West Lafayette House Is Indiana's 40th National Historic Landmark
There are roughly 25-hundred National Historic Landmarks in the United States.
A house in West Lafayette recently joined that prestigious list.
At the end of a quiet street in West Lafayette is the John E. and Catherine E. Christian House.
The 2,200 square-foot home was designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who named it Samara after the winged seeds found in pinecones on the wooded lot.
John and Kay Christian first got the idea to have Wright design their home after seeing several of his Usonian-style homes in Pleasantville, New York. The architect developed this design in the 1930s as an affordable option designed for middle-class families. Some of the characteristics include an open floor plan, little storage space and a holistic property design aimed at creating a flow between the house and the land on which it sits.
The Christians decided to seek Wright out after spending the weekend with Mrs. Christian’s college roommate at a home Wright designed in Okemos, Michigan.
“They realized that he was pretty famous and very busy," says Linda Eales, Samara's Associate Curator. "So one day just out of frustration Dr. Christian picked up the phone and called Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and guess who answered the phone? Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Eales says that phone conversation ended in an invitation for the Christians to visit Wright, who eventually agreed to build their home in West Lafayette.
But the couple didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so they told Wright they were in no rush to get the home built. Eales says the architect took that to heart, and it was five years before he finalized the plans for Samara.
When construction finally began, Eales says the Christians followed Wright’s designs to the letter.
“It’s an open floor plan. We have flat roofs and that’s because Frank Lloyd Wright did not believe in attics or basements," says Eales. "He said they were just for storing junk. Also, there’s modular furniture that moves around and can readjust itself. Like we have what we call the coffee table matrix.”
And it wasn’t just Wright’s designs for the structure itself that were followed.
“The Christians had Frank Lloyd Wright design all of the contents of the house at the time it was commissioned," says Jamie Jacobs, Acting Branch Chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program. He says Samara rises above the other 100 Usonian houses that still exist.
"So the house was built in the 1950s and some of the furniture was completed then," says Jacobs. "But then over the course of their life in the house they were able to implement all of the designs—curtains, dinnerware, the whole gamut.”
Jacobs says as is the case with most Historic Landmark nominees, a consultant helped make the case for why Samara is one of the best examples of similar structures across the nation.
“National Landmark nominations can range in length from 30 to over 100 pages, and they’re quite complex in terms of the type of information that’s presented," says Jacobs. "I mean you have to make a fairly convincing argument, so generally it requires a trained consultant in preservation, or history, or architectural history to do the work.”
Jacobs says the National Park Service works with citizens throughout the United States to identify National Historic Landmarks.
He says the regional offices of the National Park Service do assessments of the state of their landmarks roughly every two years. But he says short of demolishing a landmark, there are very few instances where one is removed from the list.
“So there is sort of a watchdog process," says Jacobs. "A lot of it does rely on reporting by people living in the area. The only way we can de-designate is through a loss of integrity, but it would have to be a pretty serious loss of integrity.”
Jacobs says fewer than 30 Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the U.S. have achieved Historic Landmark status.
Linda Eales points out that unlike some other Frank Lloyd Wright homes on the National Historic Landmarks list, Samara has inhabitants.
Kay Christian passed away in 1986, but John Christian, who is now 97, still lives there.
“But he’s an educator," says Eales. "He worked at Purdue in the School of Pharmacy and was actually the first head of the Health Sciences Department over there. And I think after he retired he thought “Well, what can I do now? Well, I do happen to have this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home.” So he set up the tours and brought people in and trained them on how to give the tours.”
Eales says as many as 3,000 people tour Samara each year, “everyone from kindergarteners to Red Hats."
She says Dr. Christian has set up a trust to ensure the home stays true to its original design and that those tours allow people to continue to enjoy the space.