Famed architect's Auldbrass undergoing long, faithful restoration

jpaprocki@islandpacket.comOctober 30, 2011 

  • Auldbrass Plantation opens its gates every other year for tours (which are
    already sold out this year). But if you didn't grab a ticket, there's
    another chance to learn about Frank Lloyd Wright, Auldbrass Plantation andthe field of architecture.
    The Open Land Trust is hosting a lecture with Wright's grandson, fellow
    architect Eric Lloyd Wright, from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at the University of
    South Carolina Beaufort campus in Beaufort. Tickets are $50.
    Details: www.openlandtrust.com

When famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright first arrived on the 4,000 acres of open land along the Combahee River near Yemassee he fell victim to the charm of the Lowcountry: The way the live oaks bent and twisted; the way the Spanish moss swayed in the breeze; the way land and water intertwined.

He went on to embark on a project that would be the only Southern plantation he designed. The project was called Auldbrass.

More than 70 years later, Auldbrass is livable but still a work in progress. It is an unfinished masterpiece, the original vision now carried out by architects generations removed from its inception.

"(Wright) thought it was a wonderful challenge to make a 20th century plantation," said his grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright, who's involved in the restoration of the project.

The challenge proved more fraught than Wright ever thought.

The project started in 1939 shortly after Wright completed his now iconic Fallingwater, the home perched over a waterfall in Mill Run, Pa. Wealthy industrial consultant C. Leigh Stevens called upon Wright to create a self-sufficient plantation, a place perfect for farming, hunting and entertaining.

Plans called for a main house, guest house and cabins, caretaker's residence, barn and stables, dog kennels, even a dining barge where parties could slip out onto the lake from the living room of the guest house.

Wright built it, like always, in sync with its environment. The polished cypress walls slant inward at 81 degree angles to mimic the live oak trees. The ornamental rain spouts hang from the corners of the roof like Spanish moss.

War and material shortages delayed the project through the next decade. Wright worked on the plantation until his death in 1959. Stevens died three years later. Only half of the buildings were finished at the time. The barn and stables eventually burnt down. Stevens' daughter inherited the property but sold it to hunters. By the time Hollywood movie producer Joel Silver visited the property in 1986, it was "a month away from a bulldozer," as he once told The New York Times.

Silver, producer of blockbusters "Die Hard," "Lethal Weapon" and "The Matrix," was an admirer of Wright's work and a few years earlier bought his Storer house in Hollywood. He purchased Auldbrass with the intention of bringing it all the glory its designer planned.

He brought in Eric Lloyd Wright, who had never seen the plantation in person. When Eric Lloyd Wright saw the remaining buildings, he found them in "terrible shape, just pathetic." Ripped screens and broken windows allowed rats and birds to take residence inside. The thin copper roof deteriorated and falling acorns had punctured it. The cypress walls had buckled and rotted in some places.

Wright, like Silver, saw through the haze to the original vision and agreed to refurbish and finish it.

"I thought we could really bring the house back to life," he said.

Wright operated an architecture firm out of California, so he needed a local contact to help oversee the project. Hilton Head Island architect Tom Crews and a fellow business partner came on board in the late '80s. Crews has stayed with the project even after his partner left.

The ongoing process has restored the existing property to what it once was and rebuilt the barns and stables. They've followed the original vision as much as possible, having to improvise where details might be short.

For Crews, it's been a chance to see a project through the eyes of a icon in his field. Having Wright's grandson guide him only makes that link to the original master stronger.

"It's a very engaging process," he said. "You have to understand his mind and understand his genius."

The project still has a ways to go. The guest house and dining barge are the next big steps. Wright and Silver have also concocted new features in line with original plans.

That leaves the question: Will this project ever get done? "I'll go out on a limb and say, 'Yes,'<2009>" Crews says with a laugh. "I just hope I'm still practicing architecture when it's all d

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