The Japanese American Architect Who Was a Disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright

The Lurie House, designed by Kaneji Domoto (photo by Thad Russel)

When a Columbia University architecture professor signed the contract for her new house in Usonia — the historic community near Pleasantville, New York, that was planned by Frank Lloyd Wright — its previous owner handed her four of its original blueprints. They’d been drawn up by the late Kaneji Domoto, a little-known Japanese-American architect from the Bay Area. Having inherited one of his homes, Lynnette Widder decided to learn more about Domoto and his practice. Her journey led her to rediscover one of Wright’s students through oral histories from his family members, who’d also saved his sketches, photographs, and blueprints.

Kaneji Domoto’s Bier House (photo by Thad Russel)

The culmination of her research is a small exhibition she curated at the Center for Architecture that celebrates the career of the only Japanese American to leave a mark on the famed Usonia. Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia examines Domoto’s contribution to Wright’s suburban community, where the houses were meant to be affordable, beautiful, sustainable, and unique. Of the 47 homes built on the 100 acres of land, Domoto designed five that came to fruition.

The exhibition features mostly drawings by Domoto that are difficult for the untrained eye to understand, but they’re accompanied by clear explanatory texts and contemporary as well as period photographs of the buildings’ exteriors and interiors. There’s also an original model of Domoto’s first and largest Usonian house, the Bier House, an 1,800-square-foot structure built in 1949 and set into a sloping site. Its layout recalls one of Wright’s most famous works, Fallingwater, with a spacious living room wrapped around a large hearth and open ceilings with skylights.

Widder had procured the Lurie House, another one of Domoto’s earliest homes at Usonia. Built the same year as the Bier House, it exemplifies the architect’s reputation for listening carefully to his clients and responding to their needs — traits that made him stand out. For Mrs. Lurie, who was less than five feet tall, he built a kitchen with counters as high as tabletops; the two young girls in the family received separate rooms that mirrored each other identically, with a folding plywood door dividing them. The living space was intended to be bright yet cool, featuring windows that stretch from floor to ceiling and a cantilevered eave that faces south. A display of the house’s construction documents on the Center for Architecture’s mezzanine level offers a closer look at its anatomy, using it as a case study to consider how one might preserve a Domoto home today. It features reproductions of the blueprints Widder inherited.

Kaneji Domoto, blueprint of the Lurie House, elevation view
The Lurie House (photo by Thad Russel)

Meanwhile, at the Harris House, which was built around the same time as well, Domoto put an enameled kitchen sink in the…

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