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The Southern Accent of Frank Lloyd Wright

Welcome to an American icon's passionate tribute to the Lowcountry's rugged beauty and singular landscape, an estate that continues to evolve and draw on the architect's past inspiration and posthumous influence still today.

About 50 miles southwest of Charleston, down a lazy two-lane highway sandwiched between Lowcountry overgrowth and the occasional horse farm, the entrance to an unpaved driveway meets the main road. From here, the shrouded property that sits beyond resembles most of the other elegantly understated country estates in the area: Generous expanses of cultivated land, swaying Spanish moss, bucolic beauty. There’s nothing, in other words, to indicate the presence of the architectural landmark and national treasure that waits at the other end of the winding approach just out of sight, where the dirt gives way to lined red brick thoroughfares.

This is Auldbrass, one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most ambitious Southern masterpieces (he worked on just a handful of structures in the South and Auldbrass was his undisputed favorite) and one of the Charleston area’s best kept secrets. Of Wright’s 1000+ building designs, Auldbrass is an anomaly both geographically and stylistically and remains his largest private project, as well as a point of pride for regional and national preservationists. Today, this sprawling property is open to the public just two days each year, making it a destination for design pilgrims, as well as inquisitive types who just want a look at the place that captured the heart of an icon.

One of Wright’s lesser-known “big houses,” Auldbrass was the brainchild of the Michigan-born industrialist C. Leigh Stevens, who took a shine to the Lowcountry and its particularly low-key brand of landed life, and challenged Wright to convert the series of adjacent tracts of untamed land he had purchased into a contemporary estate that would reflect the home’s Southern roots through a modern lens. Construction began in 1940.

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Urban Electric lighting
Urban Electric lighting

Guided by smart design, sustainable materials and a belief that economic efficiency should coincide with elegance and endurance, Stevens found a natural partner in Wright, who not only incorporated his own geometric precision into the layouts, but also took aesthetic inspiration from the indigenous populations who first settled the area. Work on Auldbrass continued at a steady and ambitious clip for two decades, right up until Wright’s death in 1959, but the scope of the project continued to outpace development. An inspired Wright had imagined more; unfortunately, it would be another two and a half decades before anyone was in a position to continue his efforts.

Through the 1960s and 70s, Wright’s plans languished as the Stevens family’s fortunes faded; new wives and a growing family placed their own demands on design updates, and the property’s architectural preservation became less important to each new generation. Eventually, by the late-1970s, the family had begun selling off portions of the land and unloading many of the original furnishings at auction.

The Hollywood mogul Joel Silver arrived just in time to rescue the landmark from irreparable decline. A successful movie producer with a blockbuster lineup of celluloid hits to his name—from 80s mainstays like Brewster’s Millions to action franchises like The Matrix and Die Hard to new school vehicles like the Sherlock Holmes series—Joel is an avid architecture enthusiast, who purchased and restored his first Wright property, the architect’s fabled Storer House in Hollywood, in 1984. (He was so enamored of Wright’s vision that he used a rendering of the house’s squarish relief ornament as the logo of his production company, Silver Pictures.)

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When Joel got a tip a few years after that initial purchase that a lesser-known property in Wright’s oeuvre needed restoration, he didn’t hesitate. Though he had no prior connection to South Carolina, he trained his collective focus on Auldbrass and has worked tirelessly ever since. The goal was and remains two-fold: restore the estate to its former glory and shape its future aesthetic in an authentic way. At the time of the purchase, Auldbrass was in dismal condition, with decades of neglect and deferred maintenance to undo. The producer, however, was undaunted.

According to Scott McNair, Joel’s friend and Auldbrass’ property manager for nearly two decades, this is what his boss does best. “Everyone in the Stevens family had made their changes over the years, and times changed, too,” Scott says. “For awhile, there wasn’t enough to justify the caretaker accommodations or staff cabins, for example. And, of course, there were plenty of natural challenges, too, from hurricanes to fires. Auldbrass needed Joel in a big way, and I think Joel needed it just as much. This is his escape, a home away from home that has kind of taken a primary place in his heart.”

Like Joel, Scott is a jack-of-all-trades whose 360° approach to the estate is born of decades of on-the-job training, a background in landscape architecture, an entrepreneur’s keen instinct and a willingness to cultivate a new skill or knowledge base in the service of authenticity, especially when it comes to Auldbrass and ensuring that any updates or additions rely on original materials and techniques. He is also, by default, Auldbrass’ unofficial archivist and historian.

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Urban Electric lighting

“Auldbrass was Wright’s biggest and most ambitious private residence,” Scott says. “We have spent years combing through and curating blueprints, diagrams, platts, drawings, archival imagery and sketches, you name it, to unearth the secrets, lost elements and unrealized vision for this place. Wright had the most grand plans and it’s our legacy to continue that work.”

The result is not only a renewed plan for the estate, but also a veritable library slash museum of Wright’s methods and architectural process. Entire rooms, in fact, are dedicated to the storage and preservation of these historic documents and building records.

