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Preserving A Taliesin Legacy

A Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice-designed home embraces the famed architect’s principles of organic design while manifesting its creator’s personal vision.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Michael Woodall

In 1932, legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright opened his Spring Green, Wisconsin, home to 23 aspiring architects who would live with him and study under this tutelage. Three years later, Wright moved his students to a camp in Chandler called “Ocatillo,” and in 1937, the group—known as the Taliesin Fellowship—began construction on the architect’s Scottsdale retreat, Taliesin West. 

In the harsh Sonoran Desert climate, the Fellowship developed into a creative laboratory that attracted some of the industry’s greatest minds. During Wright’s lifetime, more than 600 apprentices passed through the compound in the foothills of the McDowell Mountain. One such eager protégé was Charles Montooth.

As a student at the University of Chicago, Montooth fell in love with Wright’s work and, while teaching in Michigan, would spend his free time driving around the Midwest seeking out and examining houses designed by the master. Montooth’s widow, Minerva, recalls a meeting between Ruth Pew, owner of the now famous Pew House in Madison, Wisconsin, and her husband: “She said, ‘If you’re so interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, why don’t you go study with him?’’ Following a stint in the Merchant Marines during World War II, that’s exactly what he did.

Montooth worked on many homes with Wright, including the David and Gladys Wright House in Phoenix and the Harold Price House in Paradise Valley. The influence of these historic homes can be seen in his sixth creation—and his fourth as an independent architect.

Constructed of pinkish concrete masonry units in 1957 for Everett and Elaine Warner, close friends of the Montooths, the dwelling reflects a style Wright developed in the early ’50s known as Usonian Automatic. “The notion of concrete block Usonian-style houses is not something that everybody is familiar with, but they’re actually quite extraordinary,” says Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. “You have the flat roofs, the terraces and overhangs, and the block construction.”

Built along a well-defined geometric grid, the residence was completed in two phases, the first being a two-story plinth comprising the main living areas downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs, with an open-air balcony off the master suite. Later, Montooth added an expansive foyer with high ceilings and substantial clerestory windows, expanded the first floor to include a large dining area and increase the kitchen, and enclosed the upstairs patio.

The architect maintained a cohesive look between old and new. In the now-open great room, what were once exterior columns with built-in light fixtures have become dramatic characteristics of the space. An understated motif featuring offset blocks and acrylic bulb covers is used both inside and out. The original front door was moved to the entrance of the foyer where it continues to greet guests today. Scored red concrete floors run throughout most of the house.

1. Montooth later added a large foyer. The pass-through is where the original front door once hung. A painting by Rob Browning is displayed above a chair that belonged to the husband’s grandparents.  2. “This is such a grand space. It creates a mood of what to expect when you first walk inside,” the wife says of the foyer, which was added later by Montooth. Deviating from classic Wright design, which usually features tight, low entrances, this expansive room showcases a high ceiling and large clerestory windows. The front door is original to the house; it was relocated during Montooth’s renovation. On the far wall is a painting the homeowners purchased in Spain by Gonzalo Sicre. The library table, chair and floor lamps are family pieces.  3Large windows and French doors let copious natural light into the dining room. The homeowners brought the table from a previous residence. “We were able to extend it fully here. I love that it fits,” says the wife. “We like to just sit at it and have coffee, do puzzles and read.” The tea set was designed by Eva Zeisel.  4. “We wanted to make a conscious differentation between the architecture and the new cabinetry,” says kitchen designer Robert Moric. “The bones might be old, but the attitude is young.” The painting is by Miguel Macaya.

“The Warner Residence represents so many of Wright’s principles around great design and creating the organic connection between inside and out so one naturally grows into the other,” Graff notes. “It has that sense of place and site specificity.” Situated on a one-acre citrus grove, the once-rural abode is now nestled snuggly in the epicenter of Central Phoenix.

Just a few months after Montooth passed away, the house went on the market—only the second time since it was built—and a couple looking to relocate to the Valley from New Orleans was immediately enchanted by its one-of-a-kind features. 

“We’ve always owned historic homes,” says the wife, an interior designer. “This is the youngest house we’ve ever lived in, but we liked that it had character. Not only is it architecturally interesting, but it has a wonderful property with an orchard and established plants. I liked the idea of being able to wake up and see some greenery.” 

For the husband, who works in construction management, the dwelling’s noteworthy provenance was a bonus. “Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the iconic American architects, and we all studied his work in school,” he says. “To be in a house that was designed by one of his associates is pretty exciting. 

