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Stanford Report, April 7, 1999

Hanna House rises from rubble with Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision preserved


For nearly a decade, Hanna House was a gem in the rough. After the Loma Prieta earthquake severely damaged the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, the structure lay fallow while architects, archeologists, engineers, seismic experts, government officials and others searched for the resources and the right approach to its renovation. Their deliberations have paid off. The jewel's glory has been restored.

On Wednesday, April 14, at 5:15 p.m., the university will celebrate the reopening of this Wright treasure with a symposium at Annenberg Auditorium. Presenters for the session will include Stephen J. Farneth, of the Architectural Resources Group; Bret Lizundia of Rutherford & Chekene, Structural Engineers; Stanford Architect David Neuman, and Paul V. Turner, professor of architectural history and chair of the Hanna House board of governors. Each will offer background on the various aspects of the restoration.

Hanna House was designed in the mid-1930s after Paul Hanna, a professor in Stanford's School of Education, and his wife, Jean, asked Wright to develop plans for an inexpensive house for their family of five. The final product was a glass-fronted collection of hexagons with a brick chimney at its core. The structure's honeycomb shapes are mimicked in many of the home's details -- from the flooring to the bathroom tiles. Its thin redwood walls were designed to add to the adaptability of the space. In the kitchen, for instance, these walls can open like louvers onto an expansive living room. A graceful sloping roof reflects both the architect's and the original owners' affinity for Japanese aesthetic. According to Turner, the house was Wright's first foray into designing non-rectangular structures. Many of the furnishings, built-in and freestanding - were designed by Wright as well.

"It's the geometry here," Turner said during a recent walk through the home, adding that Wright had been seeking clients who would let him "destroy the box," and that the Hanna's went along with the idea. Wright would later design other non-rectangular structures such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Wright and the Hannas maintained lasting ties: The architect even helped redesign the house's interior after the Hanna children left home. However, their relationship was tested a number of times during the house's original construction. The home that the Hanna's thought would run them about $15,000 ended up costing $37,000 -- a daunting sum in Depression-era dollars. Archival materials chronicle the Hanna's battles with Wright over the pace and details of the project. The original floor plan was designed for flat terrain, but the property the Hannas acquired on what is now Frenchman's Road is a hilly 1.48-acre stretch. To make matters worse, the Hanna's discovered that a branch of the San Andreas fault ran through that hill. Wright's confidence was unshaken in the face of this revelation. After all, his Imperial Hotel had withstood the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo

Unfortunately, Hanna House, which was home to the Hanna family from 1938 until 1975, and later to four Stanford provosts and their families, was no match for Loma Prieta. While experts acknowledge that the underlying -- and inactive -- fault had not caused the extensive damage, poor structural work had. Wright had designed a building in which the foundations and chimneys were essentially unreinforced.

"They think if the earthquake had been just a few seconds longer, the whole house would have come down," Turner said. Fears of further tremors forced the university to evacuate the building after the 1989 quake.

The restoration took 10 years and more than $2 million to complete. Those involved in the revival were faced with several thorny questions. Should they reconstruct the building to such an extent that it would be only a replica of itself? Could they maintain the original design and add sufficient seismic reinforcement? There also were surprises. Engineers discovered, for instance, that the connection between the chimney and the roof was not as sound as they had thought. In the end the house was restored with some seismic reinforcement while maintaining the integrity of Wright's vision. Much of the concrete slab floor was replaced with a new one, designed to replicate the original with its hexagonal detail. Underneath that floor, engineers installed a system of concrete beams that connect the central chimney and retaining walls. Each of the home's three chimneys was reinforced with steel beams and concrete. Plywood was used to strengthen the roof and some of the walls. Ties now connect the roof to the walls and the chimneys.

The restoration was financed largely with private contributions. Interest from a $500,000 gift donated by the Nissan Motor Company USA in 1977 to endow the property also was used, as were funds secured from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"The work was greatly complicated by circumstances: the unique nature of the house, the complexity of analyzing its structural properties, the challenge of finding means of seismic strengthening compatible with the preservation of the building, and more mundane problems such as fundraising. Turner wrote in a recent essay on the history of the house, "The fact that Stanford University and the many individuals who have supported this project have persisted in the endeavor, throughout the difficult process, reveals an awareness of the importance of this architectural masterpiece and a resolve to preserve it for future generations."

The building now will be used for non-residential purposes such as seminars and receptions. Public docent-led tours will be offered beginning in May. Pets and children under 12 are not permitted on the property. Visitors must wear soft soled shoes, no high heels. Disabled access is limited. In addition to the April 14 symposium, the Stanford Bookstore is displaying a special exhibit through April 18. The house will be available for viewing by the Stanford community at an open house in the near future. SR