August 2008 | The house on the corner of Heather and Union Streets in Manchester, New Hampshire, is surprising. It’s a low-slung arrow, as taut as an Army cot. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed this Usonian house for Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman in 1950, nine out of ten new houses built were ranch style. The Zimmerman House was an upscale cousin to the ranch; now it is estranged. Today, new houses look like a collision of Queen Anne and colonial. This house is not aging. It is getting more modern as the years pass.
Inside the air is a little musty, a little warm and close on the summer day I visit. It is, after all, a closed-up house, a house without the comings and goings of its owners to stir things up. The Zimmermans, who died in the 1980s, left the house and an endowment to the Currier Museum of Art, just across the city.
The house is peaceful and calming. The narrow front hall with its low ceiling creates suspense. Entering the house’s one great space, the garden room, you have a sense of arrival. The street seems far, far away. The small backyard seems to be a part of the room and far larger than it is. Tight as a small boat inside, the house opens to the outside in a way that is spacious and liberating. You don’t feel like you are looking out of a box to the outdoors. It is all of a piece. On a small three-quarter-acre corner lot, Wright performed a magic trick.
“You are aware of each moment in the house,” Hetty Startup tells me as she shows me around. Startup is a former site administrator for the house. She was at the Currier Museum of Art for twelve years. Only the Zimmermans may have spent more time here. “It is just the most amazing authentic space,” Startup says. “You get that kind of ‘now and now and now’ feeling about nature and light and ephemeral aesthetic qualities. It’s a very rich environment.” She adds, “It’s maybe too rich, maybe too full of things to look at.”
This is a house museum, but without any hokum. Things are not arranged to look as if the Zimmermans have just left. The house is subdued and dignified. It is complete and grown-up in the way few houses or American spaces are.