“The whole concept of the Usonian home was simplicity,” he adds. “This house is built with three major materials: concrete, concrete block and plywood. They’re ele-ments that are readily available and extraordinarily efficient in this climate. It’s just a beautiful, simple design.”

Designed by architect Charles Montooth, the house is constructed of concrete block. A mitered corner window blends the interior and exterior.

 To live in a house that was designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s associates is pretty exciting.”

—the homeowner

Besides the additions, little has changed to the interiors over the years. In the living room, the existing built-in seating area with shelving still provides a cozy spot in the winter to curl up next to the fireplace with a good book. The new owners updated the cushions with a two-tone blue color scheme. A pair of footstools designed by Montooth are original to the home. In the den, a grouping of crimson Saarinen Womb chairs adds a pop of vibrant color to the otherwise neutral decor. 

“You don’t need a lot of ornamentation,” says the wife. “You want to colors that are fairly minimal and limited in their palette because of the red floors and the pinkishness of the block. We tried to keep things more subdued, either playing off of the red-orange tones or staying with whites and grays.”

The most dramatic interior design change can be seen in the kitchen, where the owners replaced dark, dated cabinetry with a sleek white contemporary kitchen outfitted with top-of-the-line amenities and a fresh white tile floor. “The decision to be as simple and sparse as possible was part of a concept to contrast with the house,” explains the wife. The countertops are period-appropriate composite laminate. “It’s an upgraded material from the plastic laminate of the day when this house was built,” the wife adds. “It just seemed too fussy and overdone to put in stone countertops, and laminate is very practical and fitting in many ways.”

1. Landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck added a burbling fountain near the front entrance that is visible from the living room. “Water is soothing and psychologically cooling for desert dwellers,” she says. The oak chair, which the homeowners purchased while living in Spain, is a replica of a piece Antoni Gaudí designed for Casa Botlló in Barcelona. The aluminum orb is a mock-up for one of the husband’s past design projects. On the coffee table are a ceramic sculpture by Mary Fisher and a foundry mold, which the homeowners collect.  2. The homeowners replaced the dated kitchen with a bright white contemporary version. Upper cabinets to the left of the window were swapped for shorter shelves, allowing for better views to the dining room. The sleek laminate countertops are only 0.375-inches thick.  3. A long hallway connects the guest bedrooms with the master and sitting room, seen in the background. Original single-pane windows look out to the backyard and orchard beyond. “We like to open the windows and let the breezes come in,” says the wife. Built-in shelving displays art and books the couple has collected during their travels.  4. The home’s most striking feature is the suspended staircase, which is located just to the right of the original front door. The deep wood treads with a shallow rise are supported by steel cables.  5. Ten Eyck created the front landscaping for the home’s second owners. At the time, the yard was covered in asphalt.

For kitchen designer Robert Moric, preserving the room’s historical integrity was  paramount. “Being thoughtful in design and using quality products allows it to become timeless,” notes the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. “I’m sure if the midcentury modern masters lived today, they’d be designing kitchens like this.”

One distinctive attribute that didn’t change—and which remains the home’s most striking element—is the floating staircase suspended by red steel cables that serves as a centerpiece connecting the main living area with three bedrooms upstairs. 

“Those see-through steps were a big item that Charles used. That kind of feature wasn’t so common in those days,” says Mrs. Montooth. “It was a very pleasant experience to go up those stairs.”

Large windows on both floors overlook the backyard and a flourishing citrus orchard. While the city grew up around the house, its oversized lot and mature plantings offer privacy and lend a sense of isolation.

“The building, with its solid masses, gives you a sense of being sheltered, of being snuggled,” says Graff. “But then you have these windows that are capturing the exterior, and you have an opportunity for that visual release that comes with those exterior vistas. It’s an emotional response that comes from the juxtaposition of dark and light, solid and vastness.”

A wall of windows with large glass French doors on the back of the dining room expansion leads to the backyard and pool that, while newly renovated, reflects Montooth’s vision.

“We weren’t trying to replicate the original landscape or go back in history,” says landscape architect Todd Briggs. “It was more about being respectful of the old design.”

Briggs removed large amounts of overgrown foliage and pared down the lawn to a more functional size. “We were building off of a lot that was there,” he explains. “There were some trees that were still viable and shrub elements that were fantastic.” He augmented established Indian hawthorne with new specimens to fill in gaps in the hedges and added clusters of Little Ollie dwarf olive shrubs, jasmine, fortnight lily and aloe for aroma and visual interest. “The homeowners were also interested in allowing creeping fig to selectively attach to parts of the house—not to fully engulf it but to allow the landscape and architecture to have a closer relationship.”

