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Auldbrass Wasn't Rebuilt In a Day

The living room of the main house establishes the motifs that run through Auldbrass: red cypress planks, canted walls and hexagons.
Alan Weintraub/Arcaid
The living room of the main house establishes the motifs that run through Auldbrass: red cypress planks, canted walls and hexagons.


Published: November 30, 2003

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Inside Auldbrass
Slide Show: Inside Auldbrass



Wright, Frank Lloyd


Silver, Joel

South Carolina

When Joel Silver talks about Auldbrass, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Yemassee, S.C., which he bought in 1986 and has been restoring for the last 15 years, filmmaking metaphors are often close at hand. Silver, Hollywood's top-grossing producer, likens the work on Auldbrass to one of his big-budget action pictures (''Lethal Weapon,'' ''Die Hard,'' ''The Matrix'' and their many offspring). Like a movie, a restoration begins with an idea set to paper, and after ''a process fraught with negotiation, problems, compromise and tremendous budget and cost issues, becomes something that lasts forever.''

Another Silver movie metaphor -- the one that best reflects the process -- casts Auldbrass as ''its own sequel,'' in which each major accomplishment completes another installment in the saga. The vision that Wright committed to paper in 1939 is foremost in Silver's mind as he builds, but at the same time, he is willing to adapt Wright's design to suit the comfort of his 21st century family. Wright wrote that architecture proceeds ''according to the nature of man and his circumstances as they both change.'' In his meticulous restoration of Auldbrass, Silver felt free to imagine what Wright would do with today's materials and technology.

Silver tends to deny the creative force he brings to that process -- ''It's like painting with a checkbook,'' he says. (In 1994, The New Yorker reported that Silver had already spent $10 million on the place; Silver won't talk hard figures today but offers this movie-budget calculation: ''Take a 'Gothika' '' -- which had a reported $40 million budget -- ''then subtract a 'Ghost Ship' and a couple episodes of 'Tales From the Crypt,' and you're close.'') But talk with Silver about, say, his decision to conceal the vents of a modern heating-and-air-conditioning system behind screens that Wright originally designed for speakers, or about the time he scavenged for the rare Tidewater red cypress needed to replace some rotted wood vertical support beams from an old wine vat, and it becomes clear just how much Auldbrass's reconstruction is a feat of creativity and invention.

Silver's connection with Auldbrass began in October 1986, when he learned from a fellow Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast that the property was for sale and needed to be rescued.

Though he had never set foot in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a coastal plain where rice and indigo were once cultivated, Silver was intrigued by Auldbrass's singularity. Of Wright's thousand-odd commissions in the United States, Auldbrass is his only one in the region, and his only Southern plantation. Wright had just completed Fallingwater, the critically acclaimed house perched over a waterfall in Mill Run, Pa., when C. Leigh Stevens, a wealthy Michigan industrial consultant, commissioned a Lowcountry retreat and gentleman's farm in a swampy, 4,000-acre tract on the banks of the Combahee River, 20 miles upstream from the Atlantic. Wright conceived Auldbrass as a collection of one-story, slender buildings of polished cypress. His design called for a main house, a guest house and cabins, a caretaker's residence, staff cabins, a barn, stables, kennels for dogs, a ''dining barge'' floating in a pond on the property and an aviary, all unified by material and design: cypress walls canted inward at an 81-degree angle, copper roofs, doors with ornamental panes and hexagonal tables.

Silver arrived at Auldbrass to find Wright's vision much beaten and bruised. Both Wright and Stevens died before the design could be fully realized; only half the buildings were finished. The barn and stables burned down in 1952. Stevens's daughter inherited Auldbrass upon his death in 1962, and she lived in and maintained the property for 20 years. But when its upkeep proved unmanageable, she sold the place, and it fell into the hands of a group of hunters who used Auldbrass as a lodge. It became derelict, its cypress walls buckled and turned the ashen gray of weather-battered wood. ''By the time I first visited Auldbrass,'' Silver says, ''It was a month away from the bulldozer.''

Silver was undeterred. At the time, he had just completed a challenging restoration of Wright's 1924 Storer residence, a house in Los Angeles made of decorative concrete blocks that Wright invented and that Silver had to get manufactured from custom molds.

''I knew Auldbrass would be a huge project, and I always like huge projects,'' Silver says. ''I walked around the place that day, and I thought there was a chance here to really do something special and fantastic. I said to myself, This could be monumental.''

