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Frank Lloyd Wright Home “Laurel” in Brandywine Hundred

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Frank Lloyd Wright left a global imprint on architecture, from sprawling, earthy houses inspired by the American prairie to the majestic Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a masterful marriage of Mayan and Art Deco influences. But he designed only one structure in Delaware, a sublime and simple family home in Brandywine Hundred built for a DuPont engineer.

The three-bedroom, two-bath house was christened Laurel, for its tranquil woodland setting. Owned by the same family for more than 50 years, Laurel is unchanged since 1959, when Dudley Spencer and his wife, Dorothy, moved in.

“My parents were ordinary, hardworking people who never stopped appreciating that they lived in a house designed by the most famous architect in America,” says Patricia Ferraro, the couple’s only child.

Wright was 88 when Spencer commissioned him to design a modernist home that would be in harmony with a sloping, heavily treed lot on the banks of Shellpot Creek. The architect died in 1959 at 91, the year the Spencers moved into the house.

Spencer served as his own general contractor and built his home over several years, combining indigenous fieldstone from the nearby quarry in Avondale, Pa., and stone from Cumberland Ridge in Tennessee. He recruited masons from Wilmington’s Little Italy to do the work, digging the foundation by hand. Wright designed the house as an ellipse with rectangular wings. He embraced the sloping site by creating a series of open-air terraces and Asian-inspired pathways of pebbles. Strategically placed benches offer a perch for meditation or an al fresco cocktail.  

A Living Sculpture

In the years following World War II, America was changing quickly. Wright’s aesthetic reflects that. Fewer homeowners had servants, and the architect envisioned open, less formal spaces. Organic materials would connect people with the land. The result is a living sculpture, a masterpiece of scale and proportion. Small, clerestory windows on the street side are balanced with floor-to-ceiling casement windows on the back exterior. A massive fireplace of stacked fieldstone is the central core of the gathering space.

Laurel’s combined living and dining area is divided from a small utilitarian kitchen by a built-in buffet and a screen made up of 12 mahogany rectangles.

The house is heated with pipes embedded in a concrete slab, a material that also keeps the home cool in summer. Ferraro remembers lying on the floor on hot afternoons.

“My mother was in the kitchen, making lemonade for me and my best friend,” she says. “Being there, on that cool concrete, was the most wonderful place on Earth.”

Wright’s vision encompassed the furniture, carpets, windows, doors, light fixtures and decorative elements, from the floating bookcases on the living room wall to the saucer-shaped copper pendant suspended from a beam above the kitchen table.  

To make the furniture, Spencer hired Robert Baker, who built models at DuPont’s craft shop. Baker built the streamlined dining table and six low, open-backed chairs in his basement workshop. 

The wood throughout is Honduras mahogany, a sleek and durable, reddish-brown species favored in shipbuilding. The furniture is trim, with clean lines reminiscent of a yacht. The only embellishments are dentil molding accents. Chests of drawers are built into bedroom walls. Doors—if one chooses to close them—unfold like an accordion. In the living areas, sofas hug the walls and open up to provide storage underneath. The Spencers replaced the worn patterned fabric Wright specified with deep red upholstery with an orange-and-gold leaf motif. 

In the 1970s, an open-air wing of the house was enclosed and repurposed as a family room. It is furnished with freestanding sofas, but contains the natural stone, wood and visual connection with the outdoors that are hallmarks of Wright’s designs. The kitchen fridge was replaced with a Sub-Zero, covered with custom-made mahogany panels with the same dentil detailing found throughout the house.

Other than that, the Spencers left the house alone. The pink sink and toilet in a hall bath are the originals. The Thermador wall oven, Formica countertops and snug banquette and table in the kitchen are still in service. 

Spencer died in the house he loved on Halloween in 2012, surrounded by family. He was 92. Ferraro retained the home’s original blueprints, her father’s letters from the architect and his secretary, Eugene Masselink, and documents from the National Register of Historic Places.

In April, the house and its surrounding six acres came on the market for the first time. The listing price: $1.35 million, which includes the house, its furnishings and surrounding 6.7 acres. Laird Bunch and George Hobbs, owners of Brandywine Fine Properties Sotheby’s International Realty, say the home’s pristine condition and original features add to its value. They expect the new owner will embrace the Spencers’ legacy and preserve the home as it is.

“If you have the Mona Lisa,” says Hobbs, “why would you ever change the smile?”   

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