That’s how things work at Auldbrass: Intentional design and purpose-driven organization are the fundamental fuel that power this operation. Built-in seating ensures spatial economy and fosters connection over meals with friends and family. Low-lying benches and tucked away nooks create places for introspection and observation. In the main house, bedrooms and bathrooms evoke yacht quarters—luxe and open with no wasted space.

Accessibility, too, is a guiding principle, yet there’s nothing common about the execution. Auldbrass is a place that welcomes without sacrificing excellence.

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It’s also not without its share of eccentric beauty, from the azalea-and-jasmine-laden lawns designed by Lowcountry landscape visionary Thomas Church—which resemble the wild and riotous blooms of English country houses, a departure from the traditionally circumspect French-inspired manicured expanses typified elsewhere in the area—to the zebras, peacocks and other animals that roam the grounds.

The full plan at the time of the architect’s death is laid out in a collection of more than 500 drawings, housed in an on-site architectural and design archive. Filled with sketches, notes, blueprints, renderings and snippets of paper that illuminate Wright’s flights of thought as much as his fundamental approach, it is a vast and crucial historic resource that has only continued to grow under Joel’s stewardship.

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Urban Electric lighting

To approach Auldbrass in a way that would honor its purity and originality once the sale was completed in 1986, Joel enlisted a team of experts, from Eric Lloyd Wright, the architect’s grandson, to Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., a celebrated Wright scholar, to Wesley Peters, Wright’s one-time senior apprentice who had been involved in the construction of the estate from the beginning. With their help, and the input of countless others, Joel launched a strategic effort broken down into four phases, which the author David de Long, who wrote an authoritative study of Auldbrass, describes as such:  

“First, all of Wright’s surviving buildings would be restored as he had originally designed them, retaining as much original fabric as feasible, and, to the degree possible, subtly distinguishing between any new materials and the originals they replaced so as to identify alterations. Second, Wright-designed buildings that had been destroyed or altered beyond recognition would be rebuilt, using materials as close to the originals as possible. Third, Wright’s unbuilt projects...would be realized as he had designed them, adhering to exterior configurations, but with selected interiors recognized to address current needs. Fourth, new buildings that were to be needed by Silver would be added, designed for the most part in a manner sympathetic to Wright’s scheme, but located at a distance, so they would not intrude.”

Joel doesn’t get to Auldbrass as much as he’d like to, but he extends the invitation to others in his orbit frequently— use it freely, he likes to offer, whether he is in residence or not. In addition to his family and the lucky visitors who get to experience this idiosyncratic wonder during public tours, Joel has made Auldbrass available to many a high-profile figure, from Eddie Murphy to Robert Zemeckis, who decamped to the site during the filming of Forrest Gump.

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Situated among oak trees dripping with Spanish moss on the edge of Clearwater Swamp, this unassumingly perfect compound of main dwellings, outbuildings, pavilions and pergolas shows how appropriately Wright could respond to any environment, even one previously unfamiliar to him. As always, he liked to incorporate stylized decorative motifs inspired by local plants, and here he used copper rain spouts to suggest Spanish moss. A signature shade of red references the hue of earthen clay typical of the Lowcountry. Nine-degree angles reinforce the geometry present in earlier Frank Lloyd Wright designs and, in the case of Auldbrass, also pay homage to symbols associated with some of the early Native American tribes from the area. In some of the bathrooms, Italian tiles that are made from oyster shells nod to tabby, an iconic local material, in a reinterpreted form.

Informal, airy and rambling, the lodge-style main house and its adjacent structures give the impression of an elegant campsite, consciously deferring to nature but becoming one with it. Structures that Wright had initially planned but never executed are now being finished, making his vision of Auldbrass—a modern Southern estate without cliché— more complete than even he had experienced it.

In addition to newly constructed guest cottages and staff dwellings, there is also a 32-foot dinner barge that will float on a nearby pond, as well as a pool and an 8,000-squarefoot guesthouse based on Wright’s love of Japanese imperial forms, all of which are either under construction, in the ground-breaking stage or nearing completion. There are also ideas that were floated around, initially discarded and later revisited and realized. An early concept for the aviary, for instance, never materialized under the Stevens family’s ownership but was revived and built when Joel took over. And there’s beauty in all of those details, too. This is a living place with a nonlinear design history, conceived to delight and evolve and reflect modernity in its shifting forms as the nature of its landscape and residents change.

 “There is so much that went into imagining this place and then bringing it to life that it’s easy to forget all that’s still left to build upon and accomplish for the future,” Scott says. “For me, that’s the dream...it’s certainly what’s kept me here for so long and the reason I have no plans of leaving anytime soon.”

Joel echoes the sentiment in his own words. “Auldbrass is its own sequel,” he says, “each and every time. New story. New direction. Same amazing plot line linking it all together. It’s a true blockbuster.”