Inside vaunted architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s only NYC house
ON a recent afternoon, Jeanne and Frank Cretella spotted some 30 bicyclists gathered in their driveway of their Staten Island house, gawking at its red roof, horizontal siding and rectangular rows of windows.
For the couple, who own the only New York City residence designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, dodging reverent onlookers is par for the course. When the weather’s nice, it happens every single weekend.
The uninvited guests know the Cretellas’ 1959-built prefabricated structure, located on a verdant hillside a 30-minute drive from the Staten Island Ferry, by its Wright-approved nickname: Crimson Beech. The adjective references the color of its facade details, the noun a tree that once presided over the lot.
“You’re trying to enjoy a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning, and all of a sudden there’s someone peering into your window!” says Jeanne, 58, who, with her husband, operates event spaces in historic properties.
To be sure, the Cretellas appreciate their local legend, with Wrightdesigned touches from built-in cabinets to a dining room table that date back to its erection, but also say it’s a comfortable place to live. Purchased in 2004 for under $1 million, the 3,750-square-foot abode has been a sentimental spot to raise daughter Madeline, now 24.
Sculptures by Frank’s mother line the original wood-paneled
hallway extending to the left of the entrance. Doors that fold accordion-style (also Wright’s) lead to two bedrooms, a bathroom and a study, all across from storage Wright built into the house. The Cretellas’ own eclectic furniture and colorful art collection sit beside mahogany tables that the Midwestern architect designed specifically for Crimson Beech. Golden retriever Enzo, age 1½, snoozes beside the large fireplace Wright saw as the center of family activity.
Though the Cretellas only moved in 13 years ago, the home has been a part of their lives for almost as long as they can remember. Jeanne and Frank both grew up just blocks away in another part of Lighthouse Hill, a suburban neighborhood that offers views of New York Harbor when winter strips the trees.
Crimson Beech landed there, far from Wright’s main studios in Wisconsin and Arizona, by happenstance. It was part of a series of prefabricated homes conceived by Wright from 1956 onwards as a way of providing middleclass families with beautiful, economical homes. In 1957, when Wright told veteran broadcaster Mike Wallace about his commitment to affordable housing, a Queens resident named William Cass was listening. He and his wife Catherine had just bought a plot of land on Staten Island and were in the market for an architect. They wrote to Wright, asking him to build them a house for under $35,000, if possible.
By that point, the superstar was a household name — and remains so, especially since his minimalist aesthetic dovetails nicely with today’s nostalgic obsession with midcentury modern design.
To the Casses’ surprise, Wright responded that he’d take on the project. He journeyed to New York to visit the site, settling on a model simply dubbed “Prefab #1.” There would eventually be nine others like it across the country. While appearing to span just one story from the street, Crimson Beech has a hidden lower level — one of the customizations Wright made, since many of its successors were just one floor — that hugs its steep hill. Wright, characteristically, wanted the home to be one with nature.
Its parts were delivered to Lighthouse Hill via a thendirt road in four different truckloads in the late 1950s; the home was completed when Jeanne and Frank were toddlers. It ended up costing about $62,000.
As construction workers were putting the finishing touches on Crimson Beech, a Manhattan crew was preparing to open the Guggenheim — the only other Frank Lloyd Wright building in the city. Wright passed away at age 91 in April of 1959, just months before he planned to pay the city another visit, both to see the just-installed Cass prefab and witness the museum’s early visitors.
Frank’s first memory of Crimson Beech is not from an architecture book — though the Cretellas have many of those now, several devoted to Wright, some even stacked on Wrightdesigned shelves — but from the window of a school bus when he was just 9 years old.
“I knew then it was special home, but I had no idea that it was his design or who he even was,” says Frank, 59. “It was always the famous house on the hill,” Jeanne adds.
The Cretellas met when they were adolescents; Jeanne’s family moved across the street from Frank’s. Winters were spent ice-skating on a pond, summers riding dirt bikes.
They became high school sweethearts who later married and amassed a food-service empire, starting with a concession stand at the Staten Island Zoo. Now principals of Landmark Hospitality, they own venues and restaurants like 200-year-old Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, NJ. All along, the couple wanted to settle in the idyllic area of their youth.
Frank oversees contractor work on the roughly 30 properties Landmark owns or leases. About 20 are historic buildings. Moving into a Frank Lloyd Wright house, he jokes, was like boot camp for restoring prized real estate.
“You definitely learn quite a bit when it’s the place you live [in],” Frank adds.