In fact, the monumentality of Wright's plantation (as all large properties are referred to in the area, whether or not crops are planted) lies in its understatement. Dwarfed by old oaks, obscured by the stables and with a barely discernible front door, Wright's dark, asymmetrical main house at Auldbrass is a rebuke of the prevailing Southern-plantation ideal -- the becolumned brick pile (the most famous in South Carolina being the 1742 Drayton Hall) that rises emphatically out of the grass as the most potent expression of control and order a colonial planter could muster. Commissioned the same year that ''Gone With the Wind'' had its premiere, modernist Auldbrass must have seemed as alien to its neighbors in the early 1940's as Joel Silver does today. Among the subsistence farmers and genteel country squires of the Lowcountry, the 51-year-old Silver is the portly Hollywood tycoon in a Hawaiian-print shirt stepping out of the dense underbrush in search of his son, Max, or piloting his vintage 1913 fantail launch down the Combahee, a portrait of his wife, Karyn, emblazoned on a pennant flying at the bow.

Auldbrass is no Tara, and you know it immediately from the quiet country road, a former king's highway in the earliest days of English settlement, that passes the entrance. Wright's vision opens in the form of a stark fence of dark, chestnut-colored cypress boards marching at a suave rake. At properties just down the road from Auldbrass, ancient oaks march in neat pairs up to the front door; at Auldbrass, you enter the gate to find the oaks running roughshod over the place, dropping acorns in every corner of the property and obscuring sightlines. The driveway, a bright red lane paved in crushed brick bordered in red concrete, takes off at an oblique angle from the fence toward a cluster of buildings moored in a grove of oaks. It is impossible to distinguish main house from caretaker's house from farm building, and the vocabulary of Wright's late period is all there: mitred corners; pagodalike spires; attenuated, jagged proportions; and hexagonal motifs -- it is no exaggeration to say that there is scarcely a right angle in the place.

What excites Silver most about Auldbrass are the features of the house that speak uniquely to this setting. Copper downspouts hang from the corners of the main house, like the Spanish moss draping over the branches of live oaks. The gentle angle of the slanted boards and canted walls seems to mimic the gentle slope of the oaks' trunks. The cypress was an obvious choice for Wright, since the bedrooms of the main house look north over a few acres of cypress trees rising from an old rice pond. The wood is as rich and honeyed as an old schooner and its many-faceted surfaces absorb close to 150 gallons of deck oil each year.

The name Auldbrass is Wright's modification of ''Old Brass,'' the name (which is thought to refer to slaves beyond working age and of mixed African and Native American descent) given to the property in the mid-19th century. Wright's logo for Auldbrass, a stylized arrow, was his nod to the iconography of the Yemassee Indians, who inhabited this area before the arrival of the British. The same arrow motif is cut from panels just under the eaves of the main house. After dusk, when light from inside the house illuminates the arrow design on these panels, the building has the look of a paper lantern.

''Over the years, I've seen so many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings,'' Silver says, rattling off the pilgrimages he has taken, to Chicago, California, Arizona, Japan. ''Auldbrass looks like no other Wright house because he never built anything in an environment like this. There's nothing like the Lowcountry anywhere.''

Silver grew up in Maplewood, N.J., in the 1960's, and his first experience of Wright's work was a childhood visit to the Guggenheim Museum, where he imagined he was in a spaceship and thought it was the coolest building he'd laid eyes on. Some years later, when Silver was a teenager, neighbors in Maplewood hired Taliesin Associated Architects -- the firm that continued Wright's work after he died in 1959 -- to build a house. Silver recalled watching that house rise from the ground. ''I remember thinking, Why is this different from anything I've ever seen?'' Silver says. ''I was moved by his design and his aesthetic.''

By the early 80's, Silver had moved to Los Angeles and produced ''48 Hours,'' the cop hit starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. With the windfall the film brought him, Silver bought the Storer house in Hollywood and hired Eric Lloyd Wright, Wright's grandson, to help restore it. Two years later, Silver took that first trip to Yemassee.

For Auldbrass, Silver again hired Eric Lloyd Wright, and they amassed an archive of the nearly 500 documents and drawings related to its construction. Auldbrass was beset with problems from the start. World War II made both cypress and copper scarce, causing delays and compromises in Wright's original plan. By 1942, the staff cabins, barns and stables were erected, but according to the Wright scholar David G. De Long, whose book ''Auldbrass: Frank Lloyd Wright's Southern Plantation'' will be published in December, Wright and Stevens frequently disagreed over details in the design, and fluctuations in Stevens's fortune caused work to be suspended for long stretches of time. Complicating matters further, Stevens's third wife, Nina, redecorated the interiors in her own personal style and even made structural alterations to the main house that caused Wright to send a cable to Stevens that read simply: ''All hope lost.''

