Adventure U.S.

Pope-Leighey House: Tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House

Visiting the Pope-Leighey House is a dream come true for any Frank Lloyd Wright fan. It is a “magnificent example of early Usonian design accessible to the public to enjoy,” according to www.franklloydwright.com.

I am obsessed with this American architect. While I dislike his narcissistic personality and bombastic temperament, I unabashedly love his buildings. His modern design connected the indoors with the outdoors in an organic way that was revolutionary in the 20th century.

“Frank Lloyd Wright, widely considered one of the greatest modern architects, was as known for his temper, narcissim, and dramatic personal life as he was for his innovative designs.”

www.SavingPlaces.org

Usonian Homes

Wright built these “Usonian” homes, the “us” in the name referring to the United States of America. This is a wholly American style of architecture. His goal was to create an affordable house for middle-class Americans. The open floor plan makes the house seem larger than its small footprint.

“A National Trust Historic Site, this Usonian house was developed by Frank Lloyd Wright as a means of providing affordable housing for people of moderate means. Many innovative concepts, including spacious interiors, corner windows, and a cantilevered roof, began here and were quickly adapted across America.”

National Trust for Historic Preservation

My First Wright House Tour

Although I have studied photographs of his buildings, I have only visited two of Wright’s buildings—Taliesin West (Scottsdale) and the First Christian Church (Phoenix).

So when I discovered that I could tour the only public Frank Lloyd Wright work in the National Capital Region, I was ecstatic. The Pope-Leighey House (PLH) is located in Alexandria, Virginia. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1965.

Key Pope-Leighey House Facts

Wright built the 1,200-square-foot Usonian house for his clients Loren and Charlotte Pope in 1941 in Falls Church, Virginia, for $7,500.

The Pope-Leighey House is located in Alexandria, Virginia, on the same property as the Trust’s historic Woodlawn mansion. It was relocated in 1965. (In 1995, the home was moved 30 feet due to unstable soil conditions.)

You can take a one-hour guided tour of the property. Tickets cost $15 (adult) and $7.50 (child).

The tour allows you to walk through all rooms in the house and see intimate objects of the owners, including books, toys, and furniture.

History

In 1938, Washington Star copy editor Loren Pope contacted Wright to inquire whether he would design him a Usonian home in Virginia. Wright agreed.

The Popes had a tight budget, so they could only afford a simple L-shaped house with two bedrooms and one bathroom.

“Bounded by the humble budget of the Pope family, who commissioned the house from Wright in 1939, this structure nonetheless exhibits the distinct features characteristic of his formidable vision and style.”

www.FrankLloydWright.org


Several banks turned down their applications for a home mortgage loan. But Pope’s employer permitted him to get a loan, which was deducted from his paycheck.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Seven years later, the Popes put their house up for sale as it was too small for their growing family. A childless couple—Robert and Marjorie Leighey—purchased it in 1947.

When the state of Virginia was building the segment of Interstate 66, the house was subject to a demolition order. Marjorie Leighey began her fight to save the house. She enlisted the help of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. Saved from the wrecking ball, the National Trust for Historic Preservation purchased the home in 1965.

Leighey struck a deal to move the house to Alexandria, Virginia, in exchange for lifetime tenancy at that site. Upon her death, the home became a full-time museum.

Pope-Leighey House Tour

My tour starts in front of the house. We cluster around our guide (Marcia), who tells us about Loren Pope’s desire to live in a home designed by Wright after he read the Time Magazine (1938) cover story about the architect. The article focused on Wright’s belief in a uniquely American form of architecture. (Click this link to Marcia’s introductory remarks about Frank Lloyd Wright and his architectural career.)

“Loren and Charlotte Pope read that article. Pope became obsessed with getting a Wright-designed home. He wrote a six-page letter to Wright. A man wants two things—material things and things of the spirit … Wright responded to him two weeks later. It began a long, amicable relationship. Pope was an acolyte,” said our guide.

The Pope family received the go-ahead. No banks would give them a mortgage, but the Evening Star made an employee loan and deducted it through payroll. According to our guide, Pope earned a $50-a-week salary (which is $1,100 now). They began construction in the summer of 1940. The house was completed in March 1941 in Falls Church on Locust Street.

Inside the House

After the guide sets the stage for Wright’s vision for architecture and provides historical details on the two owners (Pope and Leighey), she leads us inside the house. We stand in the public wing while she points out significant architectural features.

We walk through the foyer to the living room. It is quite cozy, with a built-in sofa, desk, bookcase, and radio.

The dining room brings the outdoors inside. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls reflect the branches of the trees when sunlight streams inside. One glass section can be opened to allow the breeze. The dining room’s modular design allows sections of the table to be moved to other rooms.

