As fixer-uppers go, the house Kim Bixler moved into with her family in 1977 came with its share of challenges.
The low-slung home had a perpetually leaky roof, gutters that clogged at the mere approach of fall and structural problems that dated almost back to its construction in 1908.
But for Bixler and her parents, those annoyances hardly mattered in the face of the house’s virtues. These included the shifting play of sunlight reflected through 453 stained-glass panels and an expansive dining room that was known to inspire gasps from visitors.
One other minor thing: The house happened to be the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the singular American architect responsible for Buffalo’s own Darwin D. Martin House.
Bixler, who was 8 when she moved into the house on East Boulevard in Rochester with her parents and younger brother, will give a reading of her new book, “Growing Up in a Frank Lloyd Wright House,” in the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum at 11 a.m. Saturday. Those who attend the reading will have a chance to preview the soon-to-be-completed construction of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed filling station exhibit in the museum.
In a phone interview from her home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., near Los Angeles, Bixler reflected on the unusual surroundings of her particularly charmed childhood.
“Right off the bat, I knew that we had something special in our house. I mean, not very often are you sitting in your house and every car that drives by goes slowly past your house, or that you have people sketching your house,” she said. “My parents asked us to give tours starting when I was 8. So I would be talking to architects about Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of the horizontal line and how the house hugged the prairie. You kind of feel this inflated sense of importance at that age.”
Before long, young Bixler had her spiel memorized, complete with a joke about always having to make sure her bed was made in case visitors showed up. Her memories of that time are set down in her book, which doubles as a memoir of her time in the house and an exhaustive architectural history that traces the story of the house back to its original owners, Edward E. Boynton and his daughter Beulah.
The Boynton House, which has since been purchased by a wealthy couple and restored to its former glory at great expense, has been through its share of questionable tweaks and renovations over the past century. Bixler recalled some of the more radical ones:
“One of the owners who lived there for about 25 years, she decided to paint a lot of the wood. And then the next owner that was right before them wallpapered a lot,” she said. “One of the women said, ‘Oh I really want this room to match my poodle.’ So she literally painted the living room poodle-gray, and even the fireplace she painted. I mean, to paint these bricks?”
Bixler’s father, an executive at Xerox, shared a great love of the house with her mother, a jewelry artist. Together, they poured untold sums of money into repairs at the house and eventually spent almost as much money to fix Wright’s leaky, impractical roof as they had spent on the house itself.
“They were just captivated by the design. There’s no flaw that really could have been there that would have stopped them from buying that house,” said Bixler, whose previous books include “365 Great Things About Atlanta,” “The Cigar Book” and “My Twin, My Friend.”
Buffalo architecture lovers who have visited Wright’s more ambitious and expensive Darwin D. Martin House, built from 1903 to 1905, will recognize many of the design elements in his later Boynton House. There are the same hidden downspouts, the same sense of interior openness and warmth, the same attempt to blur the boundaries between inside and out.
University at Buffalo professor Jack Quinan, a Frank Lloyd Wright expert who serves as the senior curator at the Martin House, remembers visiting the Boynton House with his architecture students and getting a tour from Bixler, who was then just 11 years old. Though the two houses share the same prairie style, he said, their orientation to the street is very different as are the building materials Wright used.
Even so, the architect’s desire to stoke the curiosity of passers-by is at work in both buildings.
“In both cases, there’s a ploy, you might say, of Wright’s,” Quinan said. “He wants you to sort of absorb the house, he wants to engage you with the house, so he doesn’t show you how to get in. The Martin House, from the sidewalk in is not a straight line. It goes down alongside the driveway, then you turn right, then you climb some stairs, then you turn left. And even the entrance itself is buried in shadow. In the case of Boynton, there’s no apparent entrance.”
And it’s that sense of mystery mixed with beauty and of living in a place that is an artwork as much as a functional living space, that sits at the heart of Bixler’s book. Living in the Boynton House, she said, has had an indelible effect on her adult life.
“I believe that you should have incredible pride of where you live,” she said, “and I do think that you should be surrounded by beauty.”