In 2000, Manchester’s Steve Freeman sent 14 letters to 14 private owners of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes in the Milwaukee area. He wanted invitations to visit their homes. In exchange, he would cook them a meal.
He finally got an invite, nearly two decades later.
Mark Hertzberg, a Racine, Wis., photojournalist and Frank Lloyd Wright expert, came across one of Freeman’s letters while researching a book on all the letters sent to one owner of a Wright home.
“All Frank Lloyd Wright homes get inundated with letters, peepers and people knocking on the door,” said Freeman, a native of Manchester’s West Side. Hertzberg told him, “Yours is by far the most interesting letter because you offered something. Everyone else just wants to get in the house.”
In September, with Hertzberg’s help, Freeman’s dream came true as he traveled from his home in Manchester to Racine where he stayed in three Wright homes and lovingly prepared meals for their owners.
“I was walking into a Wright house like I owned it. I could touch the door handle, wear my slippers and pajamas, sit on the furniture, open the windows, lie in bed and watch the art glass windows dazzle about the walls and ceilings, and I was welcomed from the kindest soul of all, Tom (Szymczak), patient, gentle, kind, wonderful steward to welcome me in,” Freeman writes in an account of his experience. “Tom was insistent that I live in the house, use anything needed, touch, smell, read the books, open the windows, cook up a storm!”
Designer and foodie
Freeman, 49, was not always a Wright fan. In his youth both of Manchester’s Wright homes, both located in the North End, were privately owned and their beauty is hard to understand from the outside.
“I found both of his houses in Manchester very odd but intriguing,” he said.
While in college, Freeman began to appreciate how Wright maximized the sun’s location and natural features of the land. And during his trip he learned that Wright scholars consider Manchester’s Zimmerman House, now owned by the Currier Museum of Art, among Wright’s best work.
“The Zimmerman House is one of his masterpieces, hands down,” he said.
Freeman has worked in architecture and construction his whole life. He’s also a foodie who has worked in restaurants and done catering work. You may remember him as part of the team that spent years of blood, sweat and tears trying to bring the Manchester area its first food co-op.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be an architect and chef so I could feed my family and house them,” he said.
The Manchester High School West graduate earned his associate’s degree from New Hampshire Technical Institute and then attended Boston Architecture Center, where he realized that designing and building was more important to him than the actual architect license.
You’ve seen his work at Elm Street’s Campo restaurant and the Dunlap building above it. Today, he helps create a better patient experience as design manager at Catholic Medical Center.
Working with what he had
Freeman had no idea what kind of kitchens or cooking tools he would be able to work with on his Wright trip.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was not a great kitchen designer at all. He called them ‘work rooms,’” he said.
But he was prepared to work with what he had, and came armed with a knife, a cutting board, salt and pepper mills and grill tongs.
“That’s my bare minimum,” he said.
Two of the kitchens he visited were very compact. “Like working on a sailboat.” One was larger and had an island. After surveying the kitchen, he and the owners planned a menu before hitting up farmers markets and local food stores for ingredients. He was excited to find New Hampshire products in his travels, including Stonyfield Farm yogurt, which he used to prepare desserts.
Freeman knows he will always be connected to the families he stayed with in Wisconsin.
“I had gone out there very selfishly to see houses,” he said. “But it turned into developing friendships, very sentimental emotional times ... which totally caught me by surprise.”
For two families, it was the first gatherings in the homes since losing loved ones. And in all the homes he felt “a great sense of belonging, ownership and joy.”
All the homeowners have invited Freeman to return with his “better half,” Carolyn Montgomery, and their 19-month-old daughter Lillian.
His experience was so life-changing he hopes to do this in other Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and maybe film a television pilot for a lifestyle show. His passion will no doubt captivate audiences.
He writes: “Staying in a Wright home stops time, creates moments, fulfills dreams, creates the greatest joys, teaches, inspires, cultivates, erases all doubts of what man can achieve. I could stay a week at any of these Wright homes and never leave and never want for more of find boredom, ever. Everywhere you look is a design that is entirely intentional, masterful, brilliant, skillful, crafted with precision and purpose.”
You can see more photos and read about Freeman’s experience on Hertzberg’s blog at wrightinracine.wordpress.com.