Room to breathe - Issue 126 - Magazine | Monocle

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In 1960, Los Angeles aerospace entrepreneur Frank Wyle and his artist wife Edith drove nine hours north to a small logging village on the outskirts of Yosemite National Park. Acting on a tip they had come to North Fork, California, to buy some land. The property in question – just short of 500 hectares bestrewn with boulders and gnarled oaks – was exactly what they were looking for. “There are two things that will disappear as humanity expands,” Frank had taken to telling his family after attending a lecture on postwar population growth. “One, we are going to lose solitude; two, we are going to lose open space.”

Here was plenty of both. A healthy 10km from the nearest road, a shaded stream rippled through a rocky glen, which opened onto a sloping meadow. After spending time camping by the water, the Wyles decided to build their retreat. Back in LA they hired modernist architect John Rex, who had made his name 13 years earlier by co-designing the second of California’s iconic Case Study Houses. His assignment was daunting – and not only because the site was far from power, pavement and running water.

Frank, a pipe-smoking engineer who had made his fortune stress-testing the aerospace industry’s most advanced equipment, demanded innovation and grandeur; Edith, a commanding aesthete and collector who would soon found LA’s Craft and Folk Art Museum, wanted to commune with nature. “This was the ‘grand adventure’,” says their grand-daughter Rosie Getz Saenz, an arts educator. “And they needed an architect who was up for that.”

Rex’s solution was ingenious. He started with four towering piers of silvery granite, all quarried on site. He topped them with a canopy of 15 pyramid-shaped roof modules – held aloft by an umbrella-like web of wooden posts and beams – and enveloped the entire space in enormous walls of glass. The finished design neither imposed on the land nor receded into it, but rather mirrored and magnified the majesty of its surroundings.

For nearly six decades the “big house”, as the Wyles called it, was a family secret. “During the week we just barely exist,” Edith once said. “The weekend is when we really begin to live.” Frank raised Black Angus cattle; Edith painted while plotting her next museum show. On horseback, their children pretended to be cowboys; later they clutched wildflowers and got married by candlelight.

Dinner parties with artist friends would begin at a huge, hand-carved table, then spill over into the fireside conversation pit Edith had upholstered to match the lichen growing on white oaks outside. The kids built houses on the ranch; in turn their children, including actor Noah Wyle, roamed its hills. After Edith succumbed to cancer in 1999, Frank continued to frequent the house to tinker with his homemade clocks and barometers – and it was here that he died in 2016, aged 97.

With Frank gone, the Wyles faced a tricky decision: keep Rex’s masterpiece to themselves or share it, finally, with the world? In 2018 they chose the latter, opening the house to holiday rentals. Today there’s new flooring in the kitchen and the master bathroom has been refreshed but little else has changed. Red-bud baskets woven by local Mono Indians are still scattered about the interior; selections from Edith’s rich archive – California ceramics, Peruvian pillows, Navajo rugs – still enliven the space. In the morning a spiral staircase casts shadows across honey-coloured wood panelling; at night the flickering hearth transforms the house into a giant lantern. In between there is nothing but the occasional visit from a flock of turkeys to interrupt the stillness.

The Wyle family still gather here at Easter but new visitors, says grand-daughter Jordana Munk Martin, founder of textile-arts organisation Tatter, are the ones who will “sustain” it. “Otherwise the landscape wants to eat your house,” she says. “Nature just invades.”

Gazing across the living room toward the rising Sierra Foothills, one is reminded of another monument of mid-century California culture: the Eames House of 1949. Like Charles and Ray Eames, the Wyles were a charismatic couple who collected widely and built a cutting-edge jewel box in which to live modern lives. Yet while the Eames’ story is familiar, the Wyles’ is largely forgotten. The opening of Rex’s glass house should change that.

“My grandfather was pursuing a new definition of the American West: erudite, forward-thinking,” says Saenz. “And my grandmother widened the lens: ‘What is art?’ That’s what the house represents. It’s so special – so itself – that it feels as if it’s meant to belong to all of us.”

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