Designed in 1939 by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer as a private residence for Pittsburgh’s Cecelia and Robert Frank, the Alan I W Frank house is an architectural tour de force that not many people have had the privilege to see. The largest residential commission for Gropius and Breuer, the house also is one of the most intact and complete examples of their work. True to their Bauhaus “total work of art” philosophy, Gropius and Breuer designed every part of the 17,000-square-foot house and its site, including furniture, fabrics, cabinets, mechanical systems, landscaping, and an ahead-of-its-time green roof. Alan I W Frank, Cecelia and Robert’s youngest child who lives in and owns the house, currently is devoting much of his time and resources into restoring the house and building a foundation to provide for its care well into the future.
A website was recently launched to support Frank’s efforts and help bring attention to his foundation. In addition to sharing the history and significance of the house, the site also allows visitors a rare look at the house—both in its original form and as it appears today—through an elegant and extensive gallery of images. Although finishes and furnishings are undergoing repairs, the structure has held up amazingly well over the past 73 years. Alan Frank and consulting architect J. Gordon Turnbull, president of Page & Turnbull, talked with us about the painstaking process of bringing this important building back to its former glory.
The biggest challenge was figuring out a way to refresh the home’s pale pink, honed stone exterior. More than 70 years of Pittsburgh’s steel soot and smog had left a gray tarnish on what Frank calls the “Bermuda pink beach” color. Frank and Turnbull worked with local stone masons and eventually devised an innovative new method for restoring the stone panels.
How did you clean the stone without damaging it?
Frank: The original Kasota stone was sand-honed in the place where it was quarried and then shipped down here. In the past few years, we've talked with a number of people in this field and asked how to sand-hone the entire surface of a large building once it’s built. We didn't come across anyone who knew how to do that. We wanted to have that same sand-honed finish when we completed cleaning and restoration, so I kept trying. After a couple of years of experimentation with local stone masons on what seemed to work best, we came up with a method of hand grinding and orbital sanding to achieve the original color and texture as well as preserve the stone. At the same time they are repointing it with mortar that matches the original.
Turnbull: Alan and I talked at length about the building’s exterior envelope and the stone. As it happens, there were some wall panels that had been mocked up, so Alan has been able to use those to experiment and took that on himself.
Will this additional sanding affect the integrity of the stone?
Frank: No. The stone is mostly 3.5 inches thick and behind that is a brick wall and it’s all attached to a structural steel frame that’s welded together like a skyscraper.
How is the overall structure of the house holding up?
Turnbull: One of the astounding things about the house is that because it was so well built to begin with, it is only now beginning to see effects of deterioration. We’ve contacted specialists on different matters. The roofing firm was astounded that this roof had endured 70 years of freezing and thawing and yet was still doing a pretty good job.
Frank: The basic structure of the house is close to perfect as possible. We’ve actually been able to see the structural steel members and they’re really heavy. They look like they were just put in yesterday. The stone is all anchored to those I-beams with stainless anchors with masonry in-between. The walls and floors are all poured concrete. The house was built like a battleship. My dad was an engineer so he checked every little detail. Gropius and Breuer knew how to build things, which is one reason my parents selected them. If you’re building something it should be done right—that’s the tradition of Pittsburgh and my family. They wanted to be sure the same standards were adhered to with our house. It’s just built differently than houses today.
What’s the next step in the restoration?
Turnbull: Once we make sure the exterior envelope is secure, the interiors will be next. There are more than 200 separate pieces of furniture by Breuer in the house. The pieces are more sensuous and luxurious then what you expect form modernism in that era. They have lots of curves that are organized around the human figure and are made from luxurious materials like wood and Lucite. We are figuring out how to preserve them and still keep them in the house. Each of these projects in this process is kind of a scholarly quest in its own right.
What’s it like living in a masterpiece?
Frank: The one thing that is not well understood about the house is that it’s an extraordinarily livable house. The house was designed for great, happy, and healthy living and it worked for that. There are 254 blueprints for this house. That shows you the amount of design put into it by two of the best architects of the 20th-century. All details—furniture, bookcases, curtains—were designed by the architects and still remain in the house. Most of Breuer’s work exists in this house and no place else. He’s considered one of the masters of interior design and 70 percent of his complete body of work is in my house. That’s a remarkable treasure. It was absolutely extraordinary growing up here.
Why are you putting this much effort into restoring the house and what will happen once you no longer live here?
Frank: I established a foundation and the long range plan is for the foundation to be responsible for the house, so scholars can visit and it can be used for education. The house includes 12,000 square feet of interiors and 17,000 square feet of living spaces including exterior terraces that are part of the house. The project gave Gropius and Breuer the chance to do things they never had the opportunity to do anywhere else. People want to see and experience that.
Turnbull: I think we need to be aware that in the case of both Breuer and Gropius this house is very important in the sequence of events after they came to this country. Every single item that went into the house is like being able to go back and look at a composer’s own sketches and notes that tell us how to perform the music. Leaving this building in the most unchanged state possible is like going back and seeing into their thought process and philosophy. We need to be careful when making any changes. Even seemingly minor updates need to be done with much care and consideration.