One of the most intriguing houses in the Akron area exists only on paper.
Frank Lloyd Wright devotees know it as the E.L. Marting House. It was designed by the legendary architect in the 1940s but was never built on its intended site above the Cuyahoga Valley.
The house was to have been the home of Joyce and E. Louis Marting Jr., at the time a newly married couple on the threshold of adult life. He was a recent World War II veteran just starting out in the family business, Marting Realty. She was a bride in her early 20s.
Eventually mortgage restrictions and divorce would alter their dream. But at the time, they were engaged in the heady pursuit of having a home designed by a man who would become one of the world’s best-known architects.
Actually, the dream wasn’t a shared one, at least at first, Joyce Marting recalled. Now 88, she is a retired psychologist who lives in West Akron — paradoxically, in an 1834 cobblestone house far removed from Wright’s sleek, horizontal creations.
Her ex-husband, who died in 1986, was “terribly interested” in houses, she recalled.
“He would talk about wanting a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Who’s Frank Lloyd Wright?” she said with a smile. “I’d vaguely heard of him.”
Louis Marting ruminated on the idea. He thought he might be able to find a local architect who could design a house in Wright’s style. He wondered who could do the job.
Joyce Marting knew.
“I said, ‘If you want a Frank Lloyd Wright house, why don’t you ask Frank Lloyd Wright?’ ” she said. “And he did.”
It was shortly after the war, when building materials were scarce and Wright’s clients were few. So Wright “said yes to everybody,” she said.
To Joyce Marting, the experience is almost fanciful now. It happened so long ago, she said, that it feels like she read about it in a book.
Letters and photos mounted in a brittle scrapbook prove otherwise. They chronicle the Martings’ correspondence with Wright’s secretary, Eugene Masselink, and their trip to Wright’s Wisconsin home of Taliesin to discuss the project.
The correspondence apparently started sometime in 1946, when the Martings inquired about having a home designed. That September, Masselink wrote to tell them Wright would consider taking on the project.
Meeting with Wright
At some point, they had a topographical survey made of their property and sent it to Wright, and in late September 1946, they were asked to come to Taliesin to meet with the architect.
Joyce Marting remembers getting word at the last minute not to come. Wright’s adopted daughter, Svetlana, and her young son Daniel had just died in a jeep accident.
But it wasn’t long before the couple was summoned again — maybe a week or 10 days, Joyce Marting said. She remembers the daylong drive to Wisconsin, the bedroom where they stayed in Wright’s house. She recalls her first impression of Wright as a small, but perfectly proportioned man in a cape, striding imperiously across a field.
She was enthralled, she said.
The Martings spent a half-hour or 45 minutes talking to Wright, she recalled, and then shared a leisurely supper with him and his students.
It was their only direct contact with the architect. The next day, they drove back to Akron.
The couple heard nothing until the following spring, when Masselink wrote to say their house plans were on the way.
That’s typical of the way Wright worked, said Arnold Roy, a former student of Wright’s and a senior architect with the Taliesin Fellowship, the group of architects that carries on Wright’s work.
Roy said he knows of many buildings Wright designed without ever visiting the sites. He would simply ask the client to send photos of the property and a topographical survey, discuss the project with them and then base his design on that information. “And it was always perfect,” Roy said.
That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Wright’s houses were notorious for leaky roofs and other structural problems, although his defenders often blame the builders.
Wright would design a house “entirely in his head,” Roy said. He said the fabled architect could envision the colors, the textures and shadows, the way people would move through the building, he said.
Wright would sketch out some preliminary drawings, he said, and then his chief draftsman would create a more refined version. The architect would make changes to that version, and then a schematic would be developed that included a floor plan, elevations and a perspective drawing that showed what the exterior of the house would look like.
The drawings for the Marting house show a semicircular home with a stacked stone exterior and massive windows covering most of the inside curve.
The design was a recycled version of one Wright had created earlier for Herbert and Katherine Jacobs of Madison, Wis., according to a document prepared when the Jacobses’ house was nominated as a National Historic Landmark. That house is known as Jacobs II, because it was the second house Wright designed for the couple.
The Marting house was the Jacobs II in reverse, with minor changes. Wright also offered the design in 1950 to yet another client, Donald Grover. But like the Martings, Grover never built his home.
