyle Lea built in the fir forest near Asheville NC may never be recognized as an official FLW home, built under supervision to the exact original plan but there is little doubt that Lea’s adaptation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s plan exists and will live on for generations of FLW enthusiasts to admire and enjoy.
Although most of Wright’s drawings have been preserved, modeling any of his never-built works requires some interpretation. The following images show the extent to which I have had to interpret data from the project: The redder, the more speculative my work has been and the bluer, the less I have had to interpret data. In this case, there are drawing plans at a preliminary level that indicate measurements and materials to be used, which are also similar to other existing projects, although my biggest doubt during the modeling process of this design has been about the orientation of the windows since in some drawings they appear with a slight incline towards the ground while in other drawings that same inclination is upwards.
Modeling process and software
Following my usual workflow, the modeling process has been carried out halfway between AutoCad and 3dsMax. All of the repeating elements use Railclone, including all of the woodwork and the roof. The plants come mainly from commercial catalogs and are distributed with ForestPack. All rendering work is via Vray. You can see some images of the modeling process here