OWEN RILEY JR./Staff
The only local structure with statewide architectural significance, according to the National Register of Historic Places, is modest (1,727 square feet) Broad Margin, built in 1954 on West Avondale Avenue.
The Register requires structures to be at least 50 years old before they qualify for listing, but it bent the rules for Broad Margin. The reason, of course, is that it is one of only two homes in South Carolina (the other is Auld Brass in Beaufort County) designed by America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It is also one of only 19 Wright houses that the architect "signed" with his initials, inscribed on a small red plaque at its entrance.
Henry David Thoreau wanted a "broad margin" to his life. Wright remembered those words when he named the Greenville masterpiece he designed for librarians Charlcy and Gabrielle Austin. For several years the unmarried sisters had persistently requested ("pestered," they admitted) the aging architect (he was 85 when it was completed) design them a house. They even sent him a picture of the lot they had purchased on wooded land in the North Main Street neighborhood.
"I do not design houses on lots," the architect replied. "I design houses on acreage." (He was known for his arrogance as well as his genius.)
So they saved some more money and purchased two steeply sloping acres on West Avondale overlooking a branch of Richland Creek.
He finally agreed.
Greenville attorney John Dillard, who represented the sisters, said Wright flew into Greenville for brief visits, where he met with Dutch Walker, who was, according to Dillard, the "real" (we would say supervising) architect of the project, a partner in the Cunningham and Walker firm.
Wright would produce freehand sketches of the house, leaving the details to Walker. Harold Newton, one of the best residential builders in Greenville, constructed the house from Walker's documents.
For the Austin sisters, Wright designed a three-bedroom house nestled into the steep hillside, and he also designed all its furnishings.
He called its style "Usonian" (United States of North America), a term he invented in the 1930s to describe a distinctly American and democratic architecture that middle-class people could afford. His point was to control costs by doing away with attics and cellars and most ornaments, and create airy one-story homes that flowed from room to room.
Broad Margin, for example, has a foundation made of concrete and local stone, split open to reveal veins of mica. Sited below street-level, its now moss-covered roof has an 8-foot overhang that helps frame the view of creek and trees through sweeping windows across the front of the house.
The kitchen flows into the dining and living area, which is centered on a large sunken fireplace. Narrow and somewhat cramped bedrooms are located in a street-side wing; they resemble those aboard a not-very-luxurious ship. The interior is sheathed in honey-colored tidewater cypress.
Wright designed furniture, both built-in and freestanding, specifically for the house. Among the built-in furnishings are an 18-foot sofa in the living room, vanity tables in the bedrooms, an 84-inch long desk, and three trash bins. (He left nothing to chance.) Freestanding furniture pieces included a dining table, two taborets -- stools with drawers -- and six hassocks. He even designed the brass pulls and hinges for a music credenza and the fabric for the hassocks.
When it was completed in 1954, publicity created a 90-day wonder. West Avondale was overwhelmed with curious visitors; some even walked out on the roof to explore. The attention was so overwhelming that the sisters moved out for three months.
In 1975, though, when it was put up for sale, Broad Margin was listed in the Greenville real-estate pages with little fanfare. Roy Palmer, a young architect, and his wife Caryl Clover bought the house, furnishings and all, for $68,000.
Living in a masterpiece, however, was not easy. Particularly with children.
They began living on Paris Mountain, opening the house at 9 W. Avondale for occasional tours and for study seminars for Clemson architectural students. When they divorced in 1992, the house was once more listed for sale.
Times had changed. The asking price was $695,00; the appraised value, $126,278. Masterpieces demand a surcharge, but here were few potential buyers. Clemson University was interested, but the asking price was out of reach. To try out the market, Palmer sold two pieces of its Wright-designed furniture through Sotheby's; the dining table brought $30,000; one of the taborets, $27,500. (That's a lot for a stool.)
Still the house didn't sell. Eventually Palmer turned to an auctioneer who advertised it internationally. In 1999, Rick Bristol (as in Bristol-Myers), a philanthropist who lives on Hilton Head Island, purchased it because it was, he said, like "a Picasso," a work of art, and . . . "a piece of Americana."
Today Broad Margin is almost hidden, shielded by evergreens edging the North Main Street Bridge, fenced off and nearly invisible from West Avondale. Visitors, especially architects, from throughout the country make special trips to Greenville to see it, and Bristol has generously allowed access by appointment.