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It Was the Right Time for the Wright Place

Times Staff Writer

People stop and look and wonder. What is that wing-shaped, wood-sided building tucked behind the pepper and pine trees next to the busy Reseda neighborhood street?

Barbara Adams often sees them there, standing outside her fence. They’re gesturing with their hands as if they are trying to figure out the lines of the angular roof and of the unusual structure beneath it.

Sometimes she walks out and invites the strangers into the yard for a closer look.

That’s when she tells them the unusual story of how her 676-square-foot home was built. And how architect Lloyd Wright, with some help from his famous father, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it on a dare.

The tiny residence at the corner of Tampa Avenue and Valerio Street has been the Adamses’ family home since 1939.

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It was built by her late husband and his father and mother over a four-year period using blueprints drawn by Lloyd Wright. Sixty-four years later, it stands as much a monument to one family’s determination as it does to the genius of modern architecture.

“People are always surprised when I tell them the house is 26 feet square,” said Adams. “They have no concept of what the inside is like from looking at the outside. The ridgepole is on the diagonal of the square, and it looks like it goes up higher in the front. But it doesn’t. The rooftop’s the same height all the way across.”

There’s surprise, too, when Adams relates how the house came to be. A handwritten family journal, photographs of the construction, receipts for the redwood lumber and nails and Wright’s original house plans help one relive the unusual construction project.

Bill Adams was a 43-year-old machinist when he decided to build his own home. His wife, Bea, was 41. Their son Bob was a 19-year-old UCLA geology student. They lived in a small apartment in South Los Angeles.

The older Adams, a man of few words, was a former Oklahoma oilfield worker. His homemaker wife was a writer. She faithfully kept a diary that recorded the family’s ups and downs.

“My father-in-law was a self-taught man who did everything from library books,” Barbara Adams recalls. “And that’s how this house came about.

“He had read about the Imperial Hotel in Japan that Frank Lloyd Wright designed. He read everything he could about Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs and Wright’s Usonian philosophy, where every working man should have a home he can build himself.”

The Adamses purchased a half-acre lot off a single-lane dirt road that cut through cattle grazing land and bean fields. Bill Adams immediately fired off a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright.

“He said, ‘I have my own lot, and I have a strong son and I’m ready to build my house myself.’ He in effect dared Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house he could build,” said Barbara Adams.

“Frank Lloyd Wright wrote back, saying, ‘I’m too busy right now, but I’ve sent some ideas and suggestions to my son Lloyd, whose office is in Los Angeles.’ So Lloyd did the actual blueprints.”

Bea Adams wrote of her excitement on Jan. 28, 1939. “After being married 25 years, it looks like we will really have a home some day.”

On Feb. 5, she was even more excited after meeting Lloyd Wright.

“It’s quite a thrill to hear him talk about the different materials, like wood, corrugated iron, straw mats, cement and wire, and how they take their place in your home. Mr. Wright develops the picture plans for you like the artist he is, just as though it were a great picture he contemplates painting for himself and the world to enjoy,” she wrote.

Wright’s design borrowed elements from structures that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed in the mid-1930s and that Bill Adams so much admired. The son’s own touches included a dramatically sloped overhanging roof made of thatch-like mats woven from tule bulrushes. The thick mats and the unusual angle would provide relief from the San Fernando Valley’s intense summer heat.

Lloyd Wright agreed to design the house for $125. “We are very grateful and happy to know Mr. Wright has consented to help us, as this will mean such a small thing in a financial way for him,” Bea Adams wrote that March 25 after Lloyd Wright drove out to the site on a chilly, damp Saturday afternoon.

On the visit, Lloyd Wright talked Bill Adams into springing for a fireplace for the new home.

“As my husband has never enjoyed the pleasure of one, he considered it unnecessary,” Bea Adams wrote. Wright convinced him that a fireplace would economically heat the small house, as well as provide aesthetic comfort. “Every contact with Mr. Wright is a great pleasure, an inspiration and an education.”

The Adamses lived in a tent on the back of the property until enough of the shell of the two-bedroom house was finished for them to camp in. Bob Adams studied geology by Coleman lantern as his father memorized the city electrical wiring code with a book checked out of the library.

Wright had a falling out with the Adamses over the roof when it later became impossible to obtain tule matting because of wartime trucking restrictions. The family put on a wood shingle roof instead, and the architect quit the job without even collecting the last $75 of his modest fee.

Bill and Bea Adams lived in the house (built for $1,351, which with inflation translates to about $14,861 today) until moving to a retirement home shortly before their deaths in 1987 and 1988. Bob and Barbara Adams moved there in 1986.

“When we first moved in, neighbors and passersby would see us outside and stop and ask questions about the house. My in-laws had been very reclusive. There was so much curiosity about the place that Bob said one of these days he was going to put up a plaque out front on the fence.”

Bob Adams died in 1995 without ever putting one up. But the city has: At Barbara Adams’ urging, Los Angeles officials designated the house a Historic-Cultural Landmark in 1996, and a plaque marks the site. The historic-cultural landmark designation means the house cannot be significantly changed or torn down without city permission.

Architect Eric Lloyd Wright, son of Lloyd and grandson of Frank, attended a ceremony celebrating the designation. He was pleased to see that the original redwood interior, windows and doorways, and brick fireplace were intact. So was the long, sloping roof, which his father had designed to form a carport and breezeway that connects with a redwood chicken coop structure behind the house.

“It’s a wonderful little house, one of the nicest small houses that my father did,” Eric Wright, of Malibu, said Wednesday. “He was always interested in seeing what he could do to make a house affordable.”

Eric Wright praised Barbara Adams for her work in preserving the Reseda house and giving it public visibility.

These days, 71-year-old Adams often hosts groups of artists and architecture fans. Many of Lloyd Wright’s local designs, such as the famed Wayfarer’s Chapel and several other Los Angeles-area houses, are considered landmarks. But others have been remodeled or torn down.

On Wednesday, a design class from Pierce College in Woodland Hills visited Adams’ house. On Friday, students from an architectural drafting class at the West Valley Regional Occupation Center will tour it.

“It’s a little jewel,” said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. He commended Barbara Adams’ efforts to save what is “clearly one of the most significant residences in the West Valley.”

Now, as then, the Adams family has the Wright stuff.


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