The back face of the Sterling Kinney home is its most dramatic. This private view—only visible from the creek side of the property—shows the interplay between circular forms, horizontal lines and the home’s 15-degree batter slope.
PHOTOS BY ANGELINA MARIE
The winter afternoon sun streams through enormous, west-facing windows into the living room of the most famous home in Amarillo. Snow melts off the roof, splashing onto a terrace that surrounds a circular flower pool. The curve offsets the hard angles and lines of the structure, but matches the bend of the dry creek bed a short distance away. The horizontal lines of the flat roof echo the tops of the mesas rising above this hidden local treasure.
Despite its reputation among architecture enthusiasts outside the Panhandle—visitors from as far away as Japan have traveled here just for a glimpse at the exterior—this 2,000-square-foot home is one few locals have ever seen, much less entered.
The four-bedroom, open-concept home is located on several acres northwest of Amarillo. The trees and landscape hide most of it from public view.
It’s one of only three Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses in Texas. Robin Gilliland is the second owner, having purchased the home in 2004 from the Kinney family. Dorothy Ann Kinney, an estate tax attorney, and her husband, Sterling, commissioned the design from Wright in 1957. The legendary architect passed away in 1959 and the Kinney House was completed to his specifications in 1961.
The Kinneys raised their three children there, and Dorothy Ann lived in the home until her late 2003 death at the age of 83.
“I have been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright forever,” Gilliland says. She stands in the dining room next to a long table made of blonde Philippine mahogany. The architect designed the custom table to fit the space. “Actually,” she jokes, “I’ve got a Frank Lloyd Wright book I stole from the Amarillo library in fifth grade.”
She displays the book in the living room without much remorse. For what it’s worth, Gilliland’s mother, Sandra, made her daughter pay back the library long ago, and Robin eventually served as president of the Amarillo Library Advisory Board.
Return to Glory
When Dorothy Ann Kinney passed away 20 years ago, local architect Mason Rogers learned the house would soon be for sale. He contacted Amarillo designer Reese Beddingfield, who alerted Gilliland. She decided to buy it. “I got into a bidding war with a family from London. They wanted to own a piece of Wright,” Gilliland says. But she convinced the estate that it should go to someone local—someone who would take great care of the home, its legacy, and the land it sat on.
The Kinney family sold it to Gilliland, who then partnered with Beddingfield, Rogers and a team of local craftsmen to restore the aging home to its former glory. She and Beddingfield made a pilgrimage to Taliesin West in Arizona to get advice from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. From scraping red paint off the concrete floors to removing decades of nicotine stains from the abundant wood surfaces, the ambitious restoration project took a full year.
“Reese and I were out here every single day. It was a mess,” she says. Despite the significance of the home and Wright’s exacting detail, all the repairs were handled by locals. “There were so many Frank Lloyd Wright fans,” among the tradespeople who worked on it, Gilliland says, including concrete masons, roofers and bricklayers. “There’s no socioeconomic division whatsoever,” she says. Gilliland tells of workers bringing their children out to see the home, some of whom wrote school reports on it.
“You’d have to be a terrible craftsman to walk up to this house and not care at all,” Rogers adds.
PANTHEON OF DESIGN
When the repairs were complete, Gilliland moved into the home. She doesn’t live there full time—she keeps a residence in Amarillo—but regularly spends weekends on the property and uses the home often for entertaining, fundraising and other events.
Mason Rogers, now the owner of Playa Design Studio, says Gilliland’s relationship to the home is significant. “There are so few of these houses that are owned by a private estate and still have life in them,” he says. In fact, when Gilliland first contacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, they were concerned she would be tearing the home down. Due to Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctive design, the maintenance of his homes can be expensive. “They’re a little calloused at the ‘home office’ because they’re hard to keep up,” Rogers adds. “If a museum or a university doesn’t acquire [a Wright-designed structure], then the odds of keeping it up are pretty low.”
