By Joseph Dalton
In the cityscape of Albany, many great American architects are represented, yet perhaps the greatest of them all – Frank Lloyd Wright – is sadly missing.
Wright did, however, design a home for a prominent Albany family. The year was 1913 and the client was industrialist Jerome Mendleson, owner of the B.T. Babbitt Co., which manufactured a variety of household cleaners, including those marketed under the popular brand name Bab-O.
The home was planned for 8 Thurlow Terrace, one of the short streets that jut into the northern side of Washington Park just across Western Avenue from the University at Albany downtown campus. The drawings show an L-shaped structure with a large central music room opening onto terraces facing the front and back of the property. Above the library, dining room and kitchen, which extended toward the back, are five bedrooms and three baths. A three-car garage and servants’ quarters were to be located at the rear of the lot with an “arbored walk” connecting them to the main home. The exterior of brick and stucco was in the Prairie style, characteristic of Wright’s early years, with low-pitched roofs and extended eaves.
The unrealized commission came at a transitional time for Wright. It was toward the end of his Prairie-style period, although residential work would continue unabated throughout his long career. Wright was also on the verge of his largest projects. The following year saw the completion of the Midway Gardens, a grand public recreation area in Chicago, and in 1916 came the celebrated Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
Alas for Albany, Wright’s potential client went in a different direction. Mendleson instead hired Lewis Colt Albro, formerly of McKim, Mead and White in New York, who delivered a much more traditional three-story brick structure, with a slate roof and dormer windows, that still stands.
According to the 1993 guidebook “Albany Architecture,” the house served as the residence for Catholic bishops for about 30 years until 1957, when it became the official home of the president of the University at Albany. Today it is used as offices by the law firm Deily, Mooney & Glastetter, whose principal partner Jonathan D. Deily purchased it in 1996.
“Wright was well ahead of his time and his architecture was what might be called modern,” says Ira Mendleson, a local attorney and descendent of Jerome Mendleson. “But we could have had a Wright. That’s part of the family lore.”
“The story was that Jerome’s wife didn’t like the house,” recalls Ben Mendel, another local family member.
If the judgment of history proves to be a bit harsh on the Mendlesons’ architectural tastes, the family legacy in design is nevertheless strong.
Ben Mendel is himself a retired architect who specialized in institutional buildings and historic preservation and contributed to the restoration of Blair House in Washington, D.C. And Jerome’s niece Elizabeth was married to the architect Henry L. Blatner. According to John Mesick’s essay in the book “Architects in Albany,” Blatner, who died in 1978, was “the most prominent practitioner of contemporary architectural design in Albany during the middle decades of the 20th century.” Among Batner’s many projects are the Albany Academy for Girls, the Jewish Community Center on Whitehall Road and the South Mall Tower Apartments. Blatner’s daughter, Mary Valentis, a professor at the University at Albany, is at work on a family memoir.
Though the three-quarter-acre parcel at 8 Thurlow Terrace is otherwise taken, some ambitious and deep-pocketed local architecture buff could still realize Wright’s home for Albany from the existing plans. It wouldn’t be the first time that a Wright design has been built in the post-Wright era. At the online discussion group known as “Save Wright” there’s a list of two dozen such projects completed since the 1970s, in locations as far-flung as Dublin, Maui and Buffalo.
Whether Wright left behind sufficient plans might be another question. Sadly, no correspondence between architect and client remain, probably due to the notorious fires that plagued Wright’s Taliesin headquarters during his lifetime. But the Wright archives do contain 17 drawings related to the Mendleson house. The most fully realized are a plan for the ground level and a rendering of the front facade. These have been published a few times, most recently in the first volume of “Frank Lloyd Wright: Complete Works,” released by Taschen in 2011.
The Wright archives, by the way, are on the move to New York. This past fall, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., reached an agreement for the long-term care of his drawings and models with the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University. The models will be transferred to the museum and the drawings and other papers to the university, where they should be available to researchers by the end of the year. Press reports at the time of the announcement stated that the collection includes more than 23,000 drawings and 300,000 pieces of professional and personal correspondence.
In the vast legacy of Wright, Albany remains a small part. But in the continuing evolution of Albany, perhaps something Wright might still happen.
Originally published 2/17/13 in the Times Union, Albany NY.
Note: Wright’s drawings use the spelling Mendelson,
though the family spelling is Mendleson.