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Consider Me a Convert

Guest blogger, Barry Reed, shares the story of his visit to Auldbrass Plantation.  Barry is a freelance writer who is working on his first novel in addition to blogging.  He currently splits his time between Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina and Berlin.  His website can be found at  www.barryandsuz.com

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On a Monday morning in March, as I readied for work, my wife Suz called out to me.

“Did you see Trey’s email?”

I told her I saw the first line on my phone but hadn’t read it.

“We should go.”

Her quiet, yet resolute tone clearly indicated I needed to read the email. Later, in the office, I read Trey’s email. It described a tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright plantation in downstate South Carolina. It sounded intriguing if nothing else. A tour every other year for only a single weekend? A plantation owned by some Hollywood mogul outside Beaufort? Only Trey and his interest in all things South Carolina could mine such a spectacle.

Admittedly, I know enough about architecture to get in trouble. I can speak feaux authoritatively about it I suppose. (Hello Doric, Ionic and Corinthian!) But not much substance. Luckily, living and working abroad, we got the opportunity to see lots of diverse styles, forms and just plain weird architecture. I admire it and enjoy it as part of the world, but, no more than that.

Ashamedly, I knew next to nothing about FLW. I knew he liked to design in harmony with nature. Well, I could utter such words. I didn’t really know what that meant until now. But I digress. On the other hand, my wife loves FLW. We long ago placed a trip to Fallingwater on our Bucket List. A return trip for Suz, she added it to make sure I saw it. (And, of course, she wanted to see it again.)

We quickly signaled our intent to tour Auldbrass. Although we lived and worked in the Philippines, we planned to visit the USA in early November. (We actually returned to the USA in June for an extended break.) We added the tour to our calendar and would fit it in somehow. Then I promptly forgot about it.

In early June Trey emailed again, this time to confirm. He would call as soon as the phone line opened in August. He would keep us posted. Again, I forgot about it. Then, he emailed August 11 with the succinct subject line, “We’re In!” On September 14 he forwarded the e-tickets and background. He booked November 8, Sunday, for the tour. It opened at 9 and you could arrive at anytime. We also booked lunch, at another plantation between 11-2. Time to get serious. Trey later told us he called back a couple of days after the phone line opened to get a 4th ticket for his brother and found they had already sold out. I consider ourselves quite lucky we secured our tickets.

We drove down to Beaufort on November 7th from the Outer Banks, NC. On the way I realized I still knew nothing about Auldbrass. I hadn’t done a moment’s research on the trip. Usually, I at least do a quick search on the Internet about a place we visit. This time? Nothing. I guess I left myself completely open to the FLW experience.

As we traveled to Beaufort, the weather worsened. And sure enough, November 8th dawned cloudy, cold and damp. As we walked to the car we first noticed the biting wind. It was not a pleasant day. But was it a good day for a tour of Auldbrass?

At breakfast I suddenly realized I didn’t even know where Auldbrass was. Trey arrived and also didn’t know. Off to a good start! I looked it up and realized we actually passed it on our way in the afternoon before. I studied the map and tried to memorize the location. Then we hopped in the car and away we went. Their handmade signs placed just above ground level proved unobtrusive, and hard to follow, until I got used to looking down for them. After a wrong turn or two relying on my memory, we finally figured out the signs. Cars from out of state with bewildered drivers craning their necks this way and that along the route seemed to confirm my opinion about the signage. But we found it almost precisely at 9.

After parking the car, we walked through the main gates. They provided golf carts but we chose to walk and admire the grounds. I immediately noticed the plantation feel to the property. Beautiful trees, allees, and clean lines allowed sweeping vistas of the property. The angled roads of red brick seemed to blend into the landscape. They accentuated the broad lawn and the enormous trees, with their draping Spanish moss.

We soon arrived at a second gate. Really a square opening between an office and the dog kennels, you looked through it and caught your first glimpse of the main house. I honestly could not tell you what I expected to see, but not what I saw. If you asked me at that moment to describe it, I might have called it low slung. It looked small and I questioned its billing as a “plantation”. (Obviously, this ignored all of the outbuildings I didn’t notice or recognize at this point.) As we neared the main house it changed. It seemed to simply rise out of the land. And in such a way as to not take away from the trees, lawn and lake surrounding it. I took a few steps back to confirm my perception that it rose and lowered based on my position on the property. (I don’t know if this makes sense. I’m trying to describe it as best I can with a layman’s eye.)

As we waited at the corner of the main house for placement in groups, receipt of our special ticket, and the like, we met so many people from all over the USA. Docents told us the day before the lines, even at 9, stretched past the horse stables. It took hours for people to get into the main house. We felt quite lucky we had little or no wait today. Of course, we shivered and shook the dampness off our jackets as the price for no waiting. We considered it a fair bargain.

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FLW labored on Auldbrass for over 20 years. Right until his death in 1959. He and the original owner didn’t complete it. When the owner died it fell into disrepair during the 1960s. Only in 1986 did film producer Joel Silver buy it and decide to complete it. He engaged Eric Lloyd Wright to help restore it. They replaced some shortcuts previously made, as well as constructing other parts of the unfinished design.

