One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most original homes – made more so by the fact that it was not designed to be a residence at all – will hit the market this week for the first time in almost four decades.
The Coonley Playhouse, built in 1912 to house a kindergarten and part of the sprawling estate Wright designed starting in Riverside for Avery and Queene Ferry Coonley, is being listed for $800,000.
“I’m honored to be part of it, quite frankly,” said real estate broker Mike McCurry, who has the listing.
Since 1980, the Coonley Playhouse, 350 Fairbank Road, has been owned by Dr. Ted and Susan Smith, who moved to Riverside from Philadelphia that year and spent the next decade restoring a residence whose interior had been altered almost beyond recognition.
According to Ted Smith, the previous owner had considered herself “a gifted amateur decorator.”
“One of those three words is right,” Smith said.
By the time the Smiths purchased the home, the Coonley Playhouse had been on the market for 10 years.
Susan Smith had a job offer in Chicago and Ted was looking for a change after spending 20 years as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
They looked at condos in high rises, homes in gated communities on the North Shore but were intrigued when shown the playhouse, even though temporary walls chopped up the grand main space and most of Wright’s exquisite, playfully designed art glass was gone.
“We fell in love with the place,” Ted Smith said, of both house and Riverside.
In addition to restoring the Coonley Playhouse, Ted Smith would serve for many years on the Riverside Preservation Commission and Landscape Advisory Commission. The Smiths recently retired full time to Florida.
Built to house the kindergarten run by Queene Ferry Coonley, the playhouse only served in that capacity for a short time. In 1919, architect William Drummond, who’d worked for Wright, converted the building into a residence, and subsequent owners added more rooms to the rear of the home.
McCurry said there are very few photos of the original playhouse, and it’s been a private home for so long that relatively few people have seen the interior during the past century.
“It’s great for the public to actually see the building again,” said McCurry. “There are only a handful of pictures of it over the years. That’s crazy amazing.”
The Smiths demolished a pair of sunroom additions that had been built on either side of the original front facade, restoring the front façade’s original design. They also removed six and a half inches of material from the roof, including a half-inch of concrete, replacing it with a membrane roof.
But perhaps the couple’s greatest contribution was restoring the large main public space, which served as the classroom – it still has the stage children used to put on performances – and commissioning authentic, museum-grade replacement art glass windows to be made and installed.
“The windows almost all had been removed by the previous owner and sold all over the world,” Smith said. “The big ones in front at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the most impressive of the clerestory windows are at MOMA.”
Smith said the grand main space is a great room for entertaining – something the Smiths made sure to do, often. On New Year’s Eve, the Smiths provided the venue for a party given annually by Frances and Michael Higgins, the owners of Higgins Glass. For many years the Smiths hosted a medieval banquet, with a table seating 30 people, stretching from one end of the living room to the other.
Outside, Smith planted a virtual arboretum of trees native to the area, including bitter nut hickory, Kentucky coffee trees, dogwoods, black walnut and a variety of oaks, including two rare black oaks.
As for who might buy the home, Smith said it would be perfect “for a couple who like to entertain, frequently.”
“I do hope it ends up with someone sympathetic,” Smith said.
McCurry said his intention is to market the home internationally.
“It deserves projection in the marketplace in an international fashion,” McCurry said.
The playhouse isn’t the only part of the Coonley Estate that’s on the market at present. The “public” wing of the main Coonley Estate, built nearby in 1907 at 281 Scottswood Road and painstakingly restored by Ella Mae and the late Dean Eastman, recently went back on the market with an asking price of $1,599,000.
The 6,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home has been on and off the market for many years. Previous asking prices have topped $2 million.
McCurry said he thinks the playhouse and the public wing of the main estate likely will attract different kinds of buyers.
This article has been changed to add that Ted Smith also served on the Riverside Landscape Advisory Commission, to correct information related to how the building evolved through the years and to clarify just what parties the home regularly hosted during the Smiths’ years living there.