City should save the Hearthstone House
Even during Aspen’s current mania to tear down and rebuild, I find it inconceivable that mercenary eyes have lit upon the Hearthstone House. A scheme to demolish the Hearthstone is nonetheless on the City Council agenda on Feb. 26.I must admit to a fascination with all buildings connected to Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Hearthstone’s architect, Robin Molny, studied under that autocrat who remains America’s greatest architect. Growing up in suburban Chicago, I was surrounded by Wright’s buildings – one would drive an unfamiliar street and an unknown creation by the master, unmistakable, would leap through the windshield. Since then I have read book after book on the man’s work, am a several-decade member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and number myself among the thousands of Wright’s fanatic followers. One of Aspen’s unexpected dividends, for me, is that no less than three of Wright’s students have contributed to its built environment.As it happened, one of those three, Robin Molny, was also a desert rat with whom I made numerous camping trips to Utah, and during our time on the road I steered the conversation to his experiences with Wright and to his own architectural practice in Aspen. The Hearthstone was always my favorite of his creations and I asked Robin his evaluation of it. The Hearthstone turned out to be the building that gave him the most pride. To quote from notes I have kept on our conversations, “In the Hearthstone House I wanted to produce something that was quiet and enduring. I succeeded. It’s a forever building.”A column by someone identified as the night editor of the Aspen Daily News, hostile to the Hearthstone, inadvertantly gave a perfect description of Wright’s organic architecture, and I am sorry I’ve misplaced the clip because I wanted to quote from it verbatim. The complaint was that the Hearthstone was half buried in the ground, was smothered in vegetation, and could hardly even be seen. For a building to merge with its setting was a precise goal of what Wright called his organic architecture and he would have felt praised by this attack. The Hearthstone was built, furthermore, during a period of Aspen taste when the goal was to blend in rather than to flaunt it. The editorialist obviously prefers the latter and is surely happier with the in-your-face horrors that have become Aspen chic.Another complaint is that the Hearthstone doesn’t look like one of Wright’s buildings. It is not, that is to say, a Wright knockoff. I know Wright knockoffs well because I live in one. My log cabin is the oldest remaining building by Fritz Benedict, most prolific of Wright’s Aspen students, and it is full of Wrightian details while remaining a rectangular log box.The Hearthstone, by contrast, embraces its space with two great half-unfolded wings, its shingles suggestive of feathers. Its mitered windows, where glass meets glass at a 90-degree angle without interrupting support, a Wright invention that my house sports at the traditional corners, have been deployed by Molny as the central projection between the enfolding wings. Wright himself was rather contemptuous of Wright knockoffs; he wanted his students to follow his organic principles, not ape his shapes. Molny, in the Hearthstone House, has embodied organic architecture in a wholly original form. Fancifully, one could say that the Hearthstone suggests a nighthawk about to take flight, except that architecture – “frozen music”, in Goethe’s phrase – is abstract, not descriptive. By embodying Wrightian principles while projecting his own vision, Molny has come up with a personal and very different harmony and balance, resulting in a strcture that is more deeply Wrightian than any of the Aspen buildings that more obviously, and superficially, resemble the master’s work.Finally, the editorialist asserts that nothing important happened at Hearthsone – as if he could know, and as if the goings-on inside had any bearing on a building’s merits as architecture. But I would like to report something that did happen there. Some 30 years ago, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation invited novelist Joyce Carol Oates to deliver a lecture at Paepcke Auditorium in exchange for a free week at Hearthstone House. About the building Ms. Oates was ecstatic. The peace and the beauty of the Hearthstone were like few environments she had known and her gratitude for our choice was unbounded.Aspen has many buildings worth preserving – but mainly because they represent periods and functions. We treasure the Jerome, the Wheeler, the West End Victorians and the postwar chalets because they are historically significant monuments, evidence of sociological change, evocations of their time, not because they are great architecture. The self-effacing Hearthstone House, on the other hand, demands judgment by another standard. The Hearthstone House should not be torn down for the very simple reason that it is Aspen’s best building.
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