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ARCHIVE ENCOUNTER: Frank Lloyd Wright’s day in Smoke Rise, NJ

August 23, 2013

This discovery could be described as a famous face in an unknown place. On October 15, 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright came to the community of Smoke Rise in Kinnelon, NJ, hoping to build a house. John E. Walker, a local resident and representative of the Smoke Rise Club, the developer, had the honor (or in some respects, burden) of touring Wright around Smoke Rise that fall Tuesday. Walker’s typed memorandum survives from the visit and offers insight into Wright’s personality and thoughts on Modern architecture while memorializing an important moment in northern New Jersey’s architectural history.

Walker began his tour by showing Wright Lake Kinnelon and various homes. Wright complimented the beauty of the lake, the focal point of which was a 19th-century chapel built on an island in the middle of the lake, but he was particularly critical of the homes. He gave Walker a hard time, asking him “what he considered a good house” and making remarks, accompanied by chuckles, about the houses being “good attempts at architecture,” singling out one that “had disturbed nature too much.” However, there was one house that Wright did thoroughly appreciate. Located on Ski Trail, a long winding road with excellent vistas of the lake and surrounding hilltops, the house incorporates early modernist forms and reflects Wright’s desire to let nature serve as the primary embellishment. He described the home as “the best attempt that he had seen” but said “the house didn’t have enough color and was too dark and should have contrast,” in keeping with his preference for an interaction between architecture and nature.

Following the tour, Walker took the visitors (Wright, Wright’s son-in-law, and a builder) to the property where he would be building for prospective clients Mr. and Mrs. Jack P. Hennessy. Wright felt the site, which overlooked the lake “was marvelous,” admitting “he did not realize it was so beautiful.” He is reported to have said “Smoke Rise was the most beautiful place he had ever seen…and that he liked it even better than his own valley where his home is located.”

The day ended at the Smoke Rise Inn, where Mr. Walker, whose family name held ties to the Scotch whiskey, introduced Wright to the concept of adding a twist of lemon peel to his Scotch. Wright then declared Scotch in an old fashioned glass with a twist of lemon to be his new favorite drink! Upon leaving Smoke Rise, Wright described the Inn as charming and left on a happy note (perhaps partially from that Scotch he liked so much).

Plans were made for architect and client to meet again at the Plaza Hotel in early November. Unfortunately, the project never saw completion due to design and cost disagreements between the Hennessys and Wright. Nevertheless, Wright’s visit to Smoke Rise inspired many homes to be built reflecting his desire for a creative harmony between the purity of Modern architecture and the beauty of the surrounding nature.

—Diana Friedman
Diana Friedman is a junior in the Art History program at Rutgers University. She grew up in the town of Kinnelon, NJ, which incorporates the Smoke Rise community.

Renderings of the Hennessy House by Frank Lloyd Wright