Hardly anyone still lives in one, and other than architecture students, art historians, and Airbnb customers willing to pay for it, few people get to see them.
“But this one—the fact that we can all stand here and not have bought a ticket, we can talk to the owner and walk into the bathroom and open cabinet doors—that’s an unbelievably rare experience,” says Rogers.
He’s standing in the living room, admiring the unobstructed pasture view through a unique glass corner window. Rogers and his Playa colleague Mike Ritter point out details—like how short ceilings give way to higher lines as you move further inside the home, pushing a visitor toward communal spaces. “This is not a high ceiling, but it feels luxurious once you come out from under that canopy,” Rogers says.
Wright completed 532 structures in his lifetime and is arguably the world’s most famous architect. “You’re talking about the pantheon of design,” Rogers says. “Not just in Texas or the United States, but globally. He’s so popular, the only architect anyone has ever heard of is Frank Lloyd Wright.”
During the first part of the 20th century, Wright’s prairie-style domestic designs helped give birth to the popular mid-century modern design aesthetic. His approach evolved further into what he called the Usonian style, characterized by flat roofs, passive solar heating and natural lighting. The Sterling Kinney House in Amarillo is a Usonian design. “It was contrary to all the things the other architects in the world were doing. It was uniquely American in the design,” Rogers says. “The fact that somebody in Amarillo decided to [commission a Wright-designed home] is mind-boggling.”
Gilliland smiles. “I learn something new every time I come out here,” she says.
Dr. Amy Von Lintel is a professor of art history at West Texas A&M University. The author of several books about the impact of the Texas Panhandle within the art world, she’s working on a manuscript about the aesthetics of this region, with an entire chapter dedicated to the Sterling Kinney House.
“The kind of house he built is experiential, so you’re discovering it as part of the journey,” she explains about the architect. Von Lintel contrasts the home with the more traditional homes Wright’s designs began to push against. “Most houses, you walk in and your mind knows the [floor] plan. But this house, you walk in and so many things start to unfold: light and shade, high and low, different materials. It’s a discovery journey.”
But the Wright-admiring public has been relatively slow to discover the Kinney house. It’s on the radar of Wright enthusiasts—every so often, Gilliland or her neighbors will encounter gawkers driving up the road looking for the home, many from out of state—but it still gets less attention than his other Usonian homes. “The man wrote prolifically, but he never wrote about this house because it was being built as he was declining,” Von Lintel says. “So it kind of fell off the radar [for Wright scholars].”
To complicate things, Wright also designed another structure known as the Kinney House. Located in Wisconsin, that one was completed in 1953 for an attorney named Patrick Kinney. He was unrelated to the Kinney family in Amarillo, and the earlier Kinney home gained a higher profile than the local one. (For instance, the Sterling Kinney home isn’t listed among example sites at franklloydwright.org.)
It doesn’t help that Gilliland’s home is hard to find, tucked away in the middle of the Panhandle. But maybe that’s part of the appeal. Von Lintel says Wright never wanted his homes to be built on a standard city lot, but wanted them to be in conversation with the natural setting. That’s why so many of them—like this one—have been built on the outskirts of cities.
And that’s why the rugged Panhandle setting is perfect.
Though Wright was immersed in the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City when he died, he did send one of his architects to Amarillo from Taliesen to oversee construction and site placement. This ensured a mesa behind the property was the focus of the living room and entry. Gilliland shares how she once invited a New York architect inside the home, and he told her sitting in the dining room was like sitting “inside a masterpiece” like Monet’s Water Lilies.
From the floor-to-ceiling windows to the painstaking woodwork, there’s something to see in every direction. “There’s not a bad seat” in the dining room, she says, or in the entire home.
Wright’s Usonian style was known for its use of horizontal lines, and Rogers says the Amarillo location of this American masterpiece makes perfect sense to him.
“We’re familiar with the bold, horizontal line,” he says. Ours is a city that loves its wide open spaces and epic sunsets. Downtown skyscrapers are vertical. Urban density is vertical. Trees are vertical. We don’t have too many of those things.
