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Quest for Wright stuff led far, wide

Some vacationers tour the United States to see sights such as Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon.

William Sachs, a semiretired architect in St. Petersburg, does nothing so mundane. Sachs and his brother, Bob, traveled more than 10,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, taking digital photographs and video of public buildings designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sachs, who met Wright in 1957 at an American Institute of Architecture meeting in New York, showcased his photos of Wright's public buildings Monday night to a full house at the Largo Public Library.

Images filled the screen during Sachs' presentation, including one of Wingspread, the residence Wright designed in the mid 1930s near Racine, Wis., for Herbert Johnson of Johnson Wax Co. The home, now a conference center, reflected Wright's dedication to natural light, open floor plans, geometric design and careful coordination between the inside and outside environment.

Wright died in 1959. He is still considered by many authorities as one of the world's greatest architects, having designed such iconic buildings as New York's Guggenheim Museum.

"He was sort of a god, a messiah, his work was so creative we had nothing but high regard for him, a lot of respect for his work," said Sachs, a past president of the New York Society of Architects. "I didn't really get an interest in him until they started working on the Guggenheim in New York and I went to an exhibit of his work at the site and realized how creative and talented he was."

But, as he did during his lifetime, Wright also had his share of detractors. An audience member at the Largo presentation complained about Wright's Guggenheim design, calling him "self-indulgent" for designing a facility that could be construed as overshadowing the artwork inside.

Sachs acknowledged that the Guggenheim poses its challenges.

"What happens is they've always had a problem displaying big art on walls at the Guggenheim because the floors are sloped and the walls are curved," Sachs explained. "Paintings are straight so you have awkward shadows appearing on the sides of the paintings. That's the nature of what happens in a round building with a spiral ramp."

Wright also designed buildings closer to home for his Florida devotees. Florida Southern College in Lakeland boasts Wright-designed buildings, and a major building in Clearwater, Ruth Eckerd Hall, also bears his architectural influence.

While Wright didn't design Ruth Eckerd Hall, built in 1959, his son-in-law and first apprentice, William Wesley Peters, was part of the design team that did. Peters was married to Wright's daughter Svetlana, who died in an automobile accident.

Peters then married a woman with the same first name and a famous family name, Svetlana Stalin, daughter of Russian leader Joseph Stalin. In cooperation with the H. Patterson Fletcher architectural firm in Bradenton, Peters helped design both Ruth Eckerd and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.

Both halls represent an organic infrastructure; Ruth Eckerd offers incredible natural acoustics, said Pat Fletcher, who serves on the board of directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin Foundation. "Most halls have sound reinforced with loudspeakers, but Ruth Eckerd has these magnificent natural acoustics," he said. "Tour the hall without a showing going on, stand in the back row and you can hear people talking on the stage without any trouble."

When Ruth Eckerd Hall expanded in 2002, Wright's family again participated in the project. Wright's great-granddaughter, interior designer Melissa Galt, herself the daughter of actor Anne Baxter (Wright's granddaughter), oversaw the color coordination of the building.

The fascination with Wright's work continues for many reasons, Fletcher said.

"He was so far ahead of his time that his architecture is timeless at this point," Fletcher said. "A number of his projects are still more advanced than what most people are accustomed to, yet he had a sense of shelter and warmth about him. His interiors are some of the most beautiful done in houses and buildings."

Wright's Prairie School influence on housing is what drew Colleen Tracy of Clearwater to the Largo presentation. "I loved Frank Lloyd Wright and have been fascinated by him because his architecture is so different and his buildings are timeless," Tracy said.

However, Prairie designs weren't included in Sachs' slide show, although they can be seen in such neighborhoods as the Old Northeast near downtown St. Petersburg, which is full of bungalow homes built in the 1920s. Time and accessibility limited his slide show to public buildings, said Sachs.

John Mitrovka, vice president of Florida space planning for SunTrust Bank and past president of the Florida chapter of the International Interior Design Association, is another Wright fan.

"I am a fan more of the Prairie style, his earlier work, myself," Mitrovka said. "I like it more than his later work. It's warmer with the textures he used, the materials and colors in those prairie buildings."

Mitrovka calls Wright a visionary, saying he was impressed that "(Wright) had a vision for the entire building, not just the building, but the site the building was on as well," Mitrovka said. "He just didn't plop down a building. He looked at how it would interface with the location it was in."

All of Wright's work comes together in one aesthetically pleasing package, Sachs said.

"In terms of architecture, he gave you so much interest and detail and aesthetic beauty that you can't help but feel overwhelmed by the beauty that you see in front of you, looking at the floors, walls, ceilings. It's all tied together as one unique whole."