Friday, November 8, 2013

Auldbrass - the Frank Lloyd Wright plantation

One of only two Frank Lloyd Wright properties in South Carolina, Auldbrass is the only plantation designed by the famous architect. The sprawling project near Yemassee is among the largest and most complex he ever undertook and Wright worked on it, off and on, from 1938 until his death in 1959. Currently owned by Hollywood producer Joel Silver, the property is opened to viewing once every two years… and I was so lucky as to obtain a ticket to tour this famous estate on my birthday.

Doors leading from the living room to the pool patio
My affinity for Frank Lloyd Wright architecture is based on two factors: growing up near Oak Park, Illinois, (with the world's largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings and houses, 25 structures in all) and studying architecture at the University of Illinois. I finished with a degree in in forestry instead, but the love of Wright’s ground-hugging, straight-lined architecture never left me. Upon researching another Frank Lloyd Wright home in South Carolina I discovered Wright’s only plantation is a mere 3 hour drive from Greenville.

View of bedrooms from direction of gardens
We spent the weekend in the area, exploring Hunting Island State Park and Beaufort on Saturday. On Sunday, after stopping at the Old Sheldon Church ruins, the boys dropped me off at the geometric gates to the plantation where a crowd had already gathered. At exactly 10am the gates swung open and I joined everyone in walking down the linear, crushed red brick roadway leading to the main house.

Looking in direction of main house from entrance
In 1938 wealthy industrial consultant C. Leigh Stevens convinced Frank Lloyd Wright to design him a southern plantation, one that would stay true to The South while addressing issues of contemporary use and economics. He had pieced together 4,253 acres in the lowlands of South Carolina including the Old Brass (or Jackson) tract that eventually gave Auldbrass its name. Construction began in the fall of 1940 but was soon put on hold as World War II and the materials shortages afterwards brought things to a halt. In addition, the unusual design proved to frustrate local builders, and mounting costs and additional demands by Stevens complicated the project immensely over those two decades.

Plan of Auldbrass, borrowed from tour booklet
However, progress was slowly made, and Wright christened the project “Auldbrass”, a nod to the “Old Brass” tract that had been incorporated into the property. He worked on it up until his death in 1959, and Stevens died three years later leaving Auldbrass half unfinished. When Stevens’ daughter sold the estate to a hunt club twenty years later it fell into disrepair, and despite being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, by the 1980’s it was almost in ruins.

Road leading between caretaker's house (right) and the sportsman closet
Abandoned and overgrown, the property was purchased by Joel Silver, producer of such movies as The Matrix, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard in 1986 for $148,000. After retaining Eric Lloyd Wright (the grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright), Silver set about to rebuild and restore Auldbrass to the original vision. By 2002, all of Wright’s surviving buildings were restored as originally intended, and the Wright-designed buildings that had been destroyed and altered were rebuilt. Silver hoped to realize Wright’s original plans by finishing the remaining projects as envisioned by the architect, and finally to add necessary, new buildings in a complimentary way that would not intrude on the original. On my visit I was able to visit one of the three new guest cottages, and plans are supposedly in place to build Wright’s design for a guest house and a floating dining barge.

Covered walkway along pool leading from main house to site of future guest house
The lines of all the buildings are reflected in Wright's logo for Auldbrass, a stylized arrow; his nod to the iconography of the Yemassee Indians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the British. The motif is cut into panels under the eaves, is painted on the Auldbrass fleet of vehicles (which are the same shade of brick red Wright had all his cars painted) and is even reflected in the shape of the swimming pool.

I started my tour in the main house, understanding that the lines would only get longer. After donning booties to cover my shoes we were allowed into the living room in groups of 12-15, from which we emerged on the deck of the swimming pool. The rest of the house – kitchen, dining room and bedrooms – we could observe through the windows, and as no photography was allowed in any of the buildings, I have little to show you in terms of interior. I suggest finding a copy of De Long & Gilson's Auldbrass: Frank Lloyd Wright’s southern plantation, which was instrumental in my research and has beautiful photographs of all aspects of the structures and grounds.

Living room windows from Cypress Lake side
The hexagonal pool, octagonal hot tub, geometric diving board and shaded beach chair area were perfectly inviting. Built recently to Wright’s specifications (except only half as deep, as the Southern soil wouldn't allow for the originally intended), the outward sloping walls of the pool make the pool appear twice as deep.

Looking towards main house, site of future guest house to the right
Circling around to the gardens I admired two of the Sprites on property, reproductions from Wright’s Midway Gardens in Chicago. The topiaries were true to Wright’s form, long diagonals and low-lying lines.

Gardens, with covered walkway and pool beyond
The patio area also had evidence of Midway Gardens; the chairs were obviously Wright replicas. I loved the decorative elements that had been placed on the tables; cypress knees with succulents, which reflected the beautiful trees on Cypress Lake in miniature form.