They took people in groups of 8. We started with the dining room and kitchen. We could only view those from the outside. Both rooms offered sweeping vistas of the lake and the grounds. The kitchen appeared designed to allow someone cooking to easily reach every part in the shortest most direct route. I wish I could stand in it and experience it. But, alas, until I befriend Mr. Silver, I cannot stand in the kitchen.

We then sat and placed booties over our shoes (like those worn in hospitals) for the interior portion. We entered through the main door, the kitchen to the left (I snatched what view I could as they shepherded us forward), and veered right to the bedrooms. Looking at these rooms almost made it seem like the walls melted away. The bed and the small workspace seemed outside. I then noticed everything from the room shape, to the furniture, to the items strewn around the room, appeared shaped like hexagons. Even the floor tiles and ceilings exhibited hexagonal form.

I kept noticing hexagonal tables in every room. They appeared the same basic size. We learned FLW designed these specifically for greater ease in hosting. The dining room has one. But you can combine as many of them as you like for more people at meals. If you combined all the tables found in the main house you could feed 24 people.

We then moved to the living room. Again, you felt like you sat right on the grounds, without a roof or walls. (Sans mosquitoes thankfully for the owners.) And like the other main rooms, FLW shaped everything possible like a hexagon. When I looked outside through the windows all of a sudden I saw the inspiration. The shapes through the trees looked like hexagons. I started seeing hexagons wherever I looked, inside or out. The entire landscape highlighted hexagonal shapes and FLW built a house and out buildings (I later noticed he made them hexagons as well) to reflect this. I can only assume this precipitated my perception of rooms without walls and ceilings. It provided shocking clarity to the concept of designing in harmony with nature and the landscape. I started understanding the brilliance of FLW.

As I thought about hexagonal furniture and buildings in the coming days, I also realized if I saw this anywhere else they would look odd. I looked in a couple of furniture stores and finally found a hexagonal coffee table. I couldn’t imagine finding a room capable of containing it and making it part of the room. However, the hexagons at Auldbrass looked completely natural, as if part of the landscape. And they were of course.

All the rooms in the main house came across as incredibly warm, friendly, and inviting. Handsomely appointed and elegant, it also drew me in and encouraged me to throw off my shoes and hop on a chair, couch or bed. I recognize the beauty and opulence of high fashion and style, but usually don’t feel comfortable in such surroundings. Auldbrass felt utterly different. You knew you saw magnificence, but it also pleaded with you to make yourself at home.

The materials, angles, shapes and the feel and look of everything seemed so natural, like it belonged. As if it was always there, as long as time itself. Unfortunately, we could only take photos of the grounds and exteriors. But when I close my eyes, I still see every bit of the interior. Even if I cannot describe them vividly.

FLW designed exquisite furniture for the main house. He also designed many of the knick-knacks. But Mr. Silver added his own touches. In the living room, amid a bunch of tchotchkes on a mantle, 4 Oscars. Just sitting among the accumulated ephemerae. Real and surreal all at once.

Leaving the living room, you exit the house by the amazing pool. Also hexagonal, it looked much larger and deeper than actual size. FLW angles the sides in such a way to give the impression of a deeper pool. By the pool I first realized another unique feature. Without a closer look, I thought I saw something on the corners of the main house. I gave them little notice until now. But by the pool I saw FLW designed downspouts that looked exactly like Spanish moss. They blended in so well before to the surrounding Spanish moss I simply failed to notice or realize them.

We then walked the grounds. Next to the tennis courts stood a London phone booth Bruce Willis gave Mr. Silver. (For Dr. Who fans, I momentarily hoped it was the tardis!) Although damp and chilly, the grounds invited closer inspection. FLW included several sculptures from his own collection. An aviary allows passerby’s to view exotic birds while passing among the trees. Beautiful pastures beyond this host zebras and other exotic animals.

As we continued wandering the grounds, the plantation style soon revealed itself. Near the main building stood a similar, yet smaller, building with a fabulous game room. It included a piano and home theater. Down the hall you found guest rooms (bunk beds, as if for children), a laundry, offices, a tack room, etc. These maintained the hexagonal shapes and the feeling of rising from the landscape.

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Even the dog kennels and horse/mule stables look impressive. Although mysteriously, these contain rectangular flooring tiles. No one posited an explanation as to why rectangles here and hexagons everywhere else. Near the dog kennels, you found Mr. Silver’s office. Like a true plantation, Auldbrass separates disparate activities from each other. Living space shouldn’t mix with workspace.

As the morning and our tour waned, I walked to the other corner of the property and looked at the staff cabins. (Someone occupied the guest cabins so we couldn’t visit those.) I wished I could live in one of those. Spacious hexagons offering everything you needed. It included a large bed, a small functional kitchen and a modest living space. It also included a screened in porch around the entire cabin. If you dropped that in any city you’d have the finest luxury efficiency apartment.

We made our way back to the main gate, the car and the rest of the day. But I departed a changed person. I now look at houses and buildings with a different eye. Auldbrass was my first FLW house, but I will start looking for others. I cannot wait to visit more.

We own a small cottage in Eureka Springs AR. An FLW disciple designed Thorncrown Chapel, a lovely, solitary chapel in the woods I love to visit there. I cannot wait to return in the coming weeks and examine Thorncrown with a different eye. Look for the features that before now I could admire but not grasp. Until I visit the next FLW house somewhere.

Consider me a convert.

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