Famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a cabin in Algoma
The EH Pitkin Summerhouse, located on Sapper Island, was Frank Lloyd Wright’s last building in Canada.
If you were ever brave enough to dare to jump from Whiskey Rock, you were close to a little-known landmark on nearby Sapper Island – the EH Pitkin Summer Lodge in Desbarats. Many don’t know it, but this summer residence was designed by one of North America’s most famous architects – Frank Lloyd Wright and is the only living specimen of his work in Canada.
The fact that this structure exists if only by chance. If it hadn’t been for an ad in a Chicago train station that tempted a friend of EH Pitkin’s to suggest a trip to the area, it would never have gone through.
According to Hermon Dunlop Smith in his book, The Land of Desbarats, an acquaintance of the Pitkin family wrote to the Richard’s Landing post office in 1899 and was told that the Rain’s Hotel on St. Joseph’s Island would be an excellent destination, with comfortable rooms and enjoyable activities such as fishing , golf and cycling. The reality when they arrived was a bit different – the hotel was just a farm, the golf course just a field with a few holes, and riding a bike was a chore on the corduroy roads. Nonetheless, the Pitkins and their friends had a great time.
One fateful day, they boarded a boat to explore nearby islands.
Despite a downpour and generally miserable weather, the Pitkins were blown away by the beauty and knew it would be spectacular in perfect weather. Who would not be ?
Sailing between the islands offers a maze of stunning scenery – the contrast between turquoise waters and rocky shores with lush trees is a slice of heaven.
Just days later, they bought Sapper Island and asked their Oak Park neighbor to design their cabin. That neighbor was Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright, at the time, was just getting started. He had yet to develop his trademark “Prairie School” style for which he became well known and which still influences architects and home design to this day.
Yet this early example of his work contains many of Wright’s signature touches. An example is the cabin’s split flue fireplace. There is a large central foyer with a flue that splits and extends outside the building, which then allows for a central hallway on the second floor.
Second, the cabin has a large, wide-open living area, which Wright was very fond of. The hut is also the embodiment of his desire for “organic architecture” insofar as the structure integrates harmoniously with the natural habitat.
So how did this one Frank Lloyd Wright structure in Canada remain such an enigma? Other Wright structures such as his masterpiece called Fallingwater near Pittsburgh have been opened to the public for tours. UNESCO has even designated eight of his creations as World Heritage Sites.
The EH Pitkin Cottage somehow escaped this notoriety, with many locals unaware of its existence. This may in part be due to its somewhat remote location, which is only accessible by boat.
Also, homeowners may be reluctant to draw too much attention to the location, as many American Wright homes have received historic designation. This designation comes with a certain status, but also with constraints that could make it more difficult to make modifications or repairs to a dwelling. These stipulations are often intended to ensure the integrity of the design.
There may also have been times during the chalet’s history when its association with Frank Lloyd Wright may have been less flattering. Although now well regarded, he was often seen as controversial during his lifetime. Wright received quite a bit of negative publicity about his personal life.
At one point, his relationship with the wife of a former client (Mamah Cheney) created a scandal and limited his ability to find work. It was considered quite shocking at the time that they both left their spouse and children and lived together without being married.
Tragedy soon followed when Mamah Cheney and her visiting children were murdered by a servant from Wright’s house in Wisconsin called Taliesin.
While recovering from this disaster, Wright was involved with another mistress who was, again, controversial. He was also plagued with numerous financial and debt problems, and spent a night in jail for violating the Mann Act which made it a crime to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes.
Despite the celebrity of its designer, the hut perched on the rocks in a place of unparalleled beauty has quietly withstood the tests of time.
The cottage was sold by the Pitkins in 1916 to James Heyworth and the property remained in the family for at least three generations.
The cottage may be of great interest to architecture enthusiasts, but for homeowners it is their private oasis. According to Barbara Gordon, Executive Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, “It takes a special person to take on the management of owning and maintaining a Wright home.
Obviously, all of the owners who have preserved this cabin for over a hundred years are the proper stewards to ensure it continues as our secluded piece of history.