Photo Credit : Courtesy of Paula Martin Group at Keller Williams
Given that New England as we know it began nearly 400 years ago, it’s no surprise our region is awash in historical homes, from Federal and Greek Revival mansions to colonial farmhouses and tidy Cape Cods. Yet every now and then, amid all that red brick and white clapboard, a more exotic creation takes root: Philip Johnson’s famous see-though house in Connecticut, for example, or Walter Gropius’s modernist masterpiece in Massachusetts.
Among the visionaries who have left their mark on the New England landscape is Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by many to be America’s greatest architect. But while Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois are practically chockablock with his work (there are 25 Wright buildings in one Chicago neighborhood alone), New England has just a handful of Wright houses: two in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and two in New Hampshire.
And now one of these — the rarest of the rare, you might say — is going on the market.
What is the Toufic H. Kalil House?
Back in the 1950s, a Manchester radiologist named Toufic Kalil and his wife, Mildred, were inspired to commission a Frank Lloyd Wright house as their new home, in part because their friends and neighbors, Dr. Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman, had recently completed one of their own on the same street in the city’s North End.
For their oversize wooded lot on Heather Street, the Kalils chose a low-slung one-story home that, like the Zimmermans’ house, was done in Wright’s Usonian style: a compact and efficient design that was a sort of precursor to the American ranch house. But setting the Kalils’ home apart is its system of specially designed interlocking bricks, which makes it what Wright called a Usonian Automatic.
The Kalils’ house, which cost about $70,000 all told, was built between 1955 and 1957. After the couple passed away, the house went to Toufic’s younger brother, John, who lived there until he died last year at age 101. Although there have been some updates through the decades — new roof, new lighting circuits, etc. — the house has remained largely in its original condition.
What is a Usonian Automatic design?
Supposedly inspired by the acronym for United States of North America, Usonian is the word Wright chose for the style of architecture he envisioned building for the nation’s emerging middle class. According to 99% Invisible, a design podcast that devoted a 2017 episode to Usonian houses:
Usonia was Wright’s idealized vision of the United States of America: a country that celebrated individuality and personal connections with nature. Usonian homes were designed to be simple, affordable, beautiful, and custom-designed to fit the needs of homeowners.
Hallmarks of Wright’s Usonian homes included a compact, one-story layout; radiant-heat concrete flooring; a flat roof with generous overhangs; built-in furniture and shelving; and skylights and lots of windows, to better connect the interior with nature. There was no attic or basement, and in place of a garage there was a carport. Building materials were simple: brick, wood, concrete.
Meant to take utility and cost-cutting to the next level, Usonian Automatic is a system of interlocking concrete blocks that Wright came up with to give homeowners more flexibility in designing and building their residence. But without a manufacturer to mass-produce the blocks, building a Usonian Automatic home wasn’t nearly as simple and inexpensive as Wright had intended.
More than 100 Usonian houses were built around the country (including 47 in the fascinating planned community of Usonia, New York), many of which still stand today. However, only seven Usonian Automatics were ever built — and the Kalil House is the only one in the eastern U.S.
What does the Kalil House’s price tag include?
Listed by the Londonderry-based Paula Martin Group at $850,000, the 1,406-square-foot house contains two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a study, a living/dining area with fireplace, and a kitchen workspace. Outside on the .73-acre wooded lot is a carport and a standalone studio.
What will really make Wright devotees giddy, though, is the array of furnishings designed by the architect himself, from tables and chairs to a built-in high-fi — and even the throw pillows on the living room’s custom banquette. Plus, the eventual buyer will receive a digital treasure trove of documents, including the house plans and letters between the Kalils and Wright.
Where can I go see a Frank Lloyd Wright house in New England?
If you’re a little shy of $850,000, you can still experience Frank Lloyd Wright’s singular vision right here in New England. The Kalils’ old neighbors, the Zimmermans, bequeathed their Usonian home (and all of their belongings within) to Manchester’s Currier Museum of Art in 1988. Two years later, the museum began offering tours of the house and grounds — tours that continue to be so popular, in fact, that making reservations in advance is strongly recommended.
Editor’s note: On November 15, 2020 it was announced that the Toufic H. Kalil House has been sold and will pass from its founding family into the hands of a much larger one: the Currier Museum of Art and, by extension, art and architecture lovers everywhere. The final sale price of $970,000 was covered by an anonymous donor, who in a written statement said the Currier’s “outstanding” stewardship of the Zimmerman House “[left] no doubt that they are the ones to entrust with this important piece of American history.” Representatives of the Currier say they’re already thinking about the exciting educational programs that their two Frank Lloyd Wright houses might inspire (as educator Ann Bible told WMUR, “We’re just over the moon”). The Kalil House could be open for public tours as early as spring 2020. For more information, visit currier.org.