What we have are horizons in every direction. Our world is horizontal.
“That’s something people in Amarillo can wrap their heads around. It fits our eye. It all came together here,” he says. “Amarillo was ripe for a piece like this.”
“Batter” is an architectural term for the slope of a wall or structure, and the Kinney House has multiple elements pitched at a 15-degree angle from vertical, including walls and cabinetry edges. Von Lintel says the lean may be a response to the angles of nearby mesas. On the home’s exterior, the cantilevered edges of the eaves follow the 15-degree angle but at a slight stairstep.
The L-shaped home is divided into two wings: one for adults and one for children, with the living room, dining room and kitchen in the middle. The living room is centered around a circular fireplace, which “is always the heart of a Frank Lloyd Wright home,” says Mike Ritter of Playa. A custom, Wright-designed couch follows that curve. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide expansive views to the west. “He’s embracing the setting sun,” Rogers says of Wright. “You’re looking down the creek. For someplace like Amarillo, this is an amazing view.”
Red-stained slab concrete floors are designed to reduce noise and divide the home into a four-by-four grid.
Wright’s homes are known for an early embrace of open-concept living, with the small dining room open to the kitchen and living areas, providing a view of the terrace. The table is original. The patterned shapes of the windows, formed by the bricks, add visual interest. Art historian Amy Von Lintel says the stair-step sides of the windows reflect the angles of the mesas outside the home, and may also recall the stepped pyramids at Teotihuacan in Mexico. Wright often expressed his interest in primitive American architecture.
Gilliland admits she moved the bed from its original, Wright-intended location, putting it instead next to the wall of windows. Nature, she says, is a better headboard. “I look at the stars, deer, a covey of quail,” she says. Closet storage fills an entire wall. Lacking a door jamb, the push-to-open door hardware and piano hinges keep the lines clean. “There’s nothing to disrupt your eye,” she says.
This scale folds down from a cabinet door in the main bath. A classic Wright built-in, it still shows Kinney family footprints.
The furthest bedroom in the children’s wing, this room serves as something of a second owner’s suite. It’s the full width of the house, and surprisingly, Wright continued the stair-step window motif even in its closet (see inset below). “He wanted you to be able to see completely through the house,” Gilliland says.
The built-in desk (left) was a custom design by Wright. After Gilliland bought the home, Sotheby’s contacted her to see if she would be willing to sell the desk and other original furniture pieces. She turned down the famous auction house.
The art above the headboard is by a Chinese artist who was getting his PhD in architecture at the University of Texas. Gilliland saw his work, loved the piece, and after buying it, told him it would go in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. “I never do that,” she says, but the artist was ecstatic. “The following [of Wright’s work] is just incredible.”
With brick on one side and board-and-batten wood walls on the other, this long hallway opens into the bedrooms in the children’s wing and features cabinet storage for the full length. “He called this the gallery,” Gilliland says of the architect. The cabinet tops are designed to serve as shelves for art and photography. “He didn’t want your [art] collections hanging on his beautiful work.”
Below, the front edge of the shelves in this office, located in the “adult” wing of the house, are pitched at the same 15-degree angle from vertical—a product of Frank Lloyd Wright’s careful attention to detail. The drawers at lower right echo the stairstep design of the small windows and eaves.
Who was Frank Lloyd Wright?
Widely considered one of the most important figures in American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright is known for his innovative building designs, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, as well as private residences like Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. An active architect for 70 years, Wright has been called “the greatest American architect of all time” by the American Institute of Architects.
The Sterling and Dorothy Ann Kinney residence in Amarillo was one of his last residential designs. It’s one of only four Frank Lloyd Wright-designed projects completed in Texas, along with a home in Houston and a home and theater in Dallas.
The Kinneys were both attorneys who practiced for decades in Amarillo. Dorothy Ann had become a fan of Wright’s career and the couple hired him to build a modest, 2,00-square-foot home for their three daughters.