Most properties attract buyers for the features they have rather than the ones they don’t — that’s not the case for the 1,940-square-foot, single-story Mathews House in Atherton that the went on the market for $8 million this spring. Each of the walls in this 1952-era home, except one, lacks 90-degree angles.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the home is considered a pristine example of the noted architect’s “Usonian” style — a type of modern, 20th-century residential architecture uniquely simple, small, functional — and American, said Monique Lombardelli, CEO of Menlo Park-based Modern Homes Realty, who is overseeing sale of the property at 83 Wisteria Way. This style of home was exceptionally well-designed but intended to be more accessible and affordable for middle-class Americans at the time, she explained.
One of the main tenets of Wright’s rules for residential design was to make a house eminently livable “for Homo Sapiens,” Lombardelli said with a chuckle. He largely avoided creating rooms with 90-degree angles and instead favored 60-degree and 120-degree angles, which he considered more people-friendly. Built for original owner Arthur Mathews, the home is one of only six residences in the greater Bay Area designed by Wright — with the others in Hillsborough, Orinda, San Anselmo, Carmel and Stanford. The Mathews House, along with Stanford’s Hanna House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lombardelli describes the 70-year-old Mathews house as a midcentury modern gem of understated rustic elegance comprised of red brick, redwood, glass and concrete hidden away on nearly an acre of land in the quiet, sylvan, tree-lined Atherton neighborhood of Lindenwood.
Like most of Wright’s homes — and other examples of midcentury modern homes such as the 3,000 Eichlers in Palo Alto, and 8,000 more throughout the Bay Area — Lombardelli said the Mathews House features an indoor-outdoor feel centered around courtyards and gardens, and an open floor plan where the living room, kitchen and dining area are in a common space. The Mathews House also has such rustic, modernistic touches as a floor-to-ceiling red brick fireplace, built-in furniture and indirect lighting.
To date, the Mathews House has had only two owners in nearly three-quarters of a Century.
The home came up for sale after the January death of its second owner, Betty Porter Sox, at the age of 98. Sox, a 1946 Stanford physics graduate, was hired by Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, in 1956. During her 47-year HP tenure, Sox invented the technology company’s payroll system that was used for 35 years and managed its employee retirement program. “This is a home that appeals to a very particular, specialized type of home buyer,” Lombardelli said, adding the property is being marketed to “modernist clients,” or lovers of modern residential design, through such publications as Dwell and Western Arts and Architecture magazines. The eventual new owner of the Mathews House also will have to follow strict guidelines governing the maintenance and preservation of properties of historical significance.
But they will have plenty of help and advice from fellow Frank Lloyd Wright scholars and aficionados. The Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy provides advocacy, education and technical support for the owners and guardians of the hundreds of structures Wright designed and had built across the United States during his 70-year career.
“It may not be well known to the general public, but the Mathews House is certainly known among aficionados of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes,” said Chuck Henderson, who serves as president of the Conservancy’s board of directors.
Henderson said his organization became active at the Mathews House in 2016 when the owner sought out the organization’s advice for restoring the house’s roof.
“She wanted to do it the right way,” he said of her consulting with his organization.
“It is very true the Mathews House is not as famous as a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure as the Hanna House. It is kind of hidden, set back from the road and not as easy to find. It has never been open for tours to the public.”
Where to tour a Wright home
The greater Bay Area may be home to only six Frank Lloyd Wright homes — almost all of which are private residences — but those looking to explore the architect’s work are in luck. The Hanna House at Stanford University is open for public tours twice a year. Stanford Professor Paul Hanna and his wife, Jean —both specialists in childhood education — commissioned Wright to build the home in 1936. After living in the house for nearly 40 years, the couple donated it to Stanford University in 1975.
The Usonian-style home, also called the “Honeycomb House” for its innovative hexagonal design patterned after the honeycomb of a bee, was built with no right angles in the floor plan.
Hanna House is the first and best example of Wright’s innovative hexagonal design and represents a turning point in his career, leading to ideas later evidenced in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The American Institute of Architect recognized the house as one of 17 buildings by the architect to be retained as an example of his contribution to American culture. It was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
David Goll is a freelance writer.