Around 1900 Francis and Mary Little of Peoria, IL commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design what was to be the first of two houses he designed for them. The Littles were active founding members of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it may have been there, where Wright frequently lectured, that they and Wright first came into contact. The relationship between Wright and the Littles went beyond that of ordinary architect and client. They were mutually respectful, yet candid with each other.
Mr. Little, a lawyer and owner of a utilities company, provided Wright with financial assistance on more than one occasion. Along with two other clients, Mr. Little paid for Wright's trip to Europe in 1909-1911 and helped finance the 1910 Berlin publication of Portfolio, a catalogue of one hundred of Wright's drawings published b Ernst Wasmuth. Commonly called the Wasmuth Portfolio, this publication subsequently brought Wright international attention. In the acknowledgments Wright credited Mr. Little as one to whom he owed a great deal for support and faith in his work.
The Littles moved from their Wright-designed house in Peoria, IL to Wayzata, MN in 1907 in an effort to live in what was considered a better climate for Mr. Little's declining health. They purchased land along scenic Lake Minnetonka about ten miles west of Minneapolis in the town of Deephaven. The following year the Littles and their only child, Eleanor, moved to an existing house in the Kenwood area of Minneapolis.
Around 1908 they commissioned Wright to design a summer residence for them on the lake site and initial plans were drawn that same year. The actual construction of the house, however, was not completed until around 1914, as Wright left for Europe in 1909, returned in 1911, and then spent part of 1913 in Japan. Although several letters from Mr. Little to Wright indicate his frustration with the delay, the Littles had a close relationship with Wright and were willing to wait for him, rather than choosing another architect. During this time the Littles spent their summers on the lake shore property in a small cottage that Mr. Little had designed in the style of Wright's work.
The home that Wright designed for the Littles was one of his last great Prairie School-style residences. The characteristic long, low, hipped-roof building "hugged" two gentle hills that rose above the lake.
The design consisted of two offset rectangles joined at the corner which formed a single 250-foot axis parallel to the lake shore. One rectangular section played a more private role, including the bedrooms and library above and the dining room, kitchen, and additional bedrooms below which was set into the lower hill. The other rectangular section included more public spaces, such as the large living/music room, billiard room, and screened pavilion and was set atop the higher hill. Wright designed nearly 300 windows for the house, which spanning the entire elevations, allowed the Littles full advantage of the scenic view.
Little and Wright's disagreements and final resolution over the design of the windows was preserved through their correspondence. Little rejected Wright's original elaborate designs with sections of colored glass which he viewed as far too complicated and dark, obscuring his view of the lake. The final design used predominantly clear glass with only small triangle and square shaped bits of red, white and translucent white colored glass held in a geometric arrangement throughout the window by thin, leaded caning.
Wright designed the larger windows to be installed in pairs and grouped with other pairs to form a single band of windows. Wright created a unique geometric design seen as a complete pattern that terminated at the end of the band. In this way, a band of windows gives the overall effect of one single elongated picture window surrounded by a decorative border.
Wright conceived of the furnishings of his Prairie Houses as integral parts of the architectural design, always corresponding to the scale and materials used in the structure. Wright thus made designs for much of the furniture for both of the Little houses. Although the furniture for each house was made from white oak, Furnishings the pieces fall into two stylistic groups, one from the earlier period of the Peoria house and one from the later period of the Wayzata house.
The earlier pieces are characterized by a dark brown stain with vertical lines interrupted by thin horizontal moldings and terminated with slab-like capitals. Two examples from this period displayed in the Prairie School gallery are the high-backed side chair and the easy chair designed for the Peoria house. The furniture for the second house was treated with a blond finish which was waxed but not stained, and the design was greatly simplified. Wright abandoned the thin horizontals, vertical slats, and accentuated capitals and feet in favor of simple, functional shapes. Despite Wright's likely desire for new furnishings of this later style in the second house, the Littles took much of the furniture from the first house to the second house, and chose to have fewer pieces made that Wright actually designed.
FATE OF THE LITTLE HOUSE
Mr. Little died in 1923 and Mrs. Little subsequently moved into her husband's cottage and gave the summer home to Eleanor and her husband Raymond Stevenson. Like Mr. and Mrs. Little, Eleanor and their four daughters also spent part of the year at a residence in Minneapolis and the other at the summer home on the lake.
Around 1951 the Stevensons sold their Minneapolis home, "winterized" the summer house, and moved in full time. However, by the late 1960s the Stevensons had grown weary of the challenges of living in a Wright-designed house. The large size of the house, rising property taxes, built-in furnishings that could not easily be changed, and many uninvited visitors became too much for them. Not wanting to move or tear down their house, and yet wanting a smaller house, put the Stevensons in a difficult position because of city zoning ordinances which would not allow two houses on the same lot.
The Stevensons made every effort to find a buyer, contacting architects, societies and national groups. Many were interested in preserving the house, but were unable to raise the money to buy it. Moreover, the only way the Stevensons could begin construction on a new house was to put the Wright house on the market with the stipulation that if the house wasn't sold within two years it would be demolished. Around 1972 they tore down Mr. Little's cottage and built a small French Provincial house on its site.
SALE OF THE HOUSE
Since no local buyer or institutions could be found to save the house, concerned individuals finally contacted officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which had a large collection of fine period rooms, to see if they might be able to purchase it for installation. Director Thomas Hoving came to look at the house and immediately offered to purchase it for the sale price of $150,000. Relieved, the Stevensons sold the house to the Metropolitan in the spring of 1972, while they retained the property.
DISMANTLING OF THE HOUSE
Under the direction of Metropolitan curator Morrison Heckscher, portions of the interior were carefully dismantled piece by piece for future installation in the Metropolitan and to sell to other institutions. That same year the Metropolitan sold the library to the Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a hallway to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and eventually installed the large living/music room in their own museum in 1982.
The hallway purchased by the MIA played a very important role in the Little's more private sphere of the house. It served as a central corridor between an adjacent hallway that was part of the master bedroom and bath suite, and a larger open area which served as the guest bedroom, the library, steps to the lower level, and the billiards room.
The hallway's complete set of ten elongated windows and bench seat below provided a special, more intimate place to enjoy the lake view. It included access to Eleanor's bedroom and two full-length closets, and was completed on each end with wall lights, smaller windows, and double doors inset with a decorative stained glass design. The hallway has been installed without its fourth wall (which held ventilation grills and the bedroom and closet doors only) allowing for an unimpeded view of the ten windows. The terminal design in the three windows to the far right were symmetrically mirrored in smaller windows of the adjacent master bedroom hallway on the far left.
Brooks, H. Allen The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries
New York, 1972
Department of Decorative Arts, Sculpture and Architecture files
Futagawa, Yukio, ed. and Brooks Pfeiffer Frank Lloyd Wright Monograph 1902-1906, volume 2, Tokyo, Japan, 1987
Futagawa Yukio, ed. and Brooks Pfeiffer Frank Lloyd Wright Monograph 1907-1913, volume 3, Tokyo, Japan, 1987
Heckscher, Morrison and Elizabeth G. Miller An Architect and His Client: Frank Lloyd Wright and Francis Little New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973
Nichols, Trent, Intern Department of Decorative Arts, Sculpture and Architecture, Report prepared 1998
See general section on giving tours of the Period Rooms.