In 1956, 12-year-old Jim Berger decided that it was high time that his loyal black Lab, Eddie, got a proper backyard doghouse. So, Berger took it upon himself to pen a letter to the same architect that designed his family’s home in Saint Anselmo, Calif. In his letter, Berger asked the architect if he would be so kind as to design the doghouse himself as so the two structures would not clash. He offered to pay for the design with money earned on his paper route.
Wrote Berger in his letter, dated June 19, 1956: “I would appreciate it if you would design me a doghouse, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house ... (My dog) is two and a half feet high and three feet long. The reasons I would like this doghouse is for the winters mainly.” Berger also made sure to inform the architect of Eddie's age: Four (human years), 28 (dog years).
The architect responded to Berger’s query, explaining to him that he was too busy at the moment to take on such an "opportunity" but would consider it later in the year when his schedule was less hectic. "I may have something then," he wrote. In November of that year, Berger followed up with a second letter and, lo and behold, the architect then sent him a set of drawings outlining the design of Eddie’s doghouse. The architect took on his young client’s project gratis.
Oh, and did I mention that the architect that Berger solicited to design Eddie’s backyard digs was some totally obscure guy in Wisconsin named Frank Lloyd Wright?
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In 1956, 88-year-old Wright probably had a few important things on his mind (i.e. the construction of what’s arguably his most iconic creation, the Guggenheim Museum in New York) other than indulging the child of a former client in Marin Country, Calif. And Wright wasn’t exactly known for being a warm and fuzzy kind of guy prone to striking up correspondences with juvenile dog owners — Wright’s legacy of arrogance, recklessness, and personal turmoil is just as famous as the hundreds upon hundreds of buildings that he brought to life. Yet somehow, Berger got through to one of the 20th century’s greatest — and most difficult — geniuses.
Berger himself never got around to building the doghouse but in 1963 his younger brother, Eric, and his father, a professor and engineer who constructed the family's actual Wright-designed home himself over a span of 20 years, did indeed erect the triangular kennel as according to Wright’s original plans using mahogany and leftover cedar from the main home's construction.
According to the Marin Independent Journal, Eddie the Lab was indeed still alive and well when his pre-Usonian backyard hangout was eventually completed, but apparently he wasn't too enamored with it as he preferred to sleep by the front door of the main house. Other reports state that Eddie had died by the the time the doghouse was built and it was enjoyed — or neglected — by subsequent Berger family dogs. Whatever the case, in 1973 the doghouse was unloaded at a local dump by recently widowed family matriarch Gloria Berger, who, writes the Associated Press, “didn’t see much value in it.” Ouch. And for Wright, he passed away in 1959 at the age of 91.
Last year, Berger, now 68, reconstructed the original doghouse along with his brother — both are skilled cabinetmakers — and it’s currently on tour with “Romanza,” a documentary about Wright-designed homes in California. “Eddie’s house,” believed to be the only pet pied-à-terre that Wright designed, is also featured in the film.
Michael Miner, director and producer of “Romanza," tells the AP: "The story of a 12-year-old kid having the chutzpah to write a letter to the greatest architect of all time and having him design something as modest as a doghouse..., I just knew it was a great story."
Indeed it is. “Romanza” (with doghouse in tow) will next be screening at the Illinois State Museum on March 25 with other screenings across the country to follow. Click here for a complete schedule.
So what does the man who, in 1956, convinced the greatest architect of the 20th century to design a backyard shelter for his Lab plan to do with the doghouse once it’s done touring? Although he currently has dogs of his own, Berger says: “My feeling is that I’d like it to go to a museum because it is a historical monument.” And in keeping with FLW tradition, the doghouse apparently has some major leakage issues.
If you could commission any living, eco-minded architect to design a backyard abode for your pooch, who would it be? (I suppose it would help if you masqueraded as a 12-year-old and if the architect in question designed the home you live in). Although I do admire this green-roofed Great Dane abode by Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based sustainable architect Matthew Coates, I'm thinking I'd go with Tom Kundig.
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