The Gallery at Penn College

Frank Lloyd Wright's Samara:
A Mid-Century Dream Home

January 14 - March 29, 2014

A program of Exhibits USA and The National Endowment for the Arts.

What is the experience of building and living in a home designed by America's greatest architect? How do you live in a work of art? Frank Lloyd Wright's Samara: A Mid-Century Dream Home explores the relationship between an architect and his clients, Dr. John and Kay Christian, as they worked together to create one family's definition of an American dream home. Told through the juxtaposition of original objects and furniture, architectural fragments, rare archival materials, historic photographs, and video footage, this exhibit explores the creation of a Wright house made into a family home. Samara was constructed between 1954 and 1956 in West Lafayette, Indiana, and was based on Wright's Usonian houses-modest-sized, affordable, environmentally sensitive dwellings-of which Wright created over one hundred designs. Frank Lloyd Wright's Samara offers visitors a unique behind-the-scenes look at the creation of an architectural masterpiece.

Exhibit Description

What is the experience of building and living in a home designed by America’s greatest architect? How do you live in a work of art? Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara: A Mid-Century Dream Home explores the relationship between an architect and his clients. It tells the story of how a couple from West Lafayette, Indiana and a world-famous architect worked together to build what was, for the Christian family, truly their dream home. It is also the story of how the family continued to honor the architect’s vision long after his death. The exhibition features original furniture, home décor ephemera, books, architectural fragments, reproductions of archival documents and photographs, video footage and reproductions of architectural drawings to explore two interrelated themes:

  1. How Frank Lloyd Wright developed and managed the creation of an affordable type of middle class home that he termed the “Usonian” home; and
  2. How Dr. John and Catherine Christian aspired to the post-World War II ideal of a “dream home,” how they choose Wright to design that home, and how they worked together with him and his representatives to create what was eventually called Samara.
Frank Lloyd Wright and the Usonian Home

Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America’s most famous architects, but throughout his life he was also very interested in residential architecture. When Dr. John and Catherine (Kay) Christian approached him about building a home for them in 1950, they were not the first couple on a limited budget to make such a request. As early as the 1930s, Wright had been thinking about ways to create affordable homes for the American middle class. His answer was the “Usonian” home, a moderately-scaled onestory house that was designed to be cost effective and relatively easy to build. Wright eliminated the basement and attic, opted for carports rather than garages, and created walls out of materials like wood and brick that also doubled as the final finishes, removing the cost of plastering, wall papering or interior painting.

Wright never actually saw Samara. Like most of his Usonian creations, the home’s construction was overseen by one of his representatives from the Taliesen Fellowship. Samara was designed and completed at the end of Wright’s career. He was over 80 when he accepted the commission, and he died three years after the home was completed, at the age of 91 in 1959. The exhibition shows how Wright managed the design process and the Christians’ expectations for Samara largely via correspondence. Objects and graphics in the exhibition show how he worked with them to clarify their needs and wants, negotiated details of the home and its final layout, and conveyed the architectural vision of the work through drawings and diagrams. The exhibition also explores how Wright scaled the home to the Christian’s budget by designing elements that he knew they might not create for years, until they had the time and money to finish them.

The Christians’ Dream of Home

Like most Americans, John and Jay Christian knew of Frank Lloyd Wright before they approached him about designing a home. They had first seen a Usonian home when they visited one in Pleasantville, New York during a conference in 1948. The young couple had met at Purdue University, where Kay was a social secretary and John was a professor. They approached the topic of Wright with the zeal of true researchers, visiting multiple other Wright homes, and collecting everything that they could read about him. The exhibition includes a sampling of books about Wright from their library, as well as later magazines that they consulted during the furnishing of the home. After the Christians first contacted Wright in 1950, it took almost a year for him to accept the commission in 1951. It then took four more years before construction started. What happened in the meantime? Correspondence, archival documents and architectural drawings will show how the Christians worked with Wright during the intervening years to tell him what they wanted in the home, explain why proposed features did or didn’t work for them, and to come to a final plan that pleased everyone. The exhibition then uses video footage, hands-on components, building fragments, historic photographs, and other materials to explore how the project moved from concept to construction and how the finished home was initially furnished in the mid- 1950s. The exhibit also takes a look at how the Christians continued to fulfill Wright’s vision after his death by completing design elements like perforated window panels, furniture, and roof details that were not originally fabricated in the 1950s. Additional correspondence and scrapbook materials also show how John and Kay Christian went back to Wright’s architecture school, the Taliesen Fellowship, in the 1970s to assist them with a redecoration project.

Today, Samara remains a private home, and Dr. Christian, over 90 years of age, still resides there. He and his daughter Linda founded the John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust in 1990 to preserve the home as a living example of Wright’s Usonian architecture. Samara has been listed on the Indiana State Registrar of Historic Sites and Structures as well as the National Register of Historic Places, and is open every summer for public tours. Dr. Christian still welcomes visitors personally. The final sections of the exhibition on Samara also welcome audiences into a glimpse of the family’s life in the home. Vintage movie footage, family scrapbook photos, and oral history memories reveal how John, Kay, and Linda actually lived in their dream house. Additional digital images present a view of the home as it exists today, while credit panel information includes the website and further information for visitors who wish to visit Samara someday, on line or in person.

Opening Reception & Lecture by Jack Quinan

  • Opening Reception: Thursday, January 16, 5-7 p.m.
  • Lecture: Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 3:30 p.m., Auditorium: George S. Klump Academic Center (ACC)
  • Free and open to the public.

Following the Prairie period of the early 1900s and the concrete textile block structures of the 1920s in Los Angeles, Frank Lloyd Wright began to explore the possibilities of non-rectangular geometries in his Usonian houses from 1937 to 1959. In this presentation, Wright's house, Samara, will be seen in the context of a representative selection of Usonian houses of differing typologies and often eccentric geometries.

Jack Quinan is a historian specializing in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Arts and Crafts Movement, American Architecture of the Nineteenth Century, Utopian Communities, and the relationship of architecture and phenomenology. He is a founder of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Wright's extant work, and he is the senior curator and a member of the board of directors of Wright's Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo. He has written five books on Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, and numerous articles. Quinan is a State University of New York Distinguished Service Professor.

Jack Quinan bio

Regular Hours

Tuesday & Thursday 2 - 7 p.m., Wednesday & Friday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 1 - 4 p.m.
Closed Monday & Saturday

Saturday, March 29, 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Free Admission


Visitors may use the parking lot in front of the Student and Administrative Services Center (SASC). Limited visitor parking is available behind the Madigan Library.


Third floor (Room 303) of the Madigan Library. During open hours, the gallery is accessible by elevator or stairs, both located inside the front entrance of the Madigan Library.

Directions to Campus

Additional Resources

  • Reference materials suggested books, videos, music, and websites that are relevant to the topics and themes of the exhibit
  • Biographies Frank Lloyd Wright, Dr. & Mrs. Christian, Taliesin Fellow Eugene Masselink, Samara Contractor John Edward Kipta
  • Information for K-12 Teachers lesson plans and guides for K-12 grades, and a glossary of terms

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