Silver and Eric Lloyd Wright decided that Wright's original plans would be both Rosetta stone and road map, and they began in 1988 by restoring the buildings that existed on the property, starting with the main house. Cypress that had deteriorated had to be patched; unsalvageable wood was replaced entirely. Nina Stevens's modifications to Wright's design were removed, and cracked concrete floors were made level. Wright elements that had never been built, like a window that zigzagged the length of the main dining room, were finally realized. Restoration of the main house alone required two years of constant work. ''We had some rough spots along the way,'' Silver says. ''It took 10 years to put Auldbrass in a place where I thought it was secure.''

The next phase of the restoration was to rebuild the barn and stables that were leveled by fire, and the third phase (still going on) is to build the elements Wright designed but never executed: a swimming pool, the guest house and cabins and the dining barge. Silver also is creating new features, like a small marina overlooking a canal. These were not part of the original plan, but Eric Lloyd Wright is designing them in a manner consistent with the look and feel of the rest of the plantation. Silver is aware that he's playing loose with the strictures of a museum-quality restoration, and he is careful to keep such projects at a safe distance, out of sight from the original complex.

''It's not a formaldehyde restoration, because Wright was always looking for the cutting edge,'' Silver says. He cites Wright's use in Auldbrass of Lumiline, a tube-shaped incandescent bulb, and plug molding -- a precursor to track lighting -- as evidence. In Silver's Auldbrass, there are plasma-screen TV's in the bedrooms of the main house. The gas fires in the fireplaces are lighted by infrared remote control. ''I try to make the place work for me, my wife, my baby and my friends,'' Silver says. ''It's comfortable, but it's still pure from a Wrightian point of view.'' A purity that allows for Silver's particular eccentricities, like the zebras, the pygmy hippo and the herd of longhorn cattle that roam in the pastures alongside the driveway.

But if certain elements and methods may seem contemporary, even fanciful, Silver seeks a rigorous authenticity in the materials. The bricks used to build new structures on the plantation are extralong, to Wright's specifications, and shipped to Auldbrass by the containerload from a kiln in Cheraw, S.C., that makes them to order. In his quest for the perfect, most authentic shade of Taliesin red, a brick red that Wright favored for his fleet of cars (paint was otherwise anathema for Wright), Silver purchased two Lincoln Continentals from the 40's that Wright had owned and modified. What Silver believes to be the original tint was found behind one of the car's door panels. After four visits to the paint supplier in Beaufort, they reproduced the hue perfectly, and now, all the golf carts and farm trucks on the property have a shiny coat of Taliesin red, with the Auldbrass arrow in contrasting black on their doors.

In the process of restoring Auldbrass, Silver and his staff, led by the plantation manager, Scott McNair, have by necessity become their own contractors, craftsmen and manufacturers of building materials. Being deep in the South Carolina countryside has its disadvantages (aside from spotty cellular service and lack of D.S.L.). The hexagonal concrete floor panels were beyond the scope of local concrete companies, so McNair welded an aluminum template that could be used to imprint the original floor pattern for the house. Repairmen were rarely available for emergency fixes to the geothermal HVAC system, so Silver enrolled McNair, a 41-year-old marine biologist by training, in heating and air-conditioning school, and McNair now boasts to visitors of his four diplomas in the field.

All that remains to be built of Wright's original design for Auldbrass are three guest cabins, whose foundations have already been laid; the two-story guest house -- the largest house in the plan -- scheduled to rise in 2004 along the same axis as the main house; and the ''dining barge'' to float in the cypress pond in front of the house.

And after that?

Silver seems unwilling for the sequel to end. ''I'll be building stuff here till they bury me,'' he says.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee write frequently about food for The New York Times and are contributing editors at Travel & Leisure.

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.CURRENTS: ARCHITECTURE; Frank Lloyd Wright's Quirky Oklahoma Tower Turns Into a Quirky Hotel  (December 19, 2002) 
.CURRENTS: ARCHITECTURE; A Little Bit of Taliesin, Closer to Lake Tahoe  (September 12, 2002)  $
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