by Chris Clemens
A number of American artists have carved such a unique corner in creative history that their name alone has become iconic. Louis Comfort Tiffany, Norman Rockwell, George Gershwin, Ansel Adams…each has left a signature touch within their niche. In doing so, they have gone on to change the landscape of America forever. One such creator left his mark quite literally on the landscape of America, and Upstate New York is privileged enough to be home to a number of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic designs. Rochester lays claim to only one FLW home, but it reserves the distinction of being the easternmost home built within Wright’s signature Prairie style. While many of FLW’s properties are now museums open to the public, the Boynton House in Rochester is privately owned. The husband and wife team of Francis Cosentino and Jane Parker extended an invitation for me to tour their home and were cool enough to allow me to share it with all of you. I continue to be humbled and grateful for such a fantastic opportunity.
Edward E. Boynton made his fortune partnering with the owners of the C.T. Ham Manufacturing Co. of Rochester which made and sold lanterns. Boynton’s relationship with his daughter, Beulah, grew stronger after his wife passed, and he commissioned FLW to build a home for them. Notorious for not always having an easy working relationship with clients, FLW and Beulah Boynton ended up having an uncharacteristically great relationship, and there is even talk that there may have been somewhat of a mutual romantic crush. FLW visited Rochester in 1907 to help the Boyntons find the four lot location on East Blvd that would allow for an expansive ‘prairie’ feeling to include a reflecting pond and Elm trees. The total cost to purchase the four lots and finish the home in 1908 was $55,000 and then Edward and his daughter Beulah lived in the home until 1918. Though several owners have lived in the home, as is custom with any FLW property, the name of the property is maintained by the original owner.
Before my visit I began to read up ahead of time as much as could. I also reached out to Professor of Art, Jesse Colin Jackson, at the University of California, Irvine. Though he hasn’t visited the Boynton House, he has been studying Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs and visiting sites across the country for years. He explained to me, “the Prairie Style is FLW’s uniquely American contribution to modern architecture–modern in the sense that these houses were a strong break from the past. Prairie homes feature an open “pinwheel” plan, dramatic horizontal elements of volume and detail and would have originally been kitted out with a full complement of FLW-designed furniture. Wright was a leading architectural proponent of the ‘total work of art.'”
Francis Cosentino and Jane Parker have always had a penchant for historic preservation and Jane had set her eyes on the Boynton House over a decade before it went up for sale. They purchased the Boynton Frank Lloyd Wright House for $830,000 in November 2009 and then spent the following 36 months painstakingly working with Bero Architecture and Bayer Landscaping to entirely restore every inch of the property, which now is two lots rather than the original four mentioned above. Jane gave me an extensive tour of the home and introduced me not only to a piece of local history, but more than I had ever previously known about Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius.
Though the original Elm trees fell victim to the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, the vegetation looks old and stately, as it does for all the homes in the area. FLW’s signature horizontal lines are obvious immediately. The two-story home is outlined by a series of right angles and straight lines, each of which accentuate the idea of simplicity and form. The front of the home has a porch that a later owner fully enclosed and while on a visit to Rochester, Frank Lloyd Wright was invited to see the house. Apparently, when he pulled up to see the enclosed porch and exposed downspouts from the gutters he became so furious that he refused to even go inside and angrily pulled away. Part of the most recent renovations were to open that porch back up and instill a greater sense of Wright’s original vision for the design.
Previous owners also had built a garage, but Cosentino and Parker took down the old garage and added one that was more fitting to the original design. The reflecting pool that had been changed from Wright’s original was also remodeled to fit the veranda style landscape with a portico, allowing residents to walk from home to garage and have at least a small sense of protection from Rochester’s inclement weather.
The architect must be a prophet… a prophet in the truest sense of the term… if he can’t see at least ten years ahead don’t call him an architect. – Frank Lloyd Wright
Open floor plans are currently a trend in home building, but FLW was one of the first to incorporate the concept and did it in the Prairie style homes he designed. Wright knew that larger, open spaces that develop into adjoining rooms allow for a more spacious environment. Furthermore, it lends itself to providing a habitat ideal for entertaining. If someone was in a dining room, they had a sense that the folks in the living room were at the very least nearby. Beulah Boynton was a big fan of entertaining and hosting parties really resonated with the Prairie style, open concept plan.
