Frank Lloyd Wrong: All the Drama, Conflict and Intrigue You’ll Need
Time to discuss a well-kept secret. Who knew that Orinda claims a genuine Frank Lloyd Wright [FLW] masterpiece, one of only a handful on the West Coast? By making this common knowledge, I’m relinquishing some of my best cocktail party fodder.
Mid-century architecture fans will be delighted to learn that just off Glorietta Blvd. sits a three-bedroom, Usonian-style residential gem, tucked away on an unassuming little cul de sac called Great Oaks Trail.
But before you jump in the car and race over, this property is gated and tours are rare, although one can enjoy a modest glimpse from the driveway.
The history of this dwelling is as full of drama, conflict and intrigue as the blustery architectural genius himself. The home was eventually built around 1948 for Orindans Maynard and Katherine Buehler (no relation to Ferris, wink.) I say “eventually,” because FLW reportedly ignored Katherine Buehler’s business inquiries for so long, she was about to give up on him. After surprising her with an unapologetically delayed return phone call, and after lengthy negotiations, FLW finally consented to design and build the Buehler’s home, but only if they would agree to purchase all surrounding land in order to fulfill his vision.
Thus, their original one-acre lot became 3.5 acres.
Read this and weep: the couple paid $1,850 for the first acre lot; $5,000 for the second and $7,500 for the third. The expansive grounds, which include a Japanese tea garden, koi pond, waterfalls, footbridges and exquisite landscaping, were designed by none other than Henry Matsutani, of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park fame. I know, right?
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, the Buehler House is noted for its “inclined shed” living room ceiling tilted at a gorgeous dramatic angle, gold leaf ceilings in the dining room, FLW-designed furniture and many more of the world-renowned architect’s signature features too numerous to list.
FLW and Katherine Buehler reportedly “butted heads” over a few design issues, namely the small size of the kitchen, but the architect refused to compromise. Buehler later admitted Wright made excellent use of the space.
As long as the Buehler’s owned the home, drama was non-existent.
Charitable and civic-minded, the couple regularly opened their home to the public for tours and fundraisers. “Trouble in O-town” arose after their passing when their estate was put up for sale.
Another shocker: this original Frank Lloyd Wright was first listed in 2011 at $5 million, but did not sell until 2013, when Gerald Shmavonian, a graduate of UC Berkeley and resident of Piedmont, purchased it for the reduced price of 3.5 million. Oh, to jump in that time machine!
To the dismay of the neighbors, Shmavonian repurposed the property as a wedding venue, with no reasonable cap on the number of guests permitted.
The estate made Vogue magazine’s 2016 short list of world’s best wedding venues, fueling the fire as the space naturally became wildly popular. Neighbors were forced to deal with constant noise issues and traffic congestion, eventually appealing to the City of Orinda for help.
The city attempted to impose numerous fines on Shmavonian for continually violating zoning and noise ordinances, but to no avail.
Then – COVID-19 to the rescue.
We don’t hear that phrase often, as there are very few plusses to a world locked-down – with the minor exception of shutting down the Buehler Estate as a wedding venue. The fact that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation also heftily sued Shmavonian in 2019 for domain name violations likely helped.
What is the future of the little house that Famous Frank built?
If only a vivacious, friendly, empty-nesting soul (hey, like me!) could own the house and continue the Buehler’s generous traditions, opening the grounds to the public for free educational tours and genteel fundraisers, both of which the neighbors had no quarrel with.
For now, only the limited view from the driveway is free, but you can snag a selfie with the nearby bust of FLW by the entrance.
Mimi Bommarito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.