An impulse led to the posthumous construction of a forgotten Frank Lloyd Wright design on a heart-shaped private island in Putnam County, New York. The landmass and its two Wright-designed buildings are now selling for nearly $15 million.
In 1995, Joe Massaro, a sheet metal mogul, found himself on a three-minute boat ride from the banks of Lake Mahopac, where he lived with his family, out to a wooded islet in the middle of the water called Petra Island. Mr. Massaro took a tour of the 11-acre property and an unusual, triangular-shaped three-bedroom cottage with an open floor plan and redwood ceilings that a previous owner had commissioned from Wright in 1950.
When Mr. Massaro returned, he told his wife, Barbara, he was buying the island.
“She said, ‘Wait are you nuts?’” Mr. Massaro recalled. By the time she came back with a pen, the deal was done. Local property records show the Massaros paid $750,000 for the parcel, including the Wright-designed cottage.
Building a Wright home
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In addition to the cottage, Wright had also drawn up plans for a main residence, one the famous modernist architect purportedly said would rival one of his most iconic homes, “Fallingwater,” now a museum in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Wright’s designs for the main house comprised only a few drawings on 8.5-by-11 paper. They required Mr. Massaro to use jeweler’s glasses to see the details of the sketch, and he enlisted the help of Illinois-based architect Thomas Heinz, an expert in Wright’s architecture.
Local zoning laws would have prohibited the cantilevered house from jutting directly out over the water. But to Mr. Massaro’s surprise, the town eventually approved the project as Wright designed it, and he and his local contractor took advantage of winter to transport building equipment and materials over the frozen lake.
They completed the home in 2007. It has four bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms and hulking chunks of rock that appear as sculptural elements inside the home. One such boulder bursts into the kitchen and central living space. There’s also a helipad on the roof that facilitates a mere 15-minute commute to Manhattan.
Like the cottage next door, the main house is triangular in shape and shares a number of details consistent with other Wright buildings. For instance, there’s a massive geometric skylight over the center of the house. The interior incorporates desert masonry, a technique Wright devised that incorporates chunks of exposed rock in the concrete walls.
Large windows also line the cantilevered portion of the home and make the narrow living space feel like it hangs over the water like a ship.
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Mr. Massaro keeps the smaller cottage as a kind of museum. He even installed retro kitchen appliances to match the 1950s-era house.
One story goes that the cottage roof is so oddly constructed that none of the builders thought the open ceiling plan and eaves would keep from collapsing, so they added extra support of their own design. When Wright took a trip to the island and saw the offending support holding the roof up, he took a sledgehammer and knocked it down. The roof never collapsed, Mr. Massaro said.
The island’s late former owner, Ahmed Chahroudi, commissioned Wright to design the island cottage and to create “his masterpiece” for the main residence. Wright only got so far as drawing up plans for the dramatic, free-flowing mansion before Chahroudi said he’d run out of money.
When Mr. Massaro invited Chahroudi’s widow, then in her 90s, out to the island to see the completed main house, she confided that her husband never meant to build it. He only wanted Wright to design a cottage for him all along.
Back on the market
“When you’re approaching the island you see this Frank Lloyd Wright, cantilevered house over the water coming at you, it takes your breath away,” said listing agent Chadwick Ciocci, CEO and founder of luxury-focused company Chilton & Chadwick.
Mr. Massaro dabbled with selling the island on his own in 2012, marketing it briefly for $20 million. “He was testing the waters,” Mr. Ciocci said.
This time, he’s more serious about finding a buyer, but Mr. Massaro isn’t in any rush to be rid of the island. He continues to spend his summers there and his winters just across the lake at his second house on the mainland in Mahopac.
Mr. Massaro said he has tried to stick as closely to Wright’s plans as possible and fill in blanks with ideas drawn from the architect’s previous work. Even in decorating the home, Mr. Massaro has tried in different ways to be true to Wright’s aesthetic. For instance, against his architect’s advice, he built a custom multi-colored light that came to him in a dream one night after scouring books about the architect for inspiration.
“I said, ‘Well Frank told me to do it,’” Mr. Massaro said. He was never one for detail before embarking on the project and didn’t know much about Wright, but he now confesses to owning more than 60 books about the architect.
“Detail was not is in my DNA until I stepped out on that island,” he said.