The first thing you’ll notice standing just in the foyer is wood. Wood trim everywhere. Jane explained that during the renovation process, every single piece of wood that I saw, and many I couldn’t see, were removed, numbered, and carefully put through a rejuvenation process to reinstall their original lustre. Five miles of wood was removed and slowly replaced to restore FLW’s vision for natural elements to outline nearly every visible space in the home.
He designed a number of details that when explained to me at first seemed inconsequential, but while viewing them directly appeared genius. One of those details was how he used a recessed lighter shade on the horizontal mortar between the fireplace bricks, and a color similar to the shade of brick itself on the vertical mortar joints, effectively accentuating the horizontal lines to mirror the rest of the house. Much like the idea of an open concept, Jane pointed out to me how the outside and inside to the home are vastly integrated. A set of windows in the dining room shows that two of the windows view to the outside of the home and two view in to an adjoining room.
Speaking of the dining room, just as Professor Jackson had mentioned to me before, the Boynton House had been outfitted entirely with FLW designed furniture intended to fit his design concept. Now, there are only 17 of the original furniture pieces remaining. The Landmark Society of Western New York can take credit for saving them when a previous owner tried to sell off the pieces. The Rochester-based preservation society intervened by purchasing them so that they could remain in their rightful place.
Because there weren’t modern conveniences like washing machines and refrigerators (or WIFI routers) in 1908, the new renovation accounted for the integration of things like a dishwasher by building it behind cabinetry crafted to match the woodwork in the kitchen and the phasing out of an ice box by repurposing it for modern use. Near the kitchen(s), a smaller dining area was designed overlooking the backyard. Because, even if you have them available, you probably don’t want to eat your everyday meals on works of art, right?
The upstairs of the house is joined by a set of stairs with a landing and a wall separating the two flights with full story windows overlooking the yard and driveway. A guest room featuring furniture designed to fit Wright’s vision even includes a mirror that disappears when the television behind it turns on. Beulah’s original dressing room joins a full, room-sized walk-in closet and a bathroom featuring an appropriately nicknamed “Rib Shower” which also enters in to the master bedroom featuring a newer, more modern bathroom.
Though there were numerous bits that I found to be curious about the home, I immediately recognized that none of the windows had any type of treatments that I’m used to finding in a home. Jane explained, “Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius who thought of EVERY minute detail!” The zinc glass panels in the entire home feature iron designs throughout. On the first floor of the house, the majority of the design work is situated in the upper portion of the window panel, while on the top floor it’s reversed. Even without curtains, the iron pieces in the window effectively interrupt any view that someone from afar might have into the room.
Fran and Jane’s office is decked out with matching mission style desks and even features one of the original phones.
While the basement isn’t particularly noteworthy as part of the original Frank Lloyd Wright design, to say that the sub-level is average would be an understatement. The walls in the finished basement are covered with memorabilia and ephemera related to the origins of the house and the rehabilitation work completed within the last few years. Original pieces of wood that are now more fragile than an ancient text, lithographs of original blueprint work, awards from preservation and garden societies, and a wine cellar flanking the original kitchen island that was moved to the basement because it’s impending size in the kitchen, all complete a museum-like feel to a space that typically is just a “catch-all”l for the average homeowner. Even the laundry room and exercise rooms have touches of FLW inspired wood accents and cabinetry!
Another point in the basement that stood out was the hardware. Francis told me that the house actually has multiple options for temperature control. Forced air of course didn’t exist in 1908, but was added later, and each of the original hot water radiators still functions. I didn’t take a photo for you, but believe me, the number of wires and pipes in the basement made my simple Cape Cod feel like a shanty.
Great accolades should be paid to the folks who have so diligently and painstakingly worked (and funded!) over the years to ensure that such an incredible treasure will continue to survive the brutal seasons we experience here in Upstate. Francis and Jane no doubt have lead the the way in the most recent years to secure themselves a place in Frank Lloyd Wright history as noteworthy preservationists, but many hands have played a role since 1908 to help preserve one of Rochester’s finest architectural gems.
*Please note: The Boynton House is privately owned and not public property. If you care to drive by and see the outside and take photos, utmost care and respect should be given to the present owners’ privacy.
Sources and Additional Reading
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens