Massaro House is a U.S. residence inspired by designs of a never-constructed project conceived by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is located on the privately owned Petre Island (sometimes spelled Petra Island) in Lake Mahopac, New York, and is named for its owner, Joseph Massaro.
The original plans
In 1949, architect Frank Lloyd Wright received a commission from an engineer named A. K. Chahroudi to build a house on the 10-acre (40,000 m2) Petre Island, which Chahroudi owned. Chahroudi would later state that during a lunch meeting he had with Wright and Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of Wright’s celebrated Fallingwater, the architect told Kaufmann: "When I finish the house on the island, it will surpass your Fallingwater".
Wright worked on designing a one-story, 5,000-square-foot (460 m2) house for three months, but the project was cancelled when Chahroudi realized he was not able to afford the $50,000 budget that Wright envisioned for the project, nor a second more modest version requested of Wright. Instead, Wright designed a 1,200-square-foot (110 m2) cottage for Chahroudi for the island.
In 1996, Petre Island was purchased for $700,000 USD by Joseph Massaro, a sheet metal contractor. Though he had seen the original Wright drawings for the main home years earlier, he initially intended merely to restore the island’s guest cottage. Massaro received those renderings as part of the purchase of the island.
Massaro sold his sheet metal business in 2000 to focus on the creation of the house, the construction phase of which took place between 2003 and 2007.
All that survived of the original Chahroudi commission were five Wright drawings, including a floor plan with ideas for built-in and stand-alone furniture, a building section, and three elevations. Massaro hired Thomas A. Heinz, an architect and Wright historian, to complete the unfinished design.
Heinz employed 3D CAD/CAM computer software to model aspects of Wright's design not self-evident in the original renderings. His design also provided updated heating and cooling solutions that were not part of the original Wright concept, such as air conditioning and radiant heating. It was also determined to add chimney caps, which Wright characteristically demurred, for the home’s six fireplaces.
In common with Fallingwater, the house’s design does not merely accommodate but actually incorporates the island’s topography. A 12-foot (3.7 m)-high, 60-foot (18 m)-long rock forms the exterior to the entry and an interior wall, while a smaller rock doubles as a kitchen and bathroom wall. Again, like Fallingwater's signature terraces, the house features a cantilevered deck that stretches 25 feet (7.6 m) over Lake Mahopac. Its 18-foot (5.5 m)-high living area is illuminated with 26 triangular skylights.
Controversy over authenticity
Throughout the construction, Massaro was in conflict with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which was established by the architect in 1940 to conserve his intellectual property. Massaro told interviewers that the foundation requested $450,000 to render working drawings from Wright's sketches and supervise construction of the house. After Massaro hired Heinz, the foundation filed a lawsuit, which ended in a settlement that limited Massaro to referring to the structure as being "inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright".
To date, the foundation refuses to recognize Massaro House as an official Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Philip Allsopp, the foundation’s chief executive office, has stated: “It’s not a Frank Lloyd Wright house, because it hasn’t been certified by the foundation.”
Yet in the Los Angeles Times, Massaro defended the Wright connection. “You hear these purists that talk about how no unbuilt Frank Lloyd Wright house should ever be built because Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t here anymore,” he said. “And then you take a look at this masterpiece of his – I’m sure Frank would rather have it built than not built at all."
Criticism of design
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Critics' concerns center on four details of Massaro's house.
- Desert masonry
The so-called desert masonry, or decorative "rubblestone", is a trademark of Wright, who embedded native rocks in the concrete supports of his homes. In most designs, the rocks are flush with the concrete. In Massaro's home, they project from the surface. "That's not the way Wright intended, plain and simple," Storrer said.
Such talk infuriates Massaro. To adhere to modern building codes, Massaro had to add 4 inches (100 mm) of Styrofoam insulation inside the support posts. This made it impossible to embed the odd-shaped granite stones he harvested from the island and maintain the home's structural integrity.
"Frank would have changed this," Massaro said. "He would have had to."
- Flat vs. Domed skylights
Wright purists argue that Massaro's 26 skylights are domed, while Wright designed skylights that were flat. Massaro counters that flat skylights leak. "So what?" Storrer said. "Modern sealants can prevent leakage. Otherwise, let them leak and be Wrightian, or don't claim to be Wrightian."
- Fascia designs
Wright defenders insist that the designs stamped into the home's copper fascia are too shallow to satisfy Wright's design standards.
- Missing stairs
Critics also decry the lack of stairs on the original design that descend from the cantilevered deck. Massaro said he didn't build the stairs because they would descend into 3 feet (0.91 m) of water.
If the purists' objections seem petty, it's because the little things matter a great deal to Wright's fans. "It's the small details that we'll never know about," said Rich Herber, who owns a Wright house in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "The outside of the Massaro house is dead-on. When you go inside, it's such a big house, it will be very hard to make the details" the way Wright envisioned.
Massaro, however, said he's worked hard to fulfill Wright's vision, searching for craftspeople who could make custom furniture, copper fascia, triangular skylights, angular doorknobs and mahogany ventilation grilles, piano hinges for all cabinetry, among other detail work, in an effort to please not Wright's acolytes but the architect himself. "When Frank says this is what I want, I try to go find it," he said.
The Massaro House is currently maintained as a private residence and is not open for the general public. However, Massaro has stated he would make the house available as a fundraising location for nonprofit charitable groups.
In November 2012 the property was listed for sale at $20 million USD.
- “This is his finest work,’ The Guardian, August 28, 2006
- "Do The Wright Thing", Alternative Energy Retailer, August 2007
- “New `Frank Lloyd Wright' Home Rises; Purists Protest (Update1),” Bloomberg News, November 13, 2006
- “New Home is Wright from Start,” New York Post, August 13, 2007
- “Westchester: Using a Legend's Plans, 53 Years Later,” New York Times, September 19, 2004
- “Home lives up to Frank Lloyd Wright legend, owner says,” Los Angeles Times