An Architectural Work of Art

The Zimmerman House in Manchester is the only Frank Lloyd Wright home open to the public in New England. It’s also the largest entity in the Currier Museum of Art’s collection.

Photography by John W. Hession

The entry gallery of the Zimmerman House leads into the garden room, where the fireplace and hearth function as the home’s center. Ceramics by Edwin and Mary Scheier, from the Zimmermans’ collection, are displayed on the shelves and table to the left. All the furniture  was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

It’s never easy to do something extraordinary, but Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman had a keen eye and good ideas. Thinking about the home of their dreams, they looked beyond what traditional design could offer and saw the beauty of modern architecture in the post-World War II era. Thanks to their foresight and efforts, Manchester boasts one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s great modernist homes.

The beginning of what’s now the Zimmerman House

The Zimmermans met at the New Hampshire State Hospital in Concord, where he was a physician and she a nurse, and married in 1934. The following year, they moved into a large Colonial Revival home in Manchester, but by 1949, they realized the house was too big and didn’t meet their needs. “They were interested in art, music and gardening, and open to new ideas,” says Andrew Spahr, director of collections and exhibitions at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. The couple wanted a modern home, so they bought a three-quarter-acre lot in the north end of Manchester. When they asked a local architect what to do, he suggested commissioning Wright to design their home.

The Zimmermans immersed themselves in books and magazine articles about Wright, and began corresponding with him that summer. One letter describes their wish for “a small, spacious, simple home (using your definition of the word ‘simple’) that would require the least housekeeping and which would allow for privacy and outdoor living.” Later that summer, the Zimmermans were invited to Wright’s home and studio at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin; they also toured other houses he’d designed in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. At the end of that trip, they were won over and hired Wright.

Wright suggested one of his Usonian homes—described by James Garvin, the retired state architectural historian of New Hampshire, as “modest homes designed for people of ordinary incomes, yet embodying the geometric interplay that harks back to Wright’s larger Prairie Style houses of the earlier twentieth century”—and construction began in 1951.

Not only was this house going to be smaller than the thirteen-room home the Zimmermans were moving from but the 1,700-square-foot home was going to be radically different than anything else in Manchester. The home lacked a basement, a second story and an attic, and had a carport instead of a garage. When the Zimmermans moved in 1952, “local residents voiced disdain for the long, low building’s modern appearance by labeling it ‘the chicken coop,’” says A Work for Kindred Spirits, a book on the Zimmerman House published by the Currier Museum.

Wright described the design of Usonian homes as “organic” because of how well they integrated into the site. The low-pitched roof and parallel courses of brickwork make the Zimmerman House appear to grow from the earth. A wall of glass in the main living space provides a panoramic view of the gardens and back yard, which were also designed by Wright. Exposed cypress, brick and cast concrete were used inside and out, which made boundaries between house and garden less distinct.

Another hallmark of Wright’s organic architecture was how the design of the interior integrated with the design of the building. He took cues from nature for his color palette, using natural matte-finished red brick with pale yellow concrete on the walls, a brick-colored concrete floor and textiles in earth tones. Wright designed all the furniture and furnishings at the Zimmerman House, and made suggestions for other fixtures and materials. One of his apprentices, John Geiger, was the on-site supervisor during the entire course of the construction to ensure the architect’s ideas were realized.

Garvin says he sees “the Zimmerman House as a much more personal creation by Wright for and with the Zimmermans. There is nothing generic about the building; everything about the house grows from the personalities and artistic interests of the owners. Its embodiment of their love of music in the niche for the piano and the nearby music stand; its provision of shelves and vantage points for the display of their wonderful collection of sculpture and pottery by Edwin and Mary Scheier; its ingenious provision of places for storage of books and possessions of every kind—all seem to be a work created in concert by three artists: Wright, Isadore Zimmerman and Lucille Zimmerman.”

Preserving an architectural work of art

The Zimmermans knew their home was a significant building, and in 1979, the house was named to the National Register of Historic Places. When Isadore became ill (he died in 1984), Lucille sought advice about estate planning and what to do with the house, as the couple didn’t have children. A light bulb went on for her attorney, Kimon Zachos, who was then also the chairman of the Currier Museum’s Board of Directors (he’s still on the board and has been a trustee since 1967). He knew that the Currier could help the Zimmermans fulfill their objective of preserving the house. “I suggested that Lucille leave the house to the Currier, with the understanding that after her death the museum would preserve and protect it and treat it as a work of art, just like a beautiful painting or piece of furniture,” Zachos says.

