Frank Lloyd Wright called it “a house well done.”
Normally, America’s famous modern architect didn’t admire buildings other than his own. But this house was designed by Massachusetts native Peter Berndtson, who studied and apprenticed with Wright beginning in 1938, working on notable projects including the Guggenheim Museum. And it is now for sale in Stanton Heights, a steal at $115,000.
In Wright’s studio, Berndtson took a fancy to another young designer, Pittsburgher Cornelia Brierly, and the two married and moved to Western Pennsylvania to work on a series of small, mostly residential projects. Most often, Peter designed the architecture, and Cornelia did landscape and interiors, though sometimes they collaborated more freely. (The remarkable Notz Residence, a hexagonal house for Cornelia’s aunts in West Mifflin, is Cornelia’s architectural design.)
You could easily miss the Fineman Residence. Its corner site is a block off Stanton Avenue in the oddly labyrinthine Stanton Heights. Though its flat roof is more stridently modern than its neighbors (except perhaps for Berndtson’s Garfield house a couple blocks away), it is inconspicuous at one story and barely 1,200 square feet. It’s Berndtson’s smallest house.
While some houses nearby lean toward mid-century Modernism, none are quite this compact or rigorous.
Mrs. Fineman, an art teacher at Peabody High, was widowed shortly after the house’s completion, and described herself as a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright. While Wright had a waiting list of clients for sprawling houses (as well as institutional clients) in the 1950s, Berndtson and Brierly were close by and available for more modest, though similarly rigorous and innovative structures.
Even without Wright himself designing, the house is a true Usonian, the type of economical modern house that he had developed beginning in 1936 with the hope of revolutionizing American residential architecture. It rests on a concrete slab with radiant heat. It has high brick walls toward the street and more ample glass facing its yard. A cantilevered fireplace dominates the living room, separating it from the compact kitchen that leads to two small bedrooms and a bath down a narrow corridor. Clerestory windows give a nuanced and modern sense of space and light.
At its completion, the house also emulated Wright’s original Usonians in its budget overruns. It was supposed to be a $12,000 house in an area of $8,000 neighbors, but it came in at $18,500, especially expensive for the neighborhood at that time.
These days, it’s listed at $115,000, which can seem like a particular steal compared to new construction in hipper neighborhoods than Stanton Heights. Listing agent Aida Agovic-Corna of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services said of the price, “We did some calculations of comparables, adding to the asking price for some issues, taking off for some others.” With one nearby Berndtson house coming in at twice the size, “there’s nothing else like it.”
At this moment, the whole place is empty and a bit dark, and the kitchen looks untouched since day one. Yet there has been a stream of potential buyers as well as curious observers since the house was listed. Patrick Cameron, a young software engineer and potential buyer, described himself as a “big fan of mid-century modern,” who was just learning about Berndtson and Brierly through the house.
Architect Gerard Damiani, principal of Studio d’Arc, who designs modernist houses and uses Berndtson and Brierly’s works as teaching tools in architecture studios at Carnegie Mellon, says, “Let’s hope it gets into the sensitive hands of someone who understands [it],” not someone who wants to alter it. Though it would be a slam dunk for historic nomination, it has no official status at the moment.”
Also at CMU, Architecture Librarian and Archivist Martin Aurand says that just last week he had a visitor from Vienna to look at Berndtson drawings and to tour associated buildings. Aurand doesn’t know if she stopped to see the Fineman House, but we know that Frank Lloyd Wright once did.