Inside vaunted ar­chi­tect Frank Lloyd Wright’s only NYC house

New York Post - - HOME - By LAUREN STEUSSY

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.

Ta­mara Beck­with/NY Post (2)

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.

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