Photography and text by George Cassidy Payne
One of my all-time favorite coffee table books is 200 Years of Rochester Architecture and Gardens (2006), published by the Landmark Society of Western New York. I’ve visited many of these buildings and gardens first hand, but there is one house that I have always wanted to check out that I just kept putting off. Well, the wait is over. This past weekend, I finally made my way to Powder Mills Park in Perinton, NY, and the structure popularly referred to as the Mushroom House.
Next to a city with buildings designed by world-famous architects such as Frank L. Wright, Louis Kahn, Claude Bragdon, McKim, Mead & White, J. Foster Warner, Harvey Ellis, Gervase Wheeler, and Robert Gibson, the Mushroom House (1971) is the most unusual and visually striking structure in the Greater Rochester region. As Richard Reisem, author of 200 Years of Rochester Architecture and Gardens, wrote: “The owners wanted an imaginative, contemporary look in a single-level structure. Because “the steep hills and ravine on the site didn’t lend themselves to a single level, local architect James H. Johnson devised a stem-and pod design, inspired by Queen Ann’s lace growing wild on the site.” Apparently, Johnson’s primary goal was to have the building stand over the ravine and blend naturally with the landscape. It was not his original intention to create something that resembled fungi or a spacecraft (which it most certainly does).
Having known about the Mushroom House for over 20 years, and now having seen it up close for the first time, I find it a little surprising that the owners did not envision a house that looked this way when they started. That reveals much about their personalities, the implicit trust they had in Johnson as the principal designer, and the remarkable outcomes which can happen in architecture when the environment necessitates the shape and function of the structure. The Mushroom House may not match Wright’s Boynton House in elegance, but the master would be pleased with Johnson’s devotion to the organic approach.
Although I wanted to get closer, I resisted the temptation to peer in the windows of this now for rental property. But I have seen online that the organic approach continues inside with tree-like forms rising and branching out from the center of the five pods. It has three bedrooms, three baths, a spa, a great room, a three-car garage, and a waterfall. At $5,500 a month, I am sure that it is a steal for someone with far deeper pockets than I will ever wear. Too bad, I thought to myself, the county could not find the cash to make it part of the park in which it so creatively inhabits. I am hardly the first person that has imagined the Mushroom House as a museum, conference center, wedding reception site, or public attraction.