The doghouse that Jim built

The Berger House, located in San Anselmo, California, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for mechanical engineer Robert Berger and his wife Gloria. It is one of Wright’s less spectacular designs, but this is because the budget was very small. Although he was already a renowned architect, having already built icons like Fallingwater and his “Prairie Houses”, he had always been an idealist at heart and he accepted the commission despite the restrictions.

Wright, probably influenced by Populism -an American movement in the XIX century that started among poor white cotton farmers in the South and represented hostility to banks, railroads and elites in general- always promoted the agrarian ideas of Thomas Jefferson, himself a farmer. Over his long career, he designed many homes for people of modest means. He even had a name for this new democratic American architecture: Usonian (from the U.S.). He built around 60 of these Usonian homes for the middle class.

It is no wonder, then, that Wright accepted to design a house for a dog. The commission came from 12-year-old Jim Berger, the son of Robert and Gloria Berger. Complicated and radical as he was, Wright was also a prolific architect, constructing more than 500 buildings over his more than 7 decades in the profession. He had designed all sorts of buildings, from skyscrapers to synagogues, and from schools to museums, so why not a dog house?

I would appreciate it if you would design me a doghouse, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house…”, Jim’s letter read. He went on to say that his dog, Eddie, a black Labrador Retriever was two and a half feet high and three feet long, and that the reason he wanted this doghouse was for winters mainly. He also mentioned that he would pay him from the money he made delivering newspapers.

“A house for Eddie is an opportunity,” the famous architect wrote back. But Wright was just too busy at the time, building the Guggenheim, so he suggested that Jim write back later in the year. Which the boy did. Wright accepted this new challenge and promptly delivered detailed plans for the dog house, at no charge. The new project respected the hexagonal geometry of the plan of the house he had previously designed. He even specified the materials: Phillipine mahogany and cedar, like the main home.

The small triangular pavillion was not built by the Bergers until 10 years later, with some minor changes to the original plan. Unfortunately, Eddie had already died and never saw his house built. Neither did Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959. The house was built for a new family dog (in the photo above), who apparently didn’t like it very much; so it was dismantled a few years later and then taken to a dump.

In 2010, while filming a documentary about buildings designed by Wright in California, director Michael Miner learnt about the doghouse story and asked Jim, now 68, if he would be rebuild the house. He gladly accepted. It is believed to be the only dog house ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and certainly his smallest building.

(To read my original article in PDF, with photo and sources credits: The Doghouse that Jim built)

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  1. Pingback: Hottie of the week | Hot for Houses

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