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Review: Miniature fascination fulfilled at the Frank Lloyd Wright House

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 25, 2011 - My fascination with Lilliputian objects goes back a long time, to 1950 or '51 when I was given my electric train, a very heavy, very beautiful post-World War II Lionel train. It came with a set of tiny buildings, bridges, trees and so forth that I arranged around the landscape inside the circle of track. It became a retreat, a constrained universe all its own.

I loved everything about the train rig - the engineering of the locomotive, the sound of the train traveling around the tracks, the cataclysms caused from running the train too fast, the whistle, the smoke erratically puffing out of a small smokestack, even the strange electrical smell the transformer gave off. But I also loved the little buildings and their accompaniments and the fantasies they permitted.

On a recent trip to Kirkwood on Beacon business, I was reminded of my delight in the train and its little buildings. The fantasies today are more complex and layered, but they still have to do with the planned or accidental relationships we establish between ourselves and the built environment, and how we arrange buildings and spaces in interesting and, one hopes, meaningful and satisfying ways.

The site where all this imagining was stirred up is the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park. The house itself is assertive and impressive when you approach it, driving up a hill to the prominence on which the red brick building rests so comfortably. After passing a persimmon tree forest, the road ends in a parking lot to the left or in a carport to the right. All that is something to be expected in a compact plan. Yet, when you approach the double-door entrance, you realize you're approaching something not expected but quite special in fact, something entirely different from houses in neighboring subdivisions.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house for Ruth and Russell Kraus. It teeters between the conditions of distinction and curiosity. The architect, in creating a most individualist and eccentric dwelling, pushed the architectural design envelope and imposed idiosyncratic ideas on what is in essence a small, Midwestern suburban dwelling. It was Wright's custom to rain down rules that he insisted the owners observe, and no small amount of devotion is required to live up to the Gospel According to Frank.

As is true in many Wright buildings, the furniture, designed by him for this dwelling, is decidedly offbeat, and the ensemble in the Kraus house includes a double bed in the shape of an equilateral parallelogram that staggers the imagination. The parallelogram is the geometric module from which the house unfolds and evolves, and is an interesting idea gone ballistic. (For a thoughtful and richly detailed examination of the house, see historian Esley Hamilton's essay.)

Nevertheless, the Kraus house is remarkable for having what Wright wrought intact, and it is a perfect place for a remarkable and enormously creative exhibit called "Monumental Miniatures." The show, like the house, is fascinating in its variety, but before I tell you about the miniatures themselves, it's interesting to review why the house is indeed such a perfect place for it.

Every nook, cranny, sill and surface of the Kraus house is available to the visitor, and once he or she has made a carefully considered assessment and inspection of all this, and has either marveled at or has been bemused by the endemic narcissistic eccentricities, you've pretty much seen and experienced everything the house in the Sugar Creek Valley has to offer. With all the other resources of the region to see, why come back, as the keepers of the house hope sincerely that you will?

The answer, of course, is imaginative special events, more to the point, special events that are absolutely, perfectly fitted to this house. A good series of interesting exhibits related to architecture is a splendid solution to that issue. And such a program has been initiated at the house, directed and executed by St. Louis artist Peter Shank.

I remember with great admiration his show of drawings of buildings by St. Louis architects mounted at the FLW house last year. The fact that hanging anything on the walls was prohibited by Wright (an edict observed by the Krauses) was certainly a problem, but Shank circumvented it by standing the drawings up, propping them against the walls.

Although one is forbidden to hang anything, an exhibitions planner nevertheless is free to install objects wherever he or she wishes on the many built-in shelves and surfaces of the house. Shank leapt through this loophole with grace, and thanks to his doing so, we have a most engaging show. Borrowing from collectors all over the place, miniatures representing buildings real and imaginary fill the Kraus house.

Because Frank Lloyd Wright is inseparable from the program at the Kraus House, there are several miniatures of buildings by him, including "Fallingwater," the magnificent house Wright designed for Edgar J. Kaufmann at Bear Run, Pa. One Fallingwater is made of Legos. Another is made of cast pewter.

In the category of "miniature," there is a remarkable range in size, from a couple of inches tall to a foot or so, and the materials used to create the miniatures are similarly varied. There are glass miniatures (the Antonelli Tower, Turin, designed by Alessandro Antonelli) and miniatures made of ceramics (Mark Twain's Boyhood Home, Hannibal). Philip Agee's "Three Nesting Buildings, Morning, Noon and Night" are made of wood and polychrome enamel. There is a Welsh cottage made of a lump of coal. Our own Gateway Arch is made, naturally, of gleaming stainless steel. There is a good showing of objects of utility, such as the California State Capitol salt and pepper shakers.

When, like Alice, you fall down a rabbit hole and find yourself not in Wonderland but in a place called Collectorland, the experiences available to you are so varied and so rich as to leave you saying "Curiouser and curiouser," but with a sense of astonishment and delight rather than consternation. So it is with collections of paintings, stamps, sculptures, toasters, Durer woodcuts, vacuum cleaners, netsuke, thermos bottles -- and architectural miniatures.

Michael Emrick is a graduate of the school of architecture at Washington University and the historic preservation program of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture. He now works as an architect in Nashville, Tenn., specializing in historic building preservation.

Emrick fell down the rabbit hole a number of years ago when he came upon a foot-high miniature of the Empire State Building at a sale in Fort Myers, Fla.

"Fifteen hundred miniatures later and I am still at it," Emrick said in a telephone interview. "I am now cataloging my latest haul," Emrick said. He loved the idea of the exhibition at the Kraus House because of the building itself, and because of his St. Louis connections. He was happy to participate, and loaded a healthy selection of miniatures from his collection in his car and drove it to St. Louis. "I could have filled every shelf in the house," he said.

The idea of the exhibition came from Joanne Kohn, president of the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright House. She came upon miniature collecting in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Shank said Kohn discussed the idea of a miniatures show with him and with Laura Meyers, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright House. That discussion proved fruitful for all of us viewers. There couldn't be a more perfect exhibition - a show about great buildings filling the shelves of a house that is itself a work of art.

"It was a revelation to me," Shank said. He noted that the world of miniature buildings embraces stuff you see mixed in with the pecan rolls at Stuckey's and entirely more sophisticated miniatures, such as Wright's Robie House on the south side of Chicago.

In life, majuscule and minuscule, materials affect different sensibilities in different ways. Shank, a dedicated modernist, said a collector in Brooklyn pulled out a miniature of the Citicorp building in New York -- the building with its distinctive, 45-degree angle top.

It was made of Lucite, Shank said, and he told the collector he liked it. She didn't, and just to prove the point, she told Shank to take it away. It's in the show. And who knows? From the gift of a miniature Lucite skyscraper, it is not inconceivable a new collection may grow, one that will delight the eye and activate the imagination, and someday, perhaps, become integral to an exhibit as full of delight and illumination and imagination as "Monumental Miniatures" is.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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