Frank Lloyd Wright is among the best-known architects in the world, but few know that among his commissions was a doghouse.
How It Came About
After Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home for the Berger family of San Anselmo, California, in the mid-1950s, he received a request from their 12-year-old son. Jim Berger wanted a plan for a doghouse that would complement their soon-to-be-built Wright home. Young Berger would pay Wright out of his paperboy earnings.
Wright was preoccupied with his commitment to design the Guggenheim Museum. He told Jim he did not have time, but Jim could contact him again in a few months. Berger followed up with his second request in the autumn of 1956. A month or two later, Wright’s design team sent plans for the requested doghouse.
But this story had an earlier beginning. The first doghouse built at Wright’s home, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, was built by a 10-year-old boy who lived on the property and played frequently with Wright’s grandson.
I wrote about the Berger doghouse in a previous article for my website. After my article appeared, I heard from Paula Washow, a Spring Green resident and a volunteer at Taliesin. She wrote: “May I put you in touch with my cousin? He has a Frank Lloyd Wright doghouse story.”
I’ll let Martin Longseth tell you the story himself, but it turns out that Wright may have looked back to 1948 and Longseth’s doghouse for inspiration as to what a Frank Lloyd Wright doghouse might look like:
Martin Longseth’s Story
“In the mid-1940s, my father, Curtis Longseth, was the herdsman at Taliesin. Our residence was Midway, which was the dairy farm. We lived there about three years, and Brandoch Peters was a favorite playmate. Thus, I was often around the Wrights.” [Peters was the grandson of Olgivanna, Wright’s third wife. The Wrights raised Brandoch because his mother had died.]
“The doghouse event would have been in late summer 1948 and I was not quite 10.” [By this time, Wright and his wife Olgivanna, had opened their property to students looking to study architecture under Wright. If the young people were selected as Fellows, they had the opportunity to connect with Wright, and Wright gave them hands-on experience by letting them carry out construction projects on the property.]
“At Midway, one could go from the house to the barn without going outside via what was called the Dugway. That year, the roof of the Dugway was in bad shape. Replacing it meant hands-on chances for the students to experiment and learn. I only remember one, a Norwegian named Godman Martinson. The students let me help them as I was interested in what they were doing, and there was not much else to do. Then I had an idea: build a doghouse.
“I roughed out a plan for a two-room house for our Spitz, Pat. There would be an entry room with ample head space and then a lower sleeping room. The roof peak would be about where the two rooms met. This meant two different roof pitches and in turn meant some miter angles to figure out the framing. [A couple of the students] helped me determine the angle cuts. There was a lot of scrap lumber to use so I had no problem making it work. The rest was all my doing.
“I don’t remember the exact height but the whole thing was probably 4′ wide. The “day room” was about 1½ feet wide and the sleeping area was about 2½ feet. Siding boards, I think, were vertical. And, I topped off the roof with broken slate shingles that the students couldn’t use for the Dugway roof. (I then cut them down to smaller size.)
“With the doghouse assembled, the last thing I needed to do was paint it. I found light brown paint left over from another project, so I set up to paint near where the students continued the roof work.
“As I worked, a shadow fell on me. Then a cane came over my shoulder and tapped all over the doghouse. I didn’t have to turn around to know who was behind me. Not one word was said. When I finally got the courage to turn around, I saw Mr. Wright going down the path with his cape flying in the wind.
Call from Main Office of Taliesin
“Later that day, my mother got a call from the main office at Hillside. The Wrights wanted my parents to come over that night after the milking was done. Immediately, my mother figured that I was in big trouble for using material and tools to build the doghouse.
“This meant four or five hours of misery for me, knowing that I was not going to like what might be in store. My thought was probably, “just give me a strap now and get it over with…” instead of prolonging the agony.
“With milking chores done, my parents went to the office while I dreaded their return. When my mother walked into the house, there was no angry look but a somber face.
“’The Wrights have offered you a free scholarship,’ she told me. I was probably as shocked as she had been. If I ever wanted to study to be an architect, Taliesin was open to me.
“Life went off in other directions quickly after that. My father accepted a different job a month or so later, and we were gone from Taliesin.
“Many years later on June 9, 1966, I attended a First Day Ceremony at Spring Green where the stamp cover of the Frank Lloyd Wright two-cent stamp was to be unveiled.
“The event was held in the River Valley High School auditorium. Olgivanna Wright was the speaker. As she stepped to the podium, her eyes searched the crowd for any familiar faces. She stopped at mine and I will never forget her words: “Why, it’s Martin! When are you coming back to us?”
“I could have used that doghouse to crawl into at that moment!”
Written for America Comes Alive by Martin Longseth
Neither the Longseth doghouse or the Berger doghouse were preserved, but there is now a replica of the Berger doghouse in Marin County in northern California. This is the county where the Berger house stands.
A documentary producer who heard the story of the doghouse suggested to Jim Berger, now a cabinet maker, that he re-build the doghouse from the plans.
Berger did so, and the doghouse was placed on display in a civic building designed by Wright. Berger then donated the doghouse to the county. The replica of the doghouse shows that Wright picked up on Longseth’s idea of the unique style of the pitched roof that used tiles that matched those that would have been on the original house.
While there are other design differences, it is notable that Frank Lloyd Wright, overwhelmingly busy with plans for buildings around the world, still took time to think back to the doghouse dreams of a young boy whose work he admired.
Martin Longseth may have been part of the reason that Wright took Jim Berger’s doghouse request to heart.
Many thanks to Paula Washow and Martin Longseth for this story. Working with them has been a delight.