It’s an emotionally fraught time for architect Donald Dunham and his classics professor wife, Annette Giesecke. After 20 years in the southern Chester County home Dunham designed, the couple is heading back to New Zealand, where they’d lived in an earlier chapter of their lives.
The two put their souls into the house, which is inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. The construction of their three-bedroom, two-bath home was so hands-on that they lived part-time in a trailer on the nearly four-acre wooded property as the house rose. That trailer set the tone for the project in numerous ways. “We’re big Airstream fans,” Dunham says. “In fact, we’ve had three. Airstreams are self-contained and beautifully made, and I think a lot of architects are drawn to them.”
So they bought and positioned the 1968 Airstream right on the lot, which was located near enough to the University of Delaware, where Annette taught classics. It’s also close to White Clay Creek Preserve in Landenberg. “We love the outdoors and like hiking and camping and all the things that go with what you can find in a state park,” Dunham says. “It seemed perfect to us.”
Tough they looked at old stone farmhouses and the like, Dunham and Giesecke had another living experience in mind. “We’d go for a hike, then sit outside the trailer and look through the trees and think about what the house would be,” Dunham says.
Even the vehicle itself informed the nascent design of the home. “We kind of wanted that honesty and simplicity,” says Dunham.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece in Mill Run, Pa., also proved influential. Dunham studied Wright during his architecture training at the University of Southern California. But he didn’t come to fully appreciate the master’s career until two decades after graduation, when he toured Fallingwater and had a revelatory “pinch-me moment.” He likens moving from the exterior to the interior of the home to “a spiritual journey.”
Giesecke recalls her profoundly visceral reaction. “I’d seen so many pictures of Fallingwater, so I was really looking forward to it,” she says. “But I didn’t realize what would happen to me when I walked through the front door. I was moved to tears that I couldn’t control. I felt the dialogue between this structure and this site, and the permeability of it so that nature is everywhere. And I think that’s what was achieved in our house, as well.”
Dunham didn’t set out to build an homage to Wright. “It just kind of happened,” he says. “Now, when people visit the house and say it’s like a Usonian Frank Lloyd Wright house, I take it as an extreme compliment.”
As with many of Wright’s homes, Dunham’s house relies heavily on horizontal lines, but with an angular twist; the planes and cantilevers make the 1,200-square-foot building, with its reinforced concrete and aluminum façade, seem much larger than it is. And the idea to punch holes into the overhangs to reduce uplift also echoes Wright’s design strategies.
The home is nothing if not economical. Inside, the plywood floor is overlaid with purple Armstrong tile from Home Depot. The walls throughout are quarter-inch birch plywood, and the ceilings are clad in oriented strand board, an engineered wood coated in water-based polyurethane. Giesecke finds the patterns mesmerizing and sometimes lies on the floor just to admire them.
The many windows are trimmed with castoff pieces of finger-jointed poplar Giesecke likens to “abstract marquetry.” The two initially resisted window treatments, but they finally submitted to the sun and installed retractable blinds.
The rectangular main floor contains the kitchen and dining room, a generous hallway and a study that opens to a living room, and bathroom and two bedrooms. Much of the furniture is built in—again a nod to Wright. A circular staircase leads down to a studio, a guest bedroom, an extra bathroom and the garden.
Giesecke finds it almost impossible to choose her favorite spot in the home. But she enthuses about the fact that there are no solid walls, calling the glassed-in master bedroom “an amazing space.” She describes lying in the bathtub “in a Zen trance looking out at the trees.”
Typically, when people are offered a tour, they’re sheepish about entering the bedroom. But Giesecke always insists. “You really feel like you’re in a treehouse—like you’re up in the canopy,” she says. “And that is extraordinary. Lying in that bed, you feel like you’re floating in the trees. The location of the house is on the East Atlantic Flyway, so we see the starlings and other migrating birds right over the house, as if they’re going to fly right through it.”
As the house took shape, Dunham was consistently kept in check by his wife, whom he came to view as his client. Once it was completed, Giesecke didn’t want to change anything about the low-maintenance home, even as Dunham had the itch to tinker and refine. Indeed, her passion is evident—as is the melancholy over moving on from what she calls their beloved “transparent” house.