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Wright angles

The Bulbulian House: A New Rochester Skyline

By David Gregory

Dr. Arthur Bulbulian first brought Wright to the area in the late 1940s. A facial reconstruction specialist for Mayo Clinic at the time, Bulbulian conscripted work for his property on Skyline Drive to the most famous architect in the country. As Wright had done in numerous projects, he infused the home with an organic sensibility, using the surrounding landscape as a tool in its design.

Completed in 1947, the Bulbulian house (most of Wright’s works carry the name of their original owner) sits like a 120-degree angle, a one-story structure with the slanting roof and simple lines that made the architect famous. The Frank Lloyd Wright registry remarked in its collection of his works that the house is oriented to “take full advantage of the morning sun at the breakfast table and afternoon sun in the living room.”

Jane Bisel of Blue Planet Museum Consulting, the firm that has worked on restoring the Bulbulian house for the past seven years, says, “The history of its original design and construction, a five-year collaboration between the Bulbulians and Mr. Wright, is really quite interesting—with each party striving equally for a design that was both specifically tailored to the Bulbulians’ lifestyle and aesthetically compelling. The Bulbulians made many trips to Spring Green [Wright’s Wisconsin headquarters] with a meticulously detailed model of their unbuilt house, modified each time to reflect the latest phase of planning.”

It holds an Oriental feel, something the three Rochester homes share. Shrubs at the front of the house spread out horizontally to give it an unostentatious appearance. The shrubs lead up to a long row of windows, the same long string present in a number of Wright’s Usonian works. Constructed out of cement brick and cypress wood, the Bulbulian set the precedent for Wright’s Med City work.

Of the three Wright houses in the area, only the Bulbulian has remained within the original family. As such, the condition of the home is most similar to its original design. Bisel says the house holds some peculiarities unique to a Wright work.

“A lot of research was done into the designer’s specifications. We wanted to make sure nothing we did would disrupt his original intentions,” says Bisel. “For instance, Mr. Wright had a specific insistence where he didn’t like air conditioning, so he had a natural design for warm or cool air to flow through the house... (He) also didn’t want screens on the house, so small things had to be done throughout.”

Making any repairs is an arduous process, given both the house’s time period and the complexity of Wright’s design.

“Nothing about this house is normal, by current standards,” Bisel says. “Virtually everything except for plumbing fixtures, appliances and hardware is hand-made and relates to other elements in important ways. Although Wright was thorough in his specification of building materials and construction methods, some of the materials are now hard—or impossible—to come by and the methods no longer practiced.”
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