Frank Lloyd Wright - Wright in Ohio

The Houses That Frank Built

By Richard Veler

Note: This article is reprinted—with permission—from the March/April 2006 issue of Home & Away (AAA Ohio) magazine, pages 47A-49A.

When travelers take to the road seeking Frank Lloyd Wright destinations, most head to Oak Park, Ill., home of his early work. They also head for Hillside, Wis., site of his studio, Taliesin; to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he built Taliesin West; to Pittsburgh, for a visit to Fallingwater, one of Wright's most famous private residences; or to Manhattan's acclaimed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The acclaimed architect left his mark at least a dozen times in Ohio, too, a fact that may elude Lloyd aficionados. And with the opening of the newly restored Burton J. Westcott House in Springfield last October, another Wright property became available for viewing.

Completed in 1908, the Westcott House is also the earliest Wright-designed house built in Ohio. It was constructed for Burton J. Westccott, a civic leader and industrialist, who brought the Westcott Motor Car Company to Springfield in 1916. He and his wife, Orpha, subsequently decided to move with their two children, John and Jeanne, to the city's prestigious East High Street, the site of large Queen Anne, Victorian and Romanesque Revival homes.

It must have come as a shock to neighbors when the Westcotts—it is believed that it was Orpha who encouraged the commission—selected Wright to design their avant-garde home.

The stucco structure—with 4,400 square feet of living space, plus a sizable basement—displays several features characteristic of Wright's Prairie Style houses. However, it also shows the influence of his trip to Japan in 1905. The horizontal bands of casement windows, cantilevered roofs, extensive use of rich woods and natural colors and a camouflaged drainage system label the house as unmistakably Wright's. As does its site, standing back from a busy thoroughfare and across from a park-like cemetery, providing the sense of shelter that Wright sought to provide in his private residences. A reflecting pool and a pair of massive urns outside, as well as an expansive Roman brick hearth inside, add warmth. The 64-foot-long open space on the first floor—housing the library and reception and living and dining areas—illustrates his departure from the box-like rooms of his predecessors. Other rooms, including sleeping porches, are large as well.

Orpha died unexpectedly in 1923; Burton in 1926. Then, the property passed through several hands, was subdivided into apartments and proceeded to fall on hard times. In 2000, when it was ready to collapse, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy (a Chicago-based group that works to save Wright buildings) purchased it and subsequently sold it to the Westcott House Foundation, a Springfield entity that quickly set about to restore the house and grounds.

The restoration was anything but quick, however. Using a Historical Structure Report prepared by the architectural firm of Chambers, Murphy & Burge of Akron, skilled craftspeople from around the state worked for nearly four years to stabilize the infrastructure, replace the tile roof and redecorate the glazed walls—all according to Wright's plans. State-of-the-art heating, ventilating and other systems were creatively installed to bring the house up to code without altering its 1908 appearance. Local artisans replicated furniture according to Wright's specifications. Gardens were relandscaped, and imported trees were planted again according to Wright's original plan.

At a restoration cost of $5.3 million and thousands of labor-intensive hours, the Westcott House now stands ready to welcome guests. Guided tours are offered at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., Wednesdays through Friday; 11:00 a.m. , 12:00 p.m. , 1:00 p.m. , 2:00 p.m. , 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m on Saturday; and at 1:00 p.m. , 2:00 p.m. , 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., Sundays. Cost is $10.50, adults; $9, seniors, 65 and older; $9, students and groups, minimum of 8; and $4, school groups. For reservations, call (937) 327-9291 or e-mail info@westcotthouse.org. The carriage house, connected to the main house by a 98-foot pergola, houses a gift shop.

MANSIONS FOR THE MASSES

In the 1930s, Wright decided to design houses for the middle class-Usonian houses, he called them. These were generally smaller, one-story, sometimes, with wings sprouting from the main section. Like their Prairie Style forebears, however, they, too, were designed with multi-purpose spaces and with an emphasis upon nature. The house and the environment were to become one.

The Charles Weltzheimer residence, built in Oberlin in 1948, is the only Usonian house in Ohio open to the public. It has an L-shape, with the bedroom wing set at a right angle to the combined living and dining areas. The southern side of the flat-roofed house has clerestory windows that seem to produce a glass wall. Furniture, cabinetry and lighting are built in. The exterior features reddish wooden croquet balls decorating the fascia and curved cutouts on clerestory panels.

