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Mike Tharp: For sale -- Los Banos' secret gem

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Bare ruined choirs of walnut trees stand in rows west of what Buck Fawcett called the best house Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed.

The house, built five miles south of Los Banos in 1959-61, is for sale.

Buck, a Stanford football player, grew up in these parts on the Fawcett family ranch. Six feet tall, he was able, even late in life, to haul a 5-foot-long, 2-foot-wide walnut tree log to the world renowned architect's 6-foot-by-12-foot fireplace.

Not long before he died, two German photographers knocked on the door. You can take all the pictures you want, he told them, then get the hell outta here.

Henry Whiting II, himself an architect who married Buck's daughter Lynn, chuckles as he tells that story. He's standing in the kitchen of the house, on the market since last August.

Asking price: $2.7 million.

Crosby Doe Associates handles inquiries at (310) 275-2222. You can also check online at www.fawcetthouse.com.

It's one of only two farm houses Wright ever built. Echoes resound softly of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone and Yosemite's Ahwahnee.

The fireplace was Buck's. From October to April, a fire burned in it 24/7. The kitchen, whose cabinets still hold 50-year-old cookbooks, was the pride and joy of Lynn's mother, Harriet.

"She loved to entertain," Henry recalls.

Buck thought it was Wright's best house because of where it sits. Eighty acres of flat loamy Valley farmland, planted this season with winter wheat. There is no cascading waterfall, like his design at Bear Run in western Pennsylvania. No scenic coastline above the Pacific as at his Walker House in Carmel.

The Los Banos house simply is. You must pay attention to it and its simple, elegant geometry. With two wings jutting out like wings, it welcomes you. It embraces you. A tall man like Henry almost wants to duck in the 6-foot-8-inch entryway. But when you enter the fireplace room, the ceilings seem as high as the sky.

Wright never liked to admit to any "influences." But to anybody who's spent a spell in Japan, it's clear that the island nation's culture of less-is-more pervades this Los Banos home. The Japanese garden to the left of the swimming pool strums the most obvious Zen chord. Koi, from hand-size to forearm-size, loll around a gurgling waterfall. Sierra granite rocks repeat the silent order of Buddhist gardens and Shinto shrines. Cooing doves offer a lilt to the wind blowing from the foothills. Wild birdsong mixes with the scent of eucalyptus.

Ol' Buck, in his last years, used to sit in one of two wooden gray chairs outside, probably holding hands with Harriet, as he listened, watched, smelled, thought, breathed and felt. Not bad for a boy from Los Banos.

Henry met the Fawcetts in the 1980s, eight years before he met their daughter. Lynn, now a sculptor, "experienced the dream, the construction and living here," Henry recounts.

Wright was world famous -- he died at 92 in 1959 -- when the Fawcetts commissioned the house. When they first met Wright, they took photographs of where they wanted their house.

"Not much beauty there," Wright said in his usual blunt style. He didn't know blunt till he met Buck.

"Actually, Mr. Wright, the Central Valley of California contains the most fertile agricultural land in the world, and you should consider it an honor to build a house there!" according to a monograph written by Henry.

The Fawcetts were 30, Wright, 87, when they came to him.

"Can you imagine having the nerve to do that?" Henry marvels today. And unlike some accounts that portray Wright as imperious, resistant to changes or suggestions from his clients, Henry says America's best-known architect listened and complied with their wishes.

"Organic architecture" is how Henry describes what Wright wrought -- "the idea that it grows out of a central idea. As it grows, it manifests itself freer and further."

Take the wind. Mercedians know how hard the wind blows from the east. Wright designed the Fawcetts' house so that its contours sweep the wind up, and beyond, the house, depositing it past the backyard garden and swimming pool.

"Wright's architecture," says Henry, the landscape architect, "was the most interesting because of how it blended with nature. You couldn't tell where the building ended and the garden began."

Mercedians would also recognize the paradox in how Wright molded the Fawcetts' house with Valley wind and fields and how the inside hews, as anybody who has ever edged a lawn or striped a soccer field would understand, to an amazing geometry.

No right angles inhabit the house. Horizontal lines on the mahogany floor, walls and corridors mirror the planes you see from the house, across the fields, along the horizon. "The line of the earth," Henry calls it.

The house is built according to equilateral triangles. An athlete like Buck would know and appreciate such angles. Undoubtedly, that knowledge helped him once tackle USC's Jackie Robinson in the open field.

Every wall is parallel to one of the grid lines on the floor. Buckminster Fuller did the same with geodesic domes, but Wright brought it to homeowners. The lines blur the distinction between indoors and outdoors. Copper fascia -- flat horizontal bands -- run outside in, as do the lines of the floor.

You walk along corridors where two people can barely fit side by side. Doors open to five bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths. Fifteen glass panels open to the garden so the house can catch every breeze.

"This is the only Wright house where you have all these openings," Henry says. "This house demonstrates the democratic ideal -- that's the way Buck wanted it."

Bob Beharka of Los Banos built all the wood elements for the Fawcett house, as well as many houses and buildings in Los Banos itself. Ed Holton built the fascia by hand in his Gustine shop. Jim Kamimoto of Fresno applied his landscape gardening craft to the land around the house.

Buck used to take Lynn out into the fields, the Coast Range misty ahead of them. "You can hear the corn growing," he'd whisper. "He had this tie to nature, being a farmer," Henry explains.

Who will buy this house?

Lynn and her sisters hope for "somebody who appreciates the architecture and will take care of it," Henry says. "They want the person to buy this house to respect it." Henry, a soft-spoken man who has written three books on architecture, now lives with Lynn in a house Wright designed in Idaho.

In the 2007 novel "Loving Frank," a fictional Wright says: "I couldn't think of anything more noble than making a beautiful home. Still can't."

Henry's voice is church-reverent as he tells visitors: "You come in the front door and you feel the personal, palpable quality of coming into shelter."

Coming home.

Right outside Los Banos.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427/2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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