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Thirty Artists for Thirty Years: Henry Klumb House Watch Day

When thinking of mid-twentieth-century Modern design, one would hardly ever consider adaptive reuse as a defining principle of a seminal work of architecture. And yet that is the very thing the Henry Klumb House in San Juan, Puerto Rico, represents. For his own residence, the German-born architect and former chief draftsman for Frank Lloyd Wright adapted a nineteenth-century typical hacienda house surrounded by over 6 acres of lush vegetation to his ideal of modern tropical living. He started by taking out the exterior walls in order to create open living and dining spaces where he and his wife Else could enjoy the natural breeze and direct contact with the botanical garden that surrounded the house.

Abandoned since 1984, after Klumb and Else died in a car accident, the house has fallen to great disrepair. The Henry Klumb House was included on the 2014 World Monuments Watch to draw attention to its plight.

I had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico to my alma mater for the Watch Day celebration on September 23. It was a special event for me, since I began my architecture studies in a Klumb building, and it was during a weekend at his house, known as Casa Klumb, while carrying out a conditions assessment and drafting as-built drawings, that I decided to further my studies in historic preservation.

The Watch Day event was the opening of an art exhibit inspired by the Klumbs' house and gardens, held at the Student Center of the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras Campus, a building designed by Klumb that was beautifully restored recently. Thirty renowned local artists, symbolizing the 30 years the house has been abandoned, who visited the site earlier in the year, came together to support the Henry Klumb House by contributing a wide array of works of art. Hundreds of people came to the opening. For many it was the first time they heard about the Henry Klumb House, and they were in awe of the design and amazed that a treasure like that existed in the middle of the urban sprawl so close to the university campus! For those of us who know the house well, it was touching to see and hear of other people’s excitement and support for the site.

The exhibit features paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and much more. All the pieces are for sale—the proceeds will go toward the rehabilitation of the house as a center for educational, cultural, and social programs. Between a preliminary showing to collectors and the opening event, over $10,000 was raised, but much more is needed to restore the house’s social value. After 30 long years, Klumb’s legacy cannot wait any longer