Shelves feature personal items like china, cups, and even a 1940s-style black rotary telephone. Their telephone number was 202-FE8-3939.

The L-shaped design means the public wing encompasses the foyer, den, kitchen, dining room, and living room.

This is an open space, as Wright’s mission was to “break the box” and eliminate barriers between rooms.

Private Wing

The private wing runs in a separate straight line. It has a bathroom, master bedroom, and children’s bedroom.

The master bedroom features four long windows that provide sweeping views of the backyard. Pope also designed the mirror for his wife’s vanity. The dresser is built into the closet. You’ll see a photo of a young Loren Pope sitting on a table in this room. A copy of Wright’s The Natural House can be found on a shelf above the bed.

The children’s room accommodated two twin beds. However, there is only one bed in the room; Pope took the other bed frame to his new house. He turned it into a sandbox for his two children.

I loved the personal touch of Froebel’s parquetry tablet toy box on the nightstand. (Friedrich Froebel is the German educator who created the concept of kindergarten.)

Our guide told us that “Wright’s mother always envisioned him as an architect. She decorated his child’s room with engravings of famous buildings in Europe.”

The bedrooms are purposely kept small, as the family was supposed to congregate together in the living room.

What’s Eliminated

Usonian principles dictated that less is more. “Wright produced cost savings with his Usonian design by eliminating spaces—no garage, basement, or attic. Wright encouraged families to simplify and declutter their lives,” explained our guide.

There are no radiators in PLH. The floor is heated by radiant heat in the floor. A lot of furniture is built-in or modular. There are no baseboards or crown molding.

The house is made of wood, using red cypress for the exterior and interior. There is no insulation—just a moisture barrier. Wright did not stain the wood and didn’t believe in painting the interior walls. His Usonian houses feature wood and glass.

The ceiling is low in the entry (7 feet), but the dining room’s ceiling is 12 feet, creating a lofty, open space.

The left-wing could be adjusted to accommodate the family’s size. The public area permitted access to the outside. Horizontally, the house connects you to the roots of the earth.

There were built-in bookshelves.

There were cutouts on the exterior walls. Wright didn’t explain their meaning, so they are purely artistic. However, it is well-known that Wright admired classic Mesoamerican architecture, so these may be abstract Indigenous symbols.

The screw heads were turned horizontal. When you think about the 1940s, they would need to be hand screwed in. The house features inset lights in the dining room and the hallway to the private rooms.

Tiny Kitchen

The kitchen (what Wright termed the “work space”) is ridiculously small. (Charlotte had her husband build a shed on the property so she could store her turkey baster!) Loren built a storage box with drawers and a foldout counter. There is under-cabinet lighting.

She also insisted on a door to the kitchen so guests couldn’t see any mess. A window box allows the chef to pick fresh herbs when she cooks. There are tall, skinny windows to let in light.

There are no handles to open the closets. Wright was an aficionado of Japanese culture. He also designed storage space above the hallway to simulate the stars or moonlight shining through.

Conclusion

My only regret is that the tour only lasts one hour. I would have loved to hear our guide lecture more about Wright’s life. She was brilliant.

We only had about five minutes at the end of the tour to take photos and make videos of the rooms, so I had to fly around the house.

I wish I had read Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography before I took the tour, but I leave this quote to ponder now.

“A MODEST house, this Usonian house, a dwelling place that has no feeling at all for the ‘grand’ except as the house extends itself in the flat parallel to the ground. It will be a companion to the horizon.”

Frank Lloyd Wright

Only 60 Usonian houses were built.

Visit Pope-Leighey House

Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House tours are open for the season from April 25 through December 30, 2024. The site is open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Guided tours of each house are offered at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Visitors can also tour both sites (Pope Leighey House and Woodlawn) in one visit with a Combo Tour at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The grounds of Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey are open to the public free of charge during normal business hours.

Usonian House Principles

A placard in the house lists Wright’s nine “Usonian House Principles,” which is from An Autobiography 1943 edition. The list is below:

  1. Visible roofs are expensive and unnecessary.
  2. A garage is no longer necessary … a carport will do.
  3. The old-fashioned basement, except for the fuel and heater space, was always a plague spot. A steam-warmed concrete mat four inches thick laid directly on the ground over gravel filling, the walls set upon it, is better.
  4. Interior “trim” is no longer necessary.
  5. We need no radiators, nor light fixtures.
  6. Furniture, pictures, and bric-a-brac are unnecessary because the walls can be made to include them or be them.
  7. No painting at all. Wood preserves itself.
  8. No plastering in the building.
  9. No gutter, no downspouts.

