A Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house that the architect called his “little gem” opens to the public as a museum on June 6 in Rockford, Ill. The Usonian house is the only building that Wright designed for a person with a physical disability and is one that the architect considered one of the greatest designs in his career. The grand opening coincides with what would have been Wright’s 147th birthday on June 8.
Wright designed the house for Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent, who lived in it from 1952 until it was acquired by a private foundation in 2012. Ken, a World War II veteran, was paralyzed due to complications from spinal surgery and was confined to a wheelchair. Preparing for Ken’s release from the hospital, the couple looked for a wheelchair-accessible house, but had no success in their search.
After reading an article featuring Wright’s Pope-Leighey House (formerly the Loren Pope Residence) in Falls Church, Va., in a 1946 issue of House Beautiful magazine, Phyllis told her husband that she had found an architect to design their house. Ken wrote a letter to Wright describing his needs, asking the famed architect if he was interested and whether or not he could stick to a budget. Wright responded, “Dear Laurent: We are interested but don’t guarantee costs. Who knows what they are today - ?”
The Laurents signed a contract with Wright in 1949 and for the next two years, “Ken kept sending Wright letters, growing impatient that Wright had not yet designed the house. Wright kept responding that Ken should remain patient that he would be pleased with the outcome,” says Jerry Heinzeroth, a friend of the couple and president of the Laurent House Foundation Board, the organization that formed to buy the house. “Finally Ken wrote that he had been confined to a hospital for five years and needed his house.”
Even though Wright left the couple waiting for two years, the architect worked quickly once he started: “According to Ken, one evening Wright asked his apprentice to put paper onto his drafting board. The apprentice left for two hours and when he came back, the floor plan and the drawing were done,” Heinzeroth says. “Ken said that all that time, Wright was designing that house in his head and he didn’t commit to paper until he had completely designed it in his mind.”
Long before the days of accessibility requirements by Americans with Disabilities Act, Wright recognized the how the home’s design could accommodate Ken’s needs. “I think Wright took it because it was a challenge,” Heinzeroth says.
Wright designed the house so that Ken could always turn his wheelchair around rather than be required to back out of a room. He could travel throughout the property without assistance and could reach doorknobs and light switches. Since Ken couldn’t open normal bureau or desk drawers, Wright designed built-in cabinets with doors that fold down on hinges, so that Ken could easily reach into the cavities. In fact, all the furniture was designed at lower-than-standard heights so that “when you sat in the house, you were either at or below Ken’s eye level, which made Ken feel like the tallest person in the room,” Heinzeroth says. “The perspective that the house is meant to be seen from is at Ken’s eye level.”
In 2012, after the Laurents had passed away, the Laurent House Foundation bought the property with its original Wright-designed furniture. The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the Foundation began work the home’s restoration.
John Eifler of Chicago-based Eifler & Associates Architects, who Heinzeroth describes as the “best-known Frank Lloyd Wright restoration architect in the country,” completed the repairs, which included installing a new roof, disassembling walls to rewire the house, restoring the concrete flooring, and adding an underground drainage system. The original Cherokee red flooring is currently being restored. When that process is complete, Heinzeroth estimates the total restoration of the house to cost around $400,000.
“The building is unique in that it has been continually occupied by the original owners, and contains not only furnishings designed by the architect, but many personal items of the owners,” Eifler said in a press release. “In other words, it is a complete work of art.”
After the grand opening next month, the museum will be open for tours on the first and last weekends of the month and by appointment for group tours.