Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright's Suntop

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Built in 1939, Suntop was revolutionary. Each of four brilliantly sited units features brick, glass, and cypress siding.

Built in 1939, Suntop was revolutionary. The open living space, concrete floors, fireplace, and bookshelves are iconic Wright statements.

Fully a generation after he rose to prominence with his Prairie School houses, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was at the peak of his success. In 1939, he designed a project in Ardmore, a tree-lined suburb of Philadelphia. Like his Usonian houses, the project was an innovative design for middle-class homeowners—in this case, a quadrant of four homes joined in a pinwheel and asymmetrically sited so that no unit looked directly at another. Wright named it Suntop for its profusion of outdoor decks.

Wright stacked the units vertically. They are surprisingly spacious, each about 1,400 square feet. He used glass, brick, and concrete along with wood: cypress on the exterior, mahogany trim inside, and Philadelphia pine for the tongue-and-groove ceilings. Conceived as an affordable solution to the suburbs’ increasing density in single-family dwellings, Suntop was revolutionary. In fact, a series of similar quadrants were to be built across the country, but World War II, high construction costs, and (eventually) protests by more traditional neighbors conspired to make this the only example ever realized.

By the time Tommy and Marla Kane saw Suntop in 1999, time had taken its toll. The leaking flat roofs and decks had not weathered well; the Kanes joked that their own unit should be renamed “Bailing Water.” (Each private dwelling is quite independent; other units, too, have been or are being renovated without disrupting the whole.) Previous owners had not maintained this home. The radiant heat under Wright’s signature concrete floors no longer operated; both bathrooms needed replacement; the original electrical system was, of course, outmoded.

But Wright’s vision was still evident: two-story glass windows allowed light to stream inside; a vertical, open floor plan gave the modest-size interiors depth and volume. Wright’s genius showed in the built-in banquettes, bookshelves, and storage cabinets. Mahogany and pine gave the home intimacy and warmth even on the snowiest winter night.

When Tommy Kane began interviewing contractors, it seemed that none of them understood Wright or the house. He and Marla became their own general contractors. They found professionals to handle the larger jobs—framing and millwork, concrete demolition and pouring. But they did the finish work themselves, devoting weekends and holidays to cleaning, sanding, and varnishing the interior woodwork, to repainting the concrete floors Wright’s “Cherokee Red,” to restoring the kitchen and renovating the bathrooms.

Tommy became an expert backhoe operator and landscaped the yard himself from professionally drawn plans that created a series of terraces with a gurgling brick pool and waterfall. Wright had designed the upstairs kitchen with an open plan so that the servantless 1940s homemaker could multitask: cook dinner for guests while leaning over the open balcony to join the conversation below, not to mention keep an eye on the children taking a bath in the adjacent bathroom.

A dining banquette is built into the kitchen balcony. The light fixture is original.

A dining banquette is built into the kitchen balcony. The light fixture is original.

Tommy and Marla were careful to preserve the cork flooring, mahogany cabinets, and the ceiling fixture—a curious set of cantilevered panes of glass that requires several sets of steady hands to change a light bulb. They replaced broken stone countertops with Corian and a stainless-steel backsplash, and they updated the appliances.

The couple combed local antique shops and became regulars at Rago auctions, hunting down furnishings appropriate for the modern house. These include an iconic Hans Wegner blue sofa, a pair of curvilinear orange side chairs designed for Bergdorf Goodman in the 1950s, a mid-century Jens Risom leather lounge chair, and several exuberant Art Deco table lamps. Tommy and Marla Kane have restored their dwelling at Suntop to what they think Wright meant it to be: a comfortable, livable family home.