Patio next to living room on Cypress Lake side
My very first impression of the property was of opposites, as the angled roadways and linear structures are in great contrast to the sweeping live oaks and dripping Spanish moss. But a minor feature has effortlessly tied everything together – the downspouts Wright designed represent that same Spanish moss. As copper was difficult to find after the War, regular drainpipes were used in construction. Since they visually ruined the effect of the cantilevered overhangs, Wright designed wood pendants to hang at the corners, but it was only recently during Joel Silver’s renovations that the intended copper downspouts have truly brought the house into harmony with the giant oaks scattered about the grounds. With true attention to detail the grates under the downspouts are Wright designed.

Standing outside bedrooms looking towards living room and adjacent patio
I continued on to the stables, kennels, offices and multimedia room (caretaker's house) complex. The same low roofline, diagonal elements, copper downspouts; local cedar was used in all construction, and the mitered corners and hexagonal motifs guarantee that right angles are hard to find – all the walls are slanted inwards at an eighty-one degree angle. The multimedia room was formerly the caretaker’s house, but now is a showcase of Joel Silver’s industry. One entire wall is devoted to movies, and the rest of the room is littered with props and memorabilia from various films. A grand piano, comfy seating, a projector and enormous pull-down screen complete the set; I’m not sure what Wright would have had to say about the modifications, but replicas of his built-in furniture work perfectly with the modern…

Office and laundry, with caretaker's house at far end, visible walkway leads to workshop
From the stables I could see the paddock, which currently held a pair of beautiful horses and zebras; Silver’s collection of exotics include pygmy hippos, long horn cattle and scimitar Oryx. A Siberian lynx passed last year, I would have loved to see it. Even though the zebras didn’t quite fit in, not with the Southern aspect of the plantation, nor with the Frank Lloyd Wright design, the animals didn’t bother me as much as the sculpture collection.

Silver selected the pieces that currently adorn the lawn between the main drive and the pastures, and although there are one or two that fit in such as the reproduction of a lightning standard designed by Alfonzo Iannelli for Midway Gardens, and Adelin Salle’s golden rooster (1930), several others baldly stood out; the Hungarian Communist Party’s celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the runner carrying the hammer and sickle… I found the Italian arm wrestlers and replica of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture of the goddess Diana (which once topped the tower of the second Madison Square Garden in Philadelphia and now graces the Great Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) interesting, but the biggest treat was The Old Thinker by Henry Clews. One of two casts (the other is in Brookgreen Gardens), there was a slew of symbolism – this site seemed to have a good handle on some of it.

From left: Adelin Salle's rooster, M Del Chiaro's sculpture from Italy, goddess Diana, lightning standard, the two communist pieces and "The Old Thinker"
Between the sculptures and the main house was the aviary. Built recently but as Wright envisioned, it is an open, screened enclosure that houses exotic birds. The hexagonal structure mirrors the floor panels of the home, outbuildings and guest cabins, and was topped by the same copper roof.

Close to River Road are two guest cabins, currently used for staff. Stevens had convinced Wright to move them, as the three in Wright’s plan were located off beyond the stables. Silver plans on adding those three in addition to the guest house, which will be at the end of the swimming pool off the main house. One of the staff cabins was open, and as I stepped in the diagonals practically made me dizzy – a first despite all the crazy angles all over the property. The cabin had two main areas, a screened porch living area separated from the sleeping area. The narrow quarters were overwhelming, I couldn’t stand straight as anywhere I turned everything was on angle. Where the main house and other buildings had the diagonals, they were less obvious; maybe because the long, ground hugging form pulled the eye out and around. But that’s enough of me critiquing the famous architect – I’ll let the guest cabins slide, just this once...

One of two guest cabins
I was disappointed that the tour did not allow for visitors to circle Cypress Lake, as I had hoped to see the canal and boat dock Joel Silver has been working on, as well as take in the view of Auldbrass from across the pond. I settled for a contemplative moment lakeside overlooking the cypresses wearing their fall foliage with the backdrop of brightly colored hardwoods. Turning around to the view of the main house up on the hill I could feel it; Auldbrass belongs there.

Cypress Lake
The gates were to remain open for another two hours, but I had already spent four rambling the grounds. I can only imagine what it must be like to wake up in the bedrooms overlooking Cypress Lake or take an summer evening dip in the pool, but this I know for sure; Auldbrass is extremely lucky to have found so careful a benefactor in Joel Silver. The Frank Lloyd Wright legacy is richer for this one-of-a-kind treasure to have survived, and I am blessed to have been able to explore the plantation in celebration of my thirty-somethingth birthday.

The backside of the main house which faces Cypress Lake
De Long & Gilson, D. (2003). Auldbrass: Frank Lloyd Wright’s southern plantation. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Lee, Matt & Lee, Ted. " Auldbrass Wasn’t Rebuilt in a Day." NY Times Magazine. 30 Nov. 2003.

The horse stables, looking towards the workshop


  1. I can't get over how random the zebras are and I can't help but think even they're looking around going, "WTF are we doing here?!" ;)

  2. Wonderful post full of great info! Loved it!


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