Since move-in, the Cretellas have made upgrades while respecting the prefab’s decades-old bones. They converted much of its ample built-in storage into space more suitable for their family — adding a bedroom downstairs for their daughter and a wine cellar for their vast collection. Out back, they masterminded a large patio with cushy seating, which joins two other al fresco spaces perfect for entertaining on the banked hillside.
The biggest changes, though, are in the kitchen: The experienced chefs removed Formica countertops and added in a commercial stove, oversize hood and fancy appliances. They raised the room’s ceiling by taking out Wright-designed storage above it. A small doorway
into the kitchen got knocked wide open; the current open floor plan means the Cretellas’ large ItalianAmerican family can be involved in dinner preparations.
“It was really important to us to maintain the integrity of what we thought Frank Lloyd Wright would be okay with,” says Jeanne, as she whips up a pasta dish in the bright kitchen they painted rusty orange. “But we knew that as times changed, [Wright] would have recognized that the kitchen is really the hub of the home — it’s not just a place where you fix a meal and bring it to the dining room.”
They feel closest to Wright when they’re admiring the natural beauty of Staten Island from any of the windows that march along the entire back of the house in a neat line. It’s fitting: Surrounding landscapes were always the inspiration for and guiding principle of Wright’s designs.
Wright was famously particular about his homes, even well after they changed hands from architect to owner. He designed everything, down to the dish towels (which the Cretellas no longer have) and left specific directions for the Casses to maintain his intended aesthetic.
The Cretellas actually had the opportunity to buy the house directly from the Cass family five years prior to their 2004 purchase, but the timing was off. So when the Cretellas, who still had eyes and ears in the neighborhood, got wind that the new owners were planning to move to Alaska, they bought the house directly from them for “pretty much what that family had bought it for,” Jeanne says. (The Casses sold it to the Alaska-bound family for $800,000, according to Curbed.) The Cretellas found minimal maintenance instructions — and a big mess.
Take the leaks. For a home whose interior is almost completely lined with rare mahogany from the Philippines, the dripping streams were like minefields, Frank says.
“It had been badly neglected,” says Jeanne, as she pulls out the only extant directions, handed down from Wright’s associate.
For one, they dictate the precise type of paint the exterior of the home requires: two coats of Moore- o-Matic exterior grade for the cream-colored masonite outer walls.
The upkeep of the house, whose exterior is a New York City landmark, means constant repairs and costs of about $25,000 per year. The Cretellas are accustomed to preservation rules that govern their work properties. Still, it’s one of the reasons they don’t open the home to the dozens of interested onlookers who walk by each week. (2006 marked the last time Crimson Beech was photographed by media.) “The house is never ready,” Jeanne says. “There’s always so much to do.”
Years ago, she did allow in one set of lookie-loos. She saw a group gazing through the window next to the front door at a small red plaque with Wright’s signature set in the entryway wall. They were historians from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. (The Cretellas are planning to attend the conservancy’s NYC conference this week.)
“When they saw [the plaque], they said, ‘Never, ever touch that,’ ” Jeanne recalls. The experts explained that there are only about 30 signed ones existing out of more than 400 completed Wright homes nationwide.
The Cretellas feel they were destined to be Crimson Beech’s gatekeepers. The night the Cretellas bought the house, Wright came up in a “Jeopardy!” round. Their daughter’s third grade teacher asked if she could bring the entire class over on a field trip — and did just that.
“It’s not just something we fell in love with,” Jeanne says. “It’s special to everyone.”
The four-bedroom house, built in 1959 and a designated landmark in Staten Island’s Lighthouse Hill neighborhood, retains Wright’s original design features, from facade details to interior wood paneling. w o N n e h T Jeanne Cretella, with her husband Frank, bought Wright prefab Crimson Beech, on Staten Island, in 2004 for under $1 million.
The kitchen and dining area have original cabinets and a mahogany table, but the Cretellas opened up the floor plan and added modern appliances. Midwesterner Frank Lloyd Wright, seen here in a photo currently on view at MoMA, agreed to build the home for NYC resident William Cass.
The extremely horizontal exterior is trademark Wright, but the home actually has a lower story hidden from the street he added upon request.
Wright scrawled his signature on a rare red plaque in Crimson Beech’s entryway.
Wright designed this part of the house as a carport, but the Cretellas converted it into a covered outdoor lounge.
In the study, wood shelving remains — topped with Wright-themed books the Cretellas collect.