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Building a Frank Lloyd Wright prefab on Staten Island

How one of the architect’s few prefabricated homes landed atop Lighthouse Hill

Max Touhey

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was not exactly shy with his opinions, and when it came to the subject of New York City, he could be especially salty. The city’s skyline was, according to Wright, “a medieval atrocity”; in a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, he went even further in his pointed critique of New York’s architecture:

Because it never was planned, it is all a race for rent, and it is a great monument, I think, to the power of money and greed trying to substitute money for ideas. I don’t see an idea in the whole thing anywhere.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Wright designed only a few New York City commissions throughout his career—and of those, just two survive. One is, of course, the famed Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue; though Wright’s original design for it dates back to 1943, the structure itself did not open to the public until 1959, just months after the architect died.

Wright’s other New York City commission also came late in his career, and can still be seen in its original location—though to do so, you’d have to travel to Lighthouse Hill in Staten Island. And alas, the building isn’t open to the public; the Crimson Beech, as it’s known, has been a neighborhood fixture since 1959, but it’s currently in use as a private residence.

Max Touhey

The humble structure was part of a line of prefabricated homes that Wright designed for builder Marshall Erdman, reflecting their shared passion for affordable, easy-to-construct housing. These houses were, according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (which gave the Crimson Beech protected status in 1990), “Wright’s last major attempt in his long career to address the problem of well-designed, moderate-cost houses.” Ultimately, the pair would collaborate on 11 of these modest houses.

So how did one end up on Staten Island? Thank Mike Wallace for that, too: Wright’s now-legendary 1957 interview with the journalist caught the attention of William Cass, a Queens resident who, along with his wife Catherine, was looking to move to Staten Island. As Catherine told the Times in 1996, this is how the conversation between husband and wife played out:

''Write him a letter and tell him we're interested,'' Mr. Cass urged his wife. Catherine Cass said her immediate reaction was, ''Bill, you got to be crazy.''

But it wasn’t crazy at all. Wright was intrigued, and agreed to work with the couple on a home—namely, one of the Erdman prefabs.

Wright designed three different types of prefabs for Erdman, and the Crimson Beech is part of the first round that he created. Here’s how that particular iteration was described by Wright scholar Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer:

The plan of the Erdman Prefab is elongated, with the workspace and carport forming an L. The entry proceeds directly down three steps and into the living room. A second entry comes in from the carport to the workspace. Adjacent to the main entry, on the right, is a dining area, on the left, the bedroom wing. There are three bedrooms and two bathrooms in some models, others have four bedrooms.

The Staten Island prefab is one of the four-bedroom models, and also has a sunken living room, a standard carport (as opposed to a garage, which was added in later iterations), and a gallery.

Even though the house was a prefab, the construction process wasn’t exactly simple. Erdman had never built a prefab home on the East Coast before, so once the parts were fabricated, they had to be shipped to Staten Island from Madison, WI. The Casses paid $20,000 for the materials and assembly (which was overseen by Morton Delson, an architect and Wright acolyte), but because New York builders didn’t have experience with prefab, they ended up shelling out an additional $35,000 to make sure it was erected correctly. (“It was a rough road at the time,” Catherine Cass told the New York Times.)

Photo courtesy the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

And then there was Wright himself, who was famously persnickety in his desire to exert his vision over the homes he designed—not just their exteriors. As the Times noted at the time, “Wright is, perhaps, the true owner of every house he ever designed; his clients merely borrow it to live in it.” Even though a decorator, Matthew Sergio of Macy’s, was brought on for the project, there was little for him to do. Wright had already put his stamp on the interiors, selecting everything from the ceiling color to the light fixtures, and would brook no argument about changes.

Or, as Catherine Cass put it: “He was a real tyrant. He never took anyone else into consideration. He chose the furniture, the fabric, even the paint colors for us.”

Things progressed quickly once work began: Construction got underway late in 1958 and wrapped by the next summer. Wright was scheduled to see the home in the spring, but never got the chance: he fell ill days before he was due to visit Staten Island, and died in April of 1959.

But even if Wright didn’t get to see the Crimson Beech when it was finished, plenty of New Yorkers did: the Casses decided to open it up to the public before moving in, charging $1 to check out the oddity (kids under 16 got in for free), according to a New York Times article from the day it opened. (“The admission fee will be used to pay for a watchman and any damages incurred,” according to the piece.) The Casses moved in one month later, in August of 1959.

By all accounts, the house remained largely unchanged while the Cass family was in residence; the family added a pool in the 1970s, but even that was overseen by Delson, the Wright associate who supervised the original construction of the home.

The Crimson Beech with a pool, added in the 1970s.
Courtesy the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

Catherine Cass even petitioned the LPC to make the Beech a landmark in 1990; as she told the Times, “We knock down things and then set up a committee to restore what we destroyed.” (Wright fans surely appreciate the gesture, considering many of his creations—such as the Mercedes-Benz showroom on Park Avenue) have been destroyed.)

But after William Cass died, his wife decided to sell the place. “There is a time to stay and a time to go, and I think it's time,” she told the Times in 1996. One attempt to sell the home in 1987 for more than $1 million dollars failed, and ultimately she was able to net $800,000 for it. The current owners, Frank and Jeanne Cretella, bought the place not long after.

The Cretellas declined to be interviewed for this piece, but they did give an interview to the Times in 2005, and from the sound of it, Wright would perhaps not be happy with what they’ve done with the place:

In addition to renovating the kitchen, the couple removed an interior doorway to make the stairway to the basement more inviting and turned a storeroom into a large wine cellar. (Mr. Cretella makes his own red wine.) And they turned one of Wright's tiny bedrooms into a master bathroom, with a large shower and tub.

They also initially kitted the place out with “Santa Fe-style pottery, Victorian antiques and red leather chairs,” which is also probably not Wright had intended. Still, the home remains, and looks as lovely as it did when it was first erected in 1959—thanks, of course, to the Landmark designation, but also because of its enthusiastic stewards for the past half-century.

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