• 63 Chestnut Hill Place
  • Glen Ridge, NJ

THE PUBLIC SPACES

Entrance hall. The formal entry is all glass, which recedes into the brick walls on either side to minimize the transition from outside to inside. A similar feature recently has been recreated in the living room. On the porch wall to the left of the entrance, note the circa 1951 mailbox that still bears a plastic label on it saying “Richardson.” The entrance hallway inside the front door, although unusually wide, nonetheless exemplifies Wright’s “compression and release” principle. From the time you approached the house on the entrance walk, you will have turned direction three times, and you now pass through a low-ceilinged, enclosed space that dramatically expands once you turn the final corner and enter the living room. Coat closet and storage are situated on the right side of the hall. As designed by Wright, the closet doors would have consisted of accordion-pleated wood panels. The Richardsons, instead, installed the sliding doors that appear today.

 

A word about the heating system. The house was designed with so-called “gravity heat,” a system Wright first learned about in Japan in the early 20th century. As adapted for his Usonian houses, it involved a network of hot water pipes underneath the concrete floor slab. The heat radiates upward, warms the slab, and the floor, in turn, warms the house. While the concept is brilliant, the technology available when the Usonian houses were being built was not. In the Richardson house, the system was built using 1 ¼ inch black iron pipe, which by the early 1990s, was corroded and leaking badly and had produced significant cracking of the floor slab. A prior owner decided to abandon the system and replace it with white electric wall panels, installed on every vertical surface. The system was not only inappropriate and unsightly but also prohibitively expensive. We restored the gravity system with temporary repairs that sufficed for a period of time. However, in March 2005, we moved out for six months so that the concrete floor could be completely removed (with jack-hammers) and a state-of-the-art zoned replacement system could be installed.   At the same time, all the underground plumbing lines were replaced. At present, the house is heated by the new system, fueled by a natural gas Monitor MZ gas-fired wall-hung furnace that also provides flash-heated hot water. The furnace is serviced annually by its installers. The concrete floor mat is obviously new, but cast to Wright’s specifications using an L.M. Scofield product to achieve the Cherokee red color.

 

Living room. This room is not really big, but it looks large, because of the juxtaposition with the entry hall and also because of the expanse of glass on two sides. The most arresting feature of the living room – the inverted pyramid in the ceiling – has been previously described. Its impact cannot be dismissed, as we find many architects, architectural historians, and aficionados lying on the floor to photograph this unique feature. In 1951, the contractor bet Stuart Richardson a bottle of champagne that the ceiling would never come to a point in the middle (and proposed constructing it flat).   Richardson, a believer in Wright, insisted on trusting Wright and won the bet. Uncharacteristically for Usonians, the hearth is at the far outside end of the room, thereby creating the room’s dramatic exterior thrust, rather than sheltered in the core.   The alcove with skylight evolved from an earlier, smaller scheme for the house, in which this area would have been the kitchen. The bottom cabinets in the alcove are original and were designed for vinyl record storage; the print display cabinets above are new, having been added in 2005 during the floor restoration project. They are removable. The present skylight replaces the original, and was installed when the roof was restored.

 

A noteworthy feature of the Richardson house, like most Usonians, is the use of pierced clerestory panels – located in the Richardson house in the living room and master bedroom. The design of the piercing has been said to resemble musical notes, an homage to the Richardsons’ interest in music. Similarly, the house has been named “Scherzo.” Until recently, the design both in the living room and master bedroom was marred by the presence of large room air conditioning units, brutally inserted into the clerestory panels. They have been removed, and the panels have been repaired. Although the house now lacks air conditioning, air circulation is remarkably good. If desired, less obtrusive room air conditioners are now available and probably could be installed.

 

The dining table, the sideboard, and the vertical divider partially screening the kitchen are original, as is all the cabinetry elsewhere in the house. (The wine rack under the table was added during the kitchen renovation in 2002, and like the print cabinets, is removable.) The cypress plywood dining room chairs follow Wright’s design, found on the blueprints, but their scale has been slightly modified to fit with the table, which was elevated two inches higher than drawn to accommodate Stuart Richardson’s height. Other furniture, found on the drawings, was never constructed.

 

The kitchen. Like many Usonian homeowners, budget was an issue for Stuart and Elisabeth Richardson. As a consequence, the Richardsons came up with an imaginative way to help close the gap between actual and expected construction costs. In 1951, when the house was built, the General Electric Company was marketing the “Kitchen of the Future,” and GE gave the Richardsons a complete suite of kitchen cabinets in exchange for the promotional value of having its Kitchen installed in a house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Unfortunately, the 1951 version of the Future was sleek white steel, hardly a complement to the deep cypress and Cherokee red that otherwise establishes the design esthetic of the house.

 

After much discussion and debate about removing “original fabric,” we concluded that updating the kitchen would be consistent with our stewardship of the house, and indeed, kitchen renovations are now frequently found in Usonian houses. The result, designed by Tarantino, Architect, and constructed and installed by Steve and Bill Orbine of Woodsmith, is what you now see. The cabinets, like the dining table chairs, are cypress plywood. The countertop is made of a cement-based product known as Fireslate. All appliances are by Miele, except the refrigerator, which is a Sub Zero. A full-size washer and dryer are placed behind pocket doors to the left side of the double sink. Under-cabinet lighting is provided, and can be switched on by tapping the door hinge on the upper cabinet closest to the sink. The arrangement of the space follows Wright’s original drawings, except where adaptation was necessary to accommodate modern appliances, and with the addition of a tall, narrow, five-sided storage closet to the right of the refrigerator. A freezer is located steps away in the adjacent utility room. The skylight, one of four in the house, was refurbished at the time the roof was replaced.

 

Much to our relief, Elisabeth Richardson, who visited the house shortly after the kitchen renovation was completed, approved entirely, stating that she had always hated the white kitchen and had sought to disguise it with wood-grain contact paper.