S. 306. The Mrs. Clinton (Della) Walker House, 1948. Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Why is this house important?

Frank Lloyd Wright designed hundreds of houses which can fairly be called masterpieces. Most people point to Wright's 1935 Fallingwater, in Bear Run, PA, as his greatest essay in the genre, and it would be hard to find anyone unfamiliar with the image of the house's planar balconies cantilevered out over the waterfall on the site. The lesser-known Walker house, on the shore in Carmel, is an equally brilliant adaptation of a house to its outstanding site, and is fittingly paired with Fallingwater.

Wright designed the house for Walker after the latter was given an attractive lot along the sea side of Scenic Drive by her sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Pebble Beach, just to the north. Walker had fond memories of Carmel, and wanted a name architect to build her a house: she asked Wright. Her desires were just what one would expect of a house to be built on a rare plot of land on the sea side of the road, literally among the shoreline rocks of Carmel Bay. She wanted dramatic ocean views from everywhere in the house, adequate space for living purposes, and privacy.

Wright responded by building a one-story house with "Usonian" features (like underfloor radiant heat) he had been developing for houses since the late 30s. The Walker house has a large hexagonal living room like a tadpole's head with a slender tadpole body slanting off to the east along the shore and containing bedroom, workspaces, bath, and carport. (This wing was later expanded by Wright.) The whole house was built on ground substantially lower than the grade of Scenic Drive for privacy, and in addition, most of the house's windows face the ocean, not the land. Over twenty years of seeing this house, I've noted its cypress and other shrubs wax and wane, offering complete privacy at times, but also throwing the house into darkness on the land side. (Currently, the shrubs and trees are rather severely cut back, because the cedar fence and gate of the property recently had to be rebuilt.)

The heart of the house: the living room.

The living room is anchored by a large fireplace, a Wright characteristic. It is hexagonal, with uninterrupted windows on all of the walls (3 full walls and about half of 2 more) which face coast and sea. The roof is held up by the fireplace (of local "Carmel stone," a type of limestone, I believe), and 4 cast-iron pillars. Wright had proven the efficiency of cast-iron supports in the 1936 Johnson Wax Headquarters building, and accordingly, he can get away with very thin pillars here, giving the impression that the roof is floating cantilevered off of the fireplace. The walls of the room with windows are built up to waist-height with Carmel stone; the iron pillars rise from four vertices of this wall upward and inward to the roof, which cleverly leaves the space within unencumbered by the supports.

Built-in benches (as at Fallingwater) line the interior walls with windows; Wright has dropped the cedar wood ceiling in the hexagonal strip just above the benches in a flat plane to give his famous "compression," a sort of cozy feeling from being enclosed while being able to look out at a distant prospect. The ceiling over the central free walking space perforates this plane and rises up to take on the shape of the interior of the roof. The windows drop from a point somewhat inside the overhanging eaves in three tiers, with each rising tier having a larger "circumference" than the one below it. (Think of it this way: the slant of the roof is mirrored by a "reversed slant" of the glazing.) People who have been in the house often say that it is like being in a ship. The exterior shape of the living room also imitates a clamshell--surely not unintentional in a beach house.

The one wall of the living room without windows contains the fireplace, which juts into the room. Its triangular form is the type which burns stacked, not horizontally laid wood, typical for Wright. The entrance to the house and the gallery which gives access to the rooms along the tadpole tail is accessible through a door to the right of the fireplace; on the other side of it is a door which leads to the kitchen and utilities room, which Wright habitually designated the workspace. A door from this room leads into the gallery (so you can walk in a circle around the masonry containing the fireplace).

Carmel is rarely too hot, and just as rarely too cold, thanks to peculiarities of the climate and the (obvious) proximity of the ocean. Wright thus left vents in the undersides of the corbelled glazing which allow sea breezes in. I should think the house is at its best on a stormy night with the lights of the coast visible, waves crashing on the rocks, a fresh breeze coming off the ocean, and a fire in the fireplace. The floor of the living room is covered with a very deep shag rug, and I can sort of guess what occupants do on it when the waves crash.

The exterior and other characteristics.

One of the glories of the house is the masonry terrace on which it is built. The Carmel Stone terrace juts out in triangular form like a ship's hull onto a point on the rocks just about at high tide line. During storms waves will strike it and spray to both sides. The terrace sits directly upon the granite boulders of the shoreline; and while the terrace is obviously man made, observers are right in pointing out that the house also seems to rise out of the rocks in an organic way.

Wright intended the roof to be copper, and thus take on the color of verdigris. In practice, shortages during the Korean War (when the house was built: it was finished in 1950) led to a ceramic-coated type of steel tile being used. These rapidly deteriorated, however, and the second replacement roof you see today is copper with its characteristic soft-greenish turquoise color. The other colors in the palette are Wright's favorite "Cherokee Red" for the cedar exterior mullions in the glazing and the beige-tan of the carmel stone. Dark green of cypress and white of quartz granite sand and boulders complete the picture.

The Walker house is Storrer catalogue number 306, number 5122 among the documents in the Taliesin archives. It is Wright's only work in Carmel, on Scenic Drive at the foot of Martin St. Storrer offers map coordinates (very fashionable among Wright cataloguers these days) 36° 32.690' N by 121° 55.826' W.

http://www.dabait.com/bimmer/pics/FLW-Roadster.JPG (looking at the house from the south, past it towards Carmel)

Dunham, Judith, and Zimmerman, Scot. 1994. Details of Frank Lloyd Wright. The California Work, 1909-1974. Pages 80-83.
Heinz, Thomas A. 1999. Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide. West, Vol. 3. Pages 36-37.
Paul, Linda Leigh. 2000. Cottages by the Sea. The Handmade Homes of Carmel, America's First Artist Community. Pages 156-167. (My discussion is deeply indebted to this excellent treatment.)
Storrer, William Allin. 1993. The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion. Page 319. (This is the best catalog, with floor plans. It costs a fortune, though.)
----------. 2002. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. A Complete Catalog (3rd edition). Page 309.
Zimmerman, Scot. 1992. Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright's California. Pages 50-53.

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