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Linda (LD Holland)
    July 6, 2024 at 7:46 am

    We have always wanted to visit a Frank Lloyd Wright house on our travels but so far we have not been close enough to do this. Great that you have seen more than one! The Pope-Leighey House looks like a good choice to see early Usonian design. Great to take a tour to really get the information and history about the house. I do like some of the design features like radiant heating floors and lots of built-ins. But the tiny kitchen would not be for me.

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 6, 2024 at 12:43 pm

      I hope you get to visit a Frank Lloyd Wright house when you are in the Midwest or the Southwest. I am on a mission to get to Chicago and tour the Oak Park houses. I also would like to see Talesin in Wisconsin.

  • Reply
    Sonia
    July 6, 2024 at 8:24 am

    I love Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but have not seen the Pope-Leighey House yet. Great quote also from Frank Lloyd Wright that you included!

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 6, 2024 at 12:43 pm

      I pulled the quote from An Autobiography. It is a great book that talks about his vision for the true American house.

  • Reply
    Irma R Franco
    July 6, 2024 at 9:19 am

    Amazing architecture ! Beautiful! Thank you for bringing his amazing work to us!
    Irma

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 6, 2024 at 12:44 pm

      You are welcome! I have wanted to visit the Pope-Leighey House for over a year. The tour is fantastic.

  • Reply
    Amy
    July 6, 2024 at 2:20 pm

    So interesting! I guess eliminating a garage and basement would force you to eliminate clutter but I need my garage in winter! I do love the windows in the Childres’ room.

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 6, 2024 at 3:43 pm

      If you were willing to give up most of your possessions (aka clutter), you could live a very streamlined and gracious life in a Usonian house. I fell in love with the design of the Pope-Leighey House. You lived in nature because the glass walls brought nature inside. It was so spacious and welcoming. I would move into this 1,200-square-foot house in a minute! But most people probably couldn’t do it.

  • Reply
    Charlotte
    July 6, 2024 at 3:45 pm

    I love discovering new places I haven’t heard of yet. I’m also a big fan of exploring the world through architecture, so I’m saving this for later 🤗 Thanks!

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 6, 2024 at 3:51 pm

      I hope you get to visit a Frank Lloyd Wright building, whether home, museum, or church, in the future. I also am a big fan of seeing the world through architecture.

  • Reply
    Tania Muthusamy
    July 6, 2024 at 11:30 pm

    I’ve not heard of the Pope-Leighey House. I do like the idea of de-cluttering and simplifying the home. No painting any of the walls, certainly makes maintenance easier.

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 7, 2024 at 5:22 am

      The architect completely changed how a house was built and maintained with his Usonian house. The wood and brick interior was gorgeous!

  • Reply
    Hannah Ackroyd
    July 7, 2024 at 2:39 pm

    What a beautiful house! I love how clean and simple it is! I have been drastically decluttering recently, but I’m not sure I could streamline everything I own enough to look as simplified as this home! I love admiring unique architecture and I’d love to visit one day!

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 7, 2024 at 4:11 pm

      I felt the house was an oasis of calm. I am ready to move in right now … lol! But I would need to streamline my life (and my dog’s toys) drastically.

  • Reply
    Pam
    July 8, 2024 at 9:26 am

    What an interesting house to visit and you gave such a great guide to see it! I don’t know much about his work but visiting would definitely teach me.

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 8, 2024 at 6:18 pm

      Thank you! I loved this house. He designed 1,114 architectural works during his career, 532 of which were realized.

  • Reply
    Erica
    July 8, 2024 at 1:04 pm

    I love all of the photos you shared in this post! He has such a fascinating architectural style, crafting so much beauty into the designs. It’s amazing this is only 1200 square feet, it seems so much larger thanks to the open layout. Thanks for this helpful guide.

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 8, 2024 at 6:16 pm

      Thank you! I took photos for my website and created reels my Instagram account. It is even more beautyful when you see the videos inside the house snd outdoors. I can’t wait to visit my next Frank Lloyd Wright building!

  • Reply
    Mark Mones
    July 8, 2024 at 9:57 pm

    Steve Reiss’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House (https://upress.virginia.edu/title/4293) offers a detailed history of the building, and includes a range of illustrations from plans and elevations to historic photos, drawn from Loren Pope’s records, which he left to the author. See too entries on the various prewar Usonians via SAH Archipedia (including the Jacobs House, the first true Usonian; https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/WI-01-DA38).

    • Reply
      Terri
      July 9, 2024 at 5:19 am

      Thank you Mark! The Pope-Leighey House features a copy of Steve Reid’s’ book on the shelf in the foyer. I would be interesting in reading it and also seeing the historic photos.

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