The Martings’ house was designed to nestle into a hillside on their land, 11 or 12 heavily wooded acres owned by Louis Marting’s father and abutting what is now O’Neil Woods Metro Park. The property, which has since been subdivided for housing, was on West Bath Road in what was then Northampton Township. It’s now part of Cuyahoga Falls, near the border with Bath Township.
An earth berm behind the house would have reached the second-story windows and was intended to moderate the home’s temperature, said Bill Marting, Joyce’s son. The curved wall of windows along the front would not only provide sweeping views of the countryside, but also during the colder months the south-facing windows would let in solar heat all day as the sun moved low across the sky. In summer, when the sun was higher, an overhang would shade the house, he said.
It was an earth-sheltered, passive solar home ahead of its time.
“I never heard of that kind of architectural design … before the ’70s,” Bill Marting said.
The home’s first floor would have been a curved, open space incorporating a living room, dining area, recreation area and kitchen, which Wright called the workspace. The plans included a fireplace in the living room and an unusual round pond, half inside the house and half out.
A cylindrical tower would have housed utilities on the first floor and a curved staircase. On the second floor, the tower would have contained the home’s only bathroom and a dressing room (“He gives you one closet,” Joyce Marting observed wryly).
Five tiny bedrooms on the second floor would have opened to an interior balcony overlooking the living area below.
Joyce Marting conceded it wasn’t an entirely practical design. But it was, she said, “a thrilling house.”
The design came with a stipulation: The Martings were to have one of Wright’s apprentices live with them and remain on site during the construction. Trouble is, they didn’t have a place on site to live.
So the couple set about building a small ranch-style house on the property. It was intended to be temporary housing, a place to live just until their permanent home was finished.
Mortgage, marriage issues
Meanwhile, they started looking for financing, and it was then that their dreams hit a wall.
No one would give them a mortgage, because the home’s unconventional construction didn’t meet the lenders’ strict requirements, Joyce Marting said.
That’s not unusual, the Taliesin Fellowship’s Roy said. Of Wright’s 1,110 or so clients, Roy estimated 500 to 600 had designs created but never followed through with construction. Many times, the mortgage was the sticking point, he said.
The Martings didn’t have the money to pay for the house outright, so their plans languished.
They had a child, then two. The marriage faltered. The couple stayed together until their children were educated, but Joyce Marting said she and her ex-husband knew divorce was inevitable. Building another house together became pointless, so they stayed in the little house and added on.
Had he grown up in the Wright house, “life would have been different,” Bill Marting said. “But at that age I don’t think you appreciate something like that.”
Joyce Marting doesn’t know what her former husband paid Wright to design the house that never was. Roy said Wright’s standard fee was 10 percent of the estimated cost of building the house.
There’s no way to know what the construction would have cost, but the history of the nearly identical Jacobs II house provides a clue. Herbert and Katherine Jacobs spent an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 to build their house in 1948, according to the application for the home’s historical designation — about $144,000 to $192,000 in today’s dollars. That would have made Wright’s fee $1,500 to $2,000 at the time, or $14,400 to $19,200 today.
Bill Marting remembers that his father also had more extensive building plans for the house, but those documents are long gone. He recalls his father turning them over to a Cleveland architect decades ago, although he’s not sure why.
“The guy walked out the door, and I never laid eyes on him again and never saw the plans again,” he said.
More than 60 years after its conception, Joyce Marting recognizes the house wouldn’t have been a good fit for her. She couldn’t quite picture herself “running around this balcony,” she said.
The ceilings would have been low; the furniture Wright designed would have been small. The architect scaled his homes to his own stature, not his clients’, she said.
She also figures she would have balked at the control Wright tried to exercise over the houses he designed.
“I never saw myself in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, although all of that experience was very interesting,” she said. “… That was my excursion into something completely outside of myself.”
Even though it was never built, the house became known to some of Wright’s followers. It has been mentioned in publications, and Joyce Marting said people would sometimes call and ask to see it, not realizing it didn’t exist.
Bill Marting’s wife, Jinny, wishes it could be otherwise. An admirer of Wright who once attended a church just because it was near a house he’d designed, she admitted to harboring a fantasy of building the E.L. Marting House.
She doubts that will happen, but she can dream.
Just as her in-laws once did.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.