On the main floor, rooms flow seamlessly from one to another—and to the exterior—thanks to an open floor plan. Light-colored furnishings and rugs offset the red concrete floors, block walls and wood accents. The cream-colored chair in the foreground is an original Frank Lloyd Wright- designed piece that belonged to the husband’s parents. The homeowners had the additional three replicas made for a matching quartet.

Charles had an ability to make a building sing. I always thought this house had that quality.”

—MINERVA MONTOOTH, widow of architect Charles Montooth

To complete the backyard, a diving board was added to the pool. “Even if no one uses it, it’s such an iconic piece and a nod to the original design,” Briggs notes. 

The front yard needed only minor refreshing. Agaves that had completed their life cycle were replaced, candellia were replanted, and underperforming deer grass was swapped out for more aromatic jasmine, a favorite of the wife. 

Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck, with whom Briggs used to work, completed a major overhaul of the front landscape for the previous owners more than 10 years ago. At that time, the yard was covered entirely in asphalt. “We took the lines from the house and extended them into the garden,” she says. “Parking courts are defined by these lines and infilled with stabilized decomposed granite and trees.”

1. Just as Wright frequently did, Montooth included built-in furnishings in his design. The homeowners reupholstered the cushions in a simple two-tone blue palette. “The seating had a zebra-stripe pattern,” says the wife. “I felt that they needed to be very tailored and quiet to emphasize the horizontal nature of the setting.” The rolling stools are original. The table is a Hans Wegner design.  2. “In a house that has such a strong presence and character, you don’t want to over-ornament,” says the wife. The painting is by Catalan artist Ramon Enrich. A pair of Spanish Talavera vases rest on a vintage credenza by Florence Knoll.  3. Montooth designed the dining room addition to appear as though it was part of the original build, incorporating the integrated lighting columns and red concrete flooring seen throughout the home. The zebra painting, purchased in Spain, is by Miguel Macaya.  4. In the den, a trio of Womb chairs offers comfortable seating without overwhelming the room. A painting by Nuria Armengol is a focal point.  5. The home office remained largely untouched; the owners replaced a brown countertop on the built-in cabinetry with white laminate. An oil painting by David Kroll hangs above the fireplace.

For Briggs, updating a historical home requires thoughtful interventions. “You have to be extremely mindful of the architectural legacy of a home such as this one and show a little bit of restraint,” he says. “There’s some care in understanding the architect’s original vision and how that folds into the landscape.”

The current residents agree. They consider themselves less as owners and more as stewards, fully appreciating the property’s heritage and its local significance. “We would never do anything to destroy any of the aspects of the house that were here,” says the wife.

 Charles Montooth was a gifted designer and someone for whom Frank Lloyd Wright had much respect.”

—STUART GRAFF, president and CEO, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

And for Mrs. Montooth, that’s the best tribute anyone can give to her husband. “Charles was very excited about this project,” she recalls. “It’s absolutely wonderful to find clients who appreciate the artist’s work, not just the practicality of a building. Charles was a very practical architect, but he had poetry at the same time. He had an ability to make a building sing. I always thought the Warner Residence had that quality, and I’m happy that the new owners realize that and want to keep it.”

For more information, see Sources.

1. Just as Wright frequently did, Montooth included built-in furnishings in his design. The homeowners reupholstered the cushions in a simple two-tone blue palette. “The seating had a zebra-stripe pattern,” says the wife. “I felt that they needed to be very tailored and quiet to emphasize the horizontal nature of the setting.” The rolling stools are original. The table is a Hans Wegner design.  2. “In a house that has such a strong presence and character, you don’t want to over-ornament,” says the wife. The painting is by Catalan artist Ramon Enrich. A pair of Spanish Talavera vases rest on a vintage credenza by Florence Knoll.  3. Montooth designed the dining room addition to appear as though it was part of the original build, incorporating the integrated lighting columns and red concrete flooring seen throughout the home. The zebra painting, purchased in Spain, is by Miguel Macaya.  4. In the den, a trio of Womb chairs offers comfortable seating without overwhelming the room. A painting by Nuria Armengol is a focal point.  5. The home office remained largely untouched; the owners replaced a brown countertop on the built-in cabinetry with white laminate. An oil painting by David Kroll hangs above the fireplace.

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