Upon Lucille’s death in 1988, the house became the property of the Currier Museum. She also left the bulk of her estate to the museum for the purpose of maintaining the house and keeping it open to the public. “The endowment is substantial and will provide whatever maintenance the house needs,” Zachos adds.

And that upkeep has been significant—and ongoing, as any owner of an older home can attest to. While the house was in a great state of preservation when the Currier received it—“the house had had only one owner and, with the exception of two chairs, all the furniture and fixtures were original to the house since 1950,” Spahr says—some work had to be done before the house opened to the public in 1990.

Maintenance for the Zimmerman House

Among those projects were replacing the floor when the in-floor heating system failed as well as cleaning the interior woodwork. Ten years later, the Georgia-cypress exterior was cleaned and
refinished. “Wright’s intent was a warm orange color, not the dark chocolate color the exterior had faded to,” Spahr says.

But the biggest project was yet to come: re-creating the tile roof (Wright’s original roof had been replaced with asphalt shingles after being damaged by ice). A study done in 1999 determined that the house could accept the weight of the tiles on top of a newly designed, high-tech working roof, and the new roof was completed in 2000. “The house was not only well protected, but we also accomplished both our preservation goals and Wright’s original aesthetic goals,” Spahr says.

Spahr says the front and back doors have recently undergone extensive maintenance. “A conservator was here last fall to clean the finishes, which break down as a result of the sunlight’s ultraviolet rays,” he says. That conservator is the same person who works on the extraordinary pieces of Portsmouth furniture in the Currier’s collection.

Another conservator works on the textiles of the Zimmerman house—the same person who works on Renaissance tapestries, says Spahr. Many of the seat covers had their original foam, which had become hard and brittle. Conservation foam was put in and covered with a protective fabric before the original fabric seat covers were put back on.

“These conservators use the same preservation guidelines for items in the house as they do for other artwork in our collection,” Spahr says.

Outdoors, there’s always work to do. The concrete steps to the back yard had settled and become a safety hazard. So a concrete conservator was brought in from Boston to repair them. Every few years, the brick planters around the house have to be repointed. And every year, Mary Tebo Davis of the UNH (University of New Hamphsire) Cooperative Extension in Manchester organizes a group of master gardeners to clean up the yard, tend to the perennials and prune the rhododendrons, among other tasks. “We are in the midst of a multiyear project to bring the gardens back to how they looked when Wright designed them,” Spahr says. “Even with annual maintenance, the gardens had become overgrown  and lost Wright’s original geometric contours. Over the years, some plantings had been replaced with historically inappropriate species.”

Efforts to preserve the Zimmerman House have been recognized by a number of organizations: the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2001; the Manchester Historic Association in 2001; and the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance in 2011, which included the Zimmerman House on its list of twenty-five milestone projects in New Hampshire. “The Zimmerman House stands out because of the Currier Museum’s impressive stewardship of an iconic modern landmark,” says Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, “and we wanted to recognize that.”

“We are fortunate that the Zimmermans bequeathed the property to the Currier with all their lives’ collections, including all Wright’s furnishings, as a unified work of art,” Garvin says. “The Currier has treated this bequest wisely, protecting the house, its furnishings and its grounds as a single creation, and ensuring that the public approaches this work in a thoughtful and respectful way.”

A resource to the community

All this preservation work has paid off for members of the community, especially aficionados of architecture. “We are so fortunate to have a Frank Lloyd Wright home open to the public, where people can directly experience his design,” Spahr says.

“Every year about five thousand people from around the world come to see the Zimmerman House,” says Jane Seney, the Currier’s educator for tour and docent programs. “There are lots of communities of Frank Lloyd Wright fans, and the consensus among them is that this house is the best preserved one there is.”

Seney says visitors are drawn to the house for different reasons, but she recognizes a renewed interest in living in an efficient, well-designed space. “The Usonian house was supposed to be affordable—this is a house for the average person, not a mansion for millionaires.”

More than forty volunteers provide the ten weekly Zimmerman House tours, which are limited to twelve people each. “Some of our volunteers have been giving tours since the house opened to the public. Some drive an hour to get to the house. And many have fallen in love with the house—they have a real appreciation for what Frank Lloyd Wright was trying to do.”

Garvin says “the Zimmerman House seems to be the work of a master who had learned to empathize with the owners, infusing the home with their life experiences as much as with his own, yet drawing on insights that he had nurtured for a full half-century. This expression of a gentle and attentive Wright makes the Zimmerman House as important a document in the architect’s career as are his earliest domestic designs from fifty years earlier. New Hampshire is fortunate to possess this sensitive expression of Wright’s last decade of life and work.”

Categories: Architecture and Interiors, Artwork and Design