The rediscovered works of Kaneji Domoto

Kaneji Domoto, an architect who is an American of Japanese descent, designed the 1955 Siegel House in Pleasantville, N.Y., one of five
homes Domoto designed in the planned community built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his students. photo by Thad Russell

While Kaneji Domoto passed away in 2002 at the age of 89, his work and life have been revived through an exhibit at the Center for Architecture in New York. Domoto, a native of Oakland, Calif., was a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based architect and landscape architect who studied and worked with legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as other luminaries, and the latest exhibit showcases the homes he designed and built in Pleasantville, N.Y. in Westchester County’s Usonia, a planned community built by Wright and his students.

While Wright taught many students, Domoto was characterized by his attention to detail and brave designs, which simultaneously accomodated his clients’ needs and budgets, Lynnette Widder, the exhibit’s curator, said.

“Construction of a Wright house was always very expensive because everything was custom. He refused to use standard American construction,” Widder told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Domoto had a different approach … He was really embracing in all of these houses, these new materials that are coming onto the market and using them in very intelligent ways.”

Widder learned of Domoto and his work when she purchased one of his homes in Usonia three years ago. She acquired her home’s blueprints along with the house, and contacted the family to consult with them on renovating the house. Widder, who lectures at Columbia University and is a licensed architect herself, said she appreciated Domoto’s bravery in his designs.

In addition to being mindful of the cost, Domoto created unique designs to address his clients’ specific needs. The original owners of Widder’s house had asked Domoto to build shorter counters to accommodate a shorter housewife. Domoto installed a kitchen island that was table-height instead of counter-height, which doubled as both a workspace for the mother and a table for the family. Widder said the decision was uncommon in the 1940s.

“There was a moment in renovating the kitchen, where I stepped back and looked at it and just thought ‘oh my God, he was so brave.’ There’s so much going on here,” she said. “I thought, ‘if I had even gone as far to think about that, I would have totally pulled back and thought, ‘no, that’s too much, it’s too complex, I’m never going to be able to get that all under control.’ … But being able to work off of someone who had such inventiveness and such conviction in putting things together, you can totally see the pleasure that he took.”

While the public learns to appreciate Domoto’s work today through the exhibit, his family remembers him as a kind and unique individual. Domoto was the second son, born Nov. 5, 1912. His parents started the Domoto Nursery in Oakland.

“My uncle inherited the family nursery and my father decided he didn’t want to work for his brother,” Kris Marubayashi, the youngest of Domoto’s four children, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “That’s when he started pursuing other options, including landscape architecture and then him having the fellowship at Taliesin (Wright’s architectural studio).’”

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