The Weltzheimer/Johnson House is now owned by Oberlin College as part of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. It offers guided tours of the site from noon until 5:00 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of each month, with guided tours beginning on the hour. To arrange for group visits at other times, call the museum’s Education Department at (440) 775-8671 or e-mail jason.trimmer@oberlin.edu. Admission is $5 per adult.

When in 1951 the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an article about the Weltzheimer House, it inspired Canton residents Nathan Rubin and his wife to visit. They fell in love with the house, and commissioned Wright to design one for them. Built in 1951, Wright originally designed it for a group of Usonian homes in Okemos, Mich. It is long and low with brick and horizontal wood siding. Wings protrude at 120-degree angles from the main section of the house.

Nathan Rubin is related by marriage to Ellis A. Feiman, who commissioned Wright to design a house for him three years later. Located only one block from the Rubin House, the large, brick Feiman House features an outside brick wall with T-shaped cutouts.

The third Frank Lloyd Wright house in Canton, the John J. Dobkins House, also dates to 1954. Located farther east than the Rubin and Feiman houses, it is set back from the road, has tall, thin casement doors and prominent windows that rise to nearly the roofline.

Another Wright property in Ohio open to the public is the Louis Penfield [House] in Willoughby Hills. Situated east of Cleveland on the Chagrin River, it is available for weekend and holiday rental. Different from many other houses that Wright designed, the Penfield House has doors that reach a normal height—six feet eight inches. Although Wright himself was short and preferred his structures close to the ground, he accommodated the needs of Penfield, who reportedly stood taller than six feet. Wright raised some ceilings to eight feet as well.

The three-bedroom Penfield House is Wrightian in its use of narrow doors and stairways. Ribbon windows and vertical beams help to make the concrete block and wood structure seem larger than it is. The living room features built-in furniture. For more information about the Penfield House, visit www.penfieldhouse.com.

QUEEN CITY THRONES

The Cincinnati area boasts three Wright properties, the Cedric G. Boulter, William Boswell and Gerald B. Tonkens houses. The Boulter House sits on a corner near the Gaslight District, close to the University of Cincinnati. The house was completed in 1956. Wright designed an addition for it in 1958, one year before he died. Its carport was enclosed in 1990.

The Boswell House, from 1957, is located in Indian Hill. It is the last known Usonian house built in Ohio. Thrust into the side of a hill, it seems invisible except in winter. This large structure houses an open living room with glass on three sides, the windows facing the woods. At each side of the living room are the dining room and the private study. Two long wings come off the main space. Service rooms extend down one wing: kitchen, breakfast nook, laundry, bathroom, tool room, servants' quarters and spacious playroom. The other wing includes the master bedroom suite and bath, walk-in closet and dressing room, five smaller bedrooms and two baths.

The Boswell House was completed in 1961, two years after Wright’s death, under the supervision of Taliesin architects. It has recently been renovated.

The Tonkens House, dating to 1955, is located in Amberley Village. Probably the largest Usonian house in Ohio, it boasts a roof of solid coffered concrete block. The home is distinctive because of the gold leaf on the hall ceiling that leads from the entry to the bedroom wing.

ROUNDING OUT THE ROSTER

Yet another Wright house in Ohio—this one designed in 1951—is the Karl A. Staley House in North Madison, near Painesville. Situated on a bluff, the house is constructed of handsome stone that stretches in a long I-plan. A glass façade takes advantage of the view of Lake Erie.

One other significant Ohio Frank Lloyd Wright destination is the Kenneth L. Meyers Medical Clinic in Dayton. Currently called the Plastic Surgery Pavilion, it serves as the clinic of Dr. James Apesos and features a circular laboratory in the center of the medical section. Sited on a large tract of land back from the street, the structure appears to rise from the earth. This long, low brick building is imposing, with bands of windows that meet at the corners. Eaves are broad, and a low entry leads to the high space of the main room. Once again a large hearth—the center of many Wright designs—offers welcome. Bench seating based on Wright's plan was added in 1989, so were two large tables. (The clinic dates to 1956.) Dr. Apesos has been careful to adhere to Wright's influence in other appointments as well, such as a narrow terrace of red-dyed concrete that echoes the color of the brick.