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Arts & Culture

Architectural Bliss: Visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's Only Idaho Building

A one-of-a-kind house sits on what was once a barren promontory in Idaho’s Hagerman Valley. In the mid-1950s, landscape painter Archie Teater and his wife commissioned arguably the world’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to design a studio for them. 

While in safe hands at the moment, the future of the studio – and other notable buildings – is far from guaranteed.

Departing Boise around 10:30 a.m. on a sunny morning with just the hint of a chill in the air, the turnoff from I-84 for Hagerman appears around 11:40 a.m. By noon, I’ve checked in at the Hagerman Valley Senior Center for the event put on by the town’s historical society. They’ve set up a selection of Teater paintings and are providing a lunch served from a collection of Crockpots. After milling around the exhibit and eyeing some barbecue pulled pork, it’s time to board a bright yellow school bus that will take us to the main event.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
An understated sign in front of the house belies the significance of what's behind the gate.

As we make the ten or so minute drive to Bliss, Idaho, the mostly older crowd hums with excitement as we climb the side of the Snake River Canyon. The road curves through a residential neighborhood. Eventually, the bus stops in front of one of many gated homes. Seafoam green metal letters on a dark wooden wall announce: “Teaters Knoll.”

The group of about 20 people makes its way off the bus and into a shady, manicured yard. Standing there to greet us is Henry Whiting. In his 60s, with a professorial air, he’s the owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright home.

“Teater’s Knoll was designed in 1952, so it’s right near the end of [Wright’s] career when he was working on the Guggenheim Museum in New York among other, much more famous projects,” Whiting announces as part of his introduction to the property.

While Wright built studios for himself in Wisconsin, Illinois and Arizona, he designed creative spaces for several other artists. The only one ever to actually be constructed was the studio for the Teaters.

“It’s basically a one-room building. It was originally 1,800 square feet, so it’s quite small,” Whiting says. “But that’s because this is a place for creation – for Archie to do his landscape painting.”

As part of a fundraiser to help the Hagerman Valley Historical Society build a new annex, Whiting has opened his airy home to the public for just one day. For forty minutes, visitors basically have free reign of the property.

Stepping into the studio made from Oakley stone quarried nearby, the first thing you notice are the expansive windows. They rise at an angle from a few feet above the terra cotta floor to the soaring wooden beams of the roof. Light floods in from all sides. Whiting sums up his residence with an analogy.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
Wright designed Teater's Knoll to get the maximum amount of light for its original owner, landscape painter Archie Teater. Windows flood the space with light. Current owner Henry Whiting says the studio can look completely different based on the time of day.

“Frank Lloyd Wright loved music,” Whiting begins. “He described a symphony as being an edifice of sound. This is one of the most musical buildings that you would ever see or inhabit. I tell people now that being here is like being inside of a piece of music.”

High notes dominate the song of the house. The flowing natural light, the aggressive thrust of the floorplan into a dramatic point like a ship’s prow – the house builds to a crescendo.

Standing on the home’s porch, which is actually on the backside of the house, is neighbor Kay Thorpe. She and her husband relocated to the tiny town of Bliss from Southern California. A big part of the move had to do with being across the street from the Wright building. Flashing a smile, she says she takes every opportunity to go inside the house.

“It’s incredibly peaceful,” Thorpe says. “And there’s always a beautiful breeze coming through here, so it’s kind of just a rejuvenation pleasure … I don’t want to say, or sound too—crazy, but, it’s a little enlightening,” she says with a laugh.

The owner of Teater’s Knoll, Whiting, has been the steward of the house for over 30 years. When he purchased it in the early 1980s, it was in disrepair. After giving it a second life, he has an impossible desire.

“With the way the windowsills soar up towards the prow, parallel with the roof, it literally takes your breath away,” says Whiting. “I always wish that I could now see this place again for the first time.”

As people on the tour enter the house, he inconspicuously watches for looks of awe and appreciation as they get their first look inside the home.

Wright buildings are hard to come by in this part of the country. There’s one in Wyoming, one in Utah and – until earlier this year – there used to be three in Montana.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
As a nod to his own deep admiration for the architect and the legacy of the house he owns, Whiting has a stylized bust of Frank Lloyd Wright displayed on a piano.

“A Frank Lloyd Wright Building was just torn down in Whitefish, Montana, and that was the first Wright building to be destroyed in decades,” Whiting says.

It came as something of a shock to fans of the architect.

The executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago, Barbara Gordon, says more properties could come to the same end as the one in Montana.

According to Gordon: “Our internal research has shown that of all the Wright buildings, about 54 percent have no significant legal protections to prevent them from demolition.”

Getting a significant building designated a local landmark can help safeguard it, but she says the surest form of protection is something called a preservation easement. It basically prevents major structural changes without first consulting an organization like the conservancy. However, Gordon is quick to point out the group isn’t the Wright Police.

“If we’re holding the easement, we would like to be alerted to what is being decided on the house,” explains Gordon. “And, if there are major alterations, we will review it and provide ideas for different alterations.”

She says a lot of Wright homeowners see themselves as excellent stewards of their properties and aren’t ready to commit to the easement.

That’s the case for Henry Whiting and Teater’s Knoll. A loving caretaker, he’s dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the home and doesn’t have an easement. But the question remains: Will Idaho’s only Frank Lloyd Wright building meet a similar fate as the one in neighboring Montana? I asked Whiting about preserving what he’s built.

Credit Matt Guilhem / Boise State Public Radio
While he's capably resurrected Teater's Knoll from the disrepair it was in when he purchased the home, owner Henry Whiting doesn't like imagining a time when he won't be its steward.

“Well, I’m just doing my best to keep improving things and keep it going better,” he says. “I am getting older so I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do with it, but – I’m … well let me just say I’m not going to answer that question.”

As another tour group arrives at the house, clouds are rolling in and there’s a stiff breeze. Whiting looks out the many windows of his famous home and watches as the sunny day dims.

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