Originally published Friday, September 16, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house comes with a price

The house — known as the Sweeton House for the couple who asked Wright to design it in the late 1940s — is one of the buildings that attendees of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy's annual conference are set to visit this week in Pennsylvania.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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PHILADELPHIA — The uninvited visitors always seem to show up when Dan Nichols is mowing the lawn, looking like any other ordinary homeowner.

Except he's not any ordinary owner and he certainly doesn't have an ordinary home.

Nichols and his wife, Christine Denario, live in a Cherry Hill, N.J., house that is a celebrity itself — designed by one of America's greatest architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959 at the age of 91.

Residing in a Wright house means living not only amid history, but also in a present-day tourist attraction.

"I knew that this curiosity would come along with it to some extent," Nichols says. "It actually has been less of a problem than I expected."

The couple's house — known as the Sweeton House for the couple who asked Wright to design it in the late 1940s — is one of the buildings that attendees of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy's annual conference are set to visit this week.

Other area Wright buildings on the schedule are Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Suntop Homes in Ardmore, and the Dudley Spencer House in Wilmington.

The group, which includes architects, scholars, preservationists, and, especially, Wright building owners, will gather in Philadelphia from Wednesday-Sunday. According to the group's website, its mission is "conservation, education and the protection of Wright's remaining architectural heritage."

"I've been interested in Wright since I was 9 or 10," says Nichols, now 45.

"Obsessed would be the term," Denario says.

Nichols' fascination with modern architecture began at the knee of his father, an industrial designer. After seeing a Wright house in Wilmington, and as a young boy reading about Wright, Nichols not only was smitten with the architect's style, he decided to become an architect himself.

So when he saw an online notice in 2007 that the Sweeton House was for sale, he bought it, for $350,000 — leaking roof and all. Fixing up the house, Nichols says, is "a 20-year project."

For Denario, 42, who grew up in Philadelphia, "It was a perfect opportunity to move back to the Philadelphia area where I was from, and to be a little part of history."

The residence is one of Wright's Usonian designs, a word the architect coined that stands for the United States of North America. His goal: create a style that was uniquely American and fostered democracy by being practical and affordable to the middle class.

The Sweeton family was solidly in the middle, and approached Wright to design a house for them that fit their "unpretentious lifestyle," according to correspondence. Nichols says the Sweetons paid builders $24,000 to construct the house, which was completed in 1951. Wright's design fee was $1,500.

He responded with a three-bedroom, one-bath house on seven acres. It has trademark Wright features, including a long, low, sloped roof that emphasizes the horizontal, a cantilevered carport, a griddled red-tinted concrete slab floor, concrete block and glass, and generous windows.

'Subtle enclosure'

The windows in the main room aren't just holes in the wall, "they're a subtle enclosure of the house," says Nichols, pointing out that no frame connects the panes where wall meets wall. The glass is cut and mitered to fit together neatly so residents can absorb a full sense of the nature beyond.

"When Wright designed the house, he really wanted to give the owner a sense of shelter, but also not confine the owner," Nichols says.

As so often happens with the famous, people come a-calling to catch a glimpse.

"I actually was a tourist myself," Nichols says of his own visit to the home on an August day in 1996. "I drove to the end of the driveway. There obviously was no one home, so I drove away."

Now as a Wright house owner, Nichols has found that "people tend to be pretty respectful. We've met people from all over the world having this house."

There was the lovely older couple from Germany who were driving across the U.S. in an RV and stopping at Frank Lloyd Wright buildings along the way.

The creepiest voyeur? Whoever came to the house, snapped a photo, and took down the GPS coordinates — then posted it all on a website.

"It was unnerving to see someone had taken a picture of the house when I wasn't home, and they were obviously very close," says Nichols, who only once let strangers (the German couple) look inside.

The most gratifying visit came last year when the Sweetons' daughter, who was in her 70s, stopped by to visit from New York. She lived in the house from when she was 9 years old until she left for college; she brought along a box of correspondence from her parents, Wright, and the architect's apprentice.

The daughter told Nichols she'd "like these to stay with the house." A trove of documents was left behind.

It was a historical jackpot, outlining how Wright wanted the builders hired by the Sweetons to carry out his design. His letters to the couple were brief and not the kind of "flowery speech that I might have expected from a great man," Nichols says.

Wright's Suntop Homes in Ardmore, Pa., more visible from the street than the Sweeton House, get more traffic.

Christian Busch, owner of one of the homes, recalls sitting on his balcony one day when he heard people talking and gravel crunching. A busload of tourists had stopped outside and were walking around and taking photos as though they were sightseeing at Independence Hall.

Such large groups don't often come. More frequently, the same car will pass by four or five times, its driver finally parking at the curb and getting out to wander around outside, says Busch, who is a board member of the Chicago-based conservancy and co-chair of the Philadelphia conference. Sometimes people knock on the door, though, like Nichols, Busch rarely invites strangers in.

Busch's worst experience was a stranger who followed a couple of workers into his living room and began taking photographs.

Magnetic pull

Wright's homes have a magnetic pull just like celebrity homes, says Philip Ferentinos, director of Starline Tours, which began driving tourists past the Hollywood and Los Angeles homes of stars in 1935.

Ferentinos has toured many of the architect's houses in the L.A. area. It is ironic, he says, that a Wright building should become as famous as a Hollywood star's mansion.

"He didn't design it thinking he was building a celebrity house," Ferentinos says. "He built it with his vision."

Still, says David De Long, a University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus of architecture, "Wright is a celebrity. Long after his death, his name continues to grow."

Wright cut a dashing figure when he was alive, wearing expensive suits and leading a personal life packed with romance, betrayal and murder. But it is his architectural designs that live on for his fans, says De Long, who will be on a panel at the conservancy conference.

"Wherever you go," De Long says, "if anyone knows about architecture, they know him."

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