MANCHESTER, N.H. — “When you walk into this house, you have almost a physical, ethereal response to it,” says Kurt Sundstrom, senior curator at the Currier Museum.
We were sitting on the built-in banquette at the museum’s newly-acquired Kalil House, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in a quiet neighborhood. Sunlight flooded the room, casting shimmering patterns against the red-hued concrete floor.
It’s a treat to be here, getting a preview tour of a rare Usonian Automatic house designed by one of America’s most famous architects. The story behind the house and its acquisition is also remarkable. The Currier Museum is the only museum in the world to now own two Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and they’re located in the same neighborhood: the Zimmerman House and the Kalil House.
The Kalil house, one of only seven Usonian Automatic houses in existence, was built in 1955 for Dr. Toufic H. Kalil and his wife, Mildred, after Wright had built a similar home for their friends, Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman, located just down the street. The Kalil house never left the family; it was passed on to Kalil’s brother who lived in the home until he passed away.
“The museum had been thinking about buying this house for years,” says Sundstrom. “But when you buy a Frank Lloyd Wright house, it’s not so easy. The inspection can be horrifying. It’s an enormous amount of work and can cost an absolute fortune to fix and maintain.”
Despite the challenge, the museum board had given its approval to purchase the house when it came on the market (for $850,000) in September 2019. “And then we get a phone call,” Sundstrom says. “It just all came together.”
The phone call was from an anonymous donor who provided the funds for the sale, “This guy literally helped us save this house,” Sundstrom says.
The two-bedroom, two-bath home was designed to be an affordable style pioneered by Wright, who had hoped that the design and technique would one day be available as a modest, build-it-yourself kit for homeowners. “Wright struggled with how to make a well-designed home simple but affordable,” says Sundstrom. “This was intended to be put together one block at a time, like a Lego house.”
The home is built on a grid, using some 4,800 concrete blocks. It’s built with southern exposure, containing 350 individual glass windows that bring in large amounts of natural light. In true Wright fashion, the street views are blocked; what you see instead are natural surroundings, a slope of the hill and treetops. “Wright created a great sense of privacy here,” Sundstrom explained. “When you walk in, you immediately leave your professional life behind and enter a very private, personal space.”
Concrete walls contain specks of mica that gently glitter. The concrete floors are warmed with radiant heat and softened with red paint. Other walls are paneled with rich Philippine mahogany wood. There are Wright-designed furniture pieces and built-ins everywhere: a wraparound, built-in banquette in the living room facing the stone fireplace; a small table and chairs in the dining room; shelves carved into the corner wall in the kitchen; built-in hallway cupboards and drawers. Sundstrom pointed out an original McIntosh stereo system in one of the living room cabinets. In one of the bathrooms are original porcelain sinks and a tiled bathtub; in the kitchen are original built-in Thermador ovens.
“We’re fortunate that the Kalils were Frank Lloyd Wright nuts,” Sundstrom says. “They didn’t change a thing. This is like a time capsule.”
We walked outside into the backyard, for another view of the house. From here the house, tucked into the landscape, looked like a piece of sculpture with repeating forms, a work of art.
Public tours of the Kalil House are slated to begin on April 18. But the museum also plans to use its new acquisition in a different way, bringing in Memory Café, Veterans at the Currier, and Art of Hope groups. Currier’s Memory Café hosts art programs for people with memory loss and their caregivers. Veterans at the Currier offers programs for veterans, using art in therapeutic ways. The Art of Hope program is designed for parents who have a child battling a substance abuse problem.
“There’s a real peacefulness and calm to this house,” Sundstrom says. “That’s why we think it will be a nice space for people who have trauma in their life.”
Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., 603-669-6144, currier.org; by tour only $35.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org