It started out as just another investment for real estate developer Kirt Woodhouse. Now it's a passionate cause: to preserve and promote a rare example of the work of Frank Gehry, one of the world's most famous living architects.
To that end, Woodhouse has donated the Gehry-designed Winton guesthouse in suburban Wayzata, Minn., overlooking Lake Minnetonka outside Minneapolis, to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He is preparing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to disassemble the small house into eight pieces and move them 60 miles south to a campus conference center in Owatonna this spring. By fall, the house will be reassembled and in use as a conference center and open for tours to the growing legions of Gehry architecture pilgrims.
"Some people say the house should never be moved, it was designed for the site, and it should stay there, but what's important is getting it into the public domain, because if it stays where it is, it will never be seen by anyone," Woodhouse says.
And it is something to behold, a preview of the styles and techniques that Gehry, 79, would employ later in rearranging spaces in unprecedented ways. The 2,300-square-foot house, completed in 1987, was named House of the Year in Time's Best of Design 1987, won Home & Garden's 1987 architectural design award and was featured in Sydney Pollack's 2005 documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry.
"I still think it's great, I'm very proud of it," says Gehry, who had yet to become the Frank Gehry when he designed the house. "I've not done a lot of houses. It's very time-consuming, difficult, getting into other people's lives. I love doing them because they're like a laboratory for developing space, but I haven't been able to for a while." When Woodhouse bought the Winton guesthouse (appraised at $4.5 million) six years ago, he wasn't fully aware of the significance of what he had acquired. Then he took an art history class at the University of Minnesota and became a convert to the Gehry cult.
"He is the most staggeringly talented architect since Frank Lloyd Wright," Woodhouse says, quoting a widely held view among architecture critics.
Wright homes are not rare and have long been collected by aficionados. Gehry, however, is best known for his grand cathedrals of culture and learning, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. His most famous house is his own, in Santa Monica, Calif.
But all Gehry buildings share a sensibility of architecture as sculpture — as art.
"It is highly unusual to own a house as a piece of art," Woodhouse says. "This house is both residence and sculpture."
It was commissioned by Mike and Penny Winton to complement their main house, designed by another world-famous architect, the late Philip Johnson, and built for the estate's previous owners in 1952.
The house is a cluster of six segments in rectangular, wedge and cone shapes, each containing a different room and all connected to the centrally located living room. Details include a winding staircase leading to a sleeping loft and windows of various widths and heights. It has been described as outdoor sculpture you can live in.
Says Woodhouse: "My intent with this donation is to inspire a greater appreciation and understanding of modern art and how it comes in many forms, including a house."