- Como Orchard Summer Colony (University Heights), Darby, Montana (1909) (S.144)
(Note, due to the fact that the internet is constantly changing, and items that
are posted change, I have copied excerpts of the text, but give all the credits available.)
Darby ranch owner relishes his land's colorful history
by ROD DANIEL - Ravalli Republic, 2006
DARBY - When Charles Roland looked at a piece of property north of Darby in 1991, he had no idea two of its buildings had been designed by one of this country's most famous architects.
But after Roland purchased the 250-acre piece up Bunkhouse Road, he realized he owned the only existing buildings in the valley designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Two modest wood-frame houses are all that remain of University Heights, a planned community designed by Wright in 1909 and promoted by the Como Orchard Land Co. to attract university professors and other academics from the Chicago area. Wright's plan called for 53 separate cottages to be built around a large central lodge - all part of a 1,600-acre apple orchard planted in 1907 south of Lake Como.
By 1912, about a dozen cottages as well as the spacious lodge had been built, but the project was a financial failure and the orchard community never made it to fruition.
Today, only two of the original buildings remain: One of the cottages is the main home on Roland's ranch, and what was once the "payroll cabin" for the orchard's 100-or-so workers is now a modest guest cabin near the entrance to the ranch. The lodge has been replaced by a metal-sided barn.
A retired surgeon, Roland grew up in Iowa but did his surgical training in Madison, Wisc., where many Frank Lloyd Wright homes grace the rolling landscape. It was there that he became enamored with Wright's artistic and functional style of design.
"Years ago I became interested in the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture," Roland said. "When we found the property 15 years ago, we didn't even know it was a Wright. It was later we learned of its history."
Roland and his family still spend most of their time in San Diego, Calif., where his daughter is still in school and where he practiced medicine for many years before retiring. But Roland said he comes to Montana about once a month, and over the years, he's done a considerable amount of research into Wright and his limited work in the Bitterroot Valley.
He recently obtained a copy of the famous architect's actual renderings for the development, and he's taken great pains not to dismantle any more of Wright's buildings.
"This is a historic piece of property and we've tried to do things to preserve it for another 100 years," he said.
Perhaps the most informative piece written about the property and of Wright's work in the Bitterroot, he said, is an article by Donald Leslie Johnson that appeared in the Summer 1987 edition of "Montana: The Magazine of Western History" titled "Frank Lloyd Wright's Architectural Projects in the Bitterroot Valley, 1909-1910."
Johnson's article briefly chronicles the development of the valley's apple orchards from 1866 to 1900, culminating with the completion of the dam at Lake Como in 1906 and the subsequent construction of the Big Ditch by the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Co. According to Johnson's research, Wright was invited to participate in the colossal irrigation and development project.
"(Wright's) role was that of architect and community planner for BRVICo, and he began the first of his projects in the Bitterroot Valley in early 1909 with a plan for University Heights, a subdivision development to be located near Darby," the article reads.
The article later explained how Wright first visited the University Heights site and surrounding orchards in February 1909.
"On his return and until the first of May, Wright designed (the community's) central clubhouse, all of the cabins, and the site plan for the Heights. ... Wright's drawings are dated April 1909, construction of the clubhouse began on May 5, 1909, and very soon thereafter work began on 12 cabins. By March 1910 all were complete, and all fit the aesthetic model of Wright's personal style."
Johnson's article went on to say that "other than his drawings published in 1910, Wright practically ignored University Heights. ... By 1912, the project was a financial failure, which may have soured his taste for the enterprise."
Standing inside his 96-year-old cottage, Roland pointed out some of the many interesting features of the home, which by the time he bought it, had been renovated several times.
"Frank Lloyd Wright did away with hallways," he said. "The Prairie style was all about economy. His signature was his fireplaces - everything was built around a central fireplace."
The large living room in the center of the house opens into three separate bedrooms and is surrounded by plenty of glass, the surface of which is striated from almost a century of existence. The walls are all made of wood, since the structure pre-dates sheet rock.
Some of the more interesting features include wooden bookcases, built into the walls and wearing numerous coats of paint. Also noteworthy are the many angles of the gently sloped roof, which, because there's no drop ceiling, are integral to the interior design of the home.
Since the home had no electricity at the time it was built, it was outfitted with gas lamps connected by a pencil-thick metal tube. Roland said he learned from a neighbor that gas was actually manufactured on site and piped to each of the cottages. Many of the lamps and pieces of the metal tubing still remain, but none have been lighted in years, he said.
Several hundred feet north of the home is the Spartan building which formerly served as the payroll cabin. Adjacent to the venerable Tin Cup Ditch, the body of water that made the original orchard possible, the well-made wooden structure now rests under the shade of some towering ponderosa pines.
Roland said he continues to prowl his property in search of bits and pieces of its storied past, and is amazed at how many of the original McIntosh apple trees still remain amid what is now forest.
"Over 100 of the original trees are still here," he said, pointing to the grassy knoll supporting the gnarly fruit trees. "And along Bunkhouse Creek you can still find apple trees mixed in with the pines."
Roland said he's proud of the fact that he owns what he's sure are the only surviving Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the Bitterroot. And he intends to keep gathering material to further complete the historical picture of the orchard community that never quite materialized.
"It's kind of a lost piece of history," he said. "And while I'm not a historian, it's important for me to learn as much as I can about this place."