Category Archives: architecture

This American House: Orson Welles’ Birthplace

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Our long commute between Chicago and Iowa takes us past and through a number of towns that contain their own treasured “American houses.” On a recent drive, we pulled off the highway into Kenosha, Wisconsin to find the birthplace of the legendary filmmaker, theatrical titan, and actor Orson Welles.

Welles was born in this house, located in Kenosha’s pretty Library District, in 1915. He wasn’t a Kenosha resident for long, relocating to Chicago at age 4 upon his parents’ separation. After an affluent, nomadic childhood marred by his parents’ untimely deaths, he finally found a true “home” at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where his prodigious talents were nurtured and his illustrious career launched.

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Thereafter, Welles would express conflicted feelings about his hometown of Kenosha, at once calling it “vital and charming” and then saying it was “a terrible place.” Our brief tour through downtown Kenosha (including a delightful ride on a vintage trolley) revealed a vibrant if faded city outshone by its sparkling lakefront.

Welles’ Citizen Kane famously opens with its aged, dying protagonist gasping out his final word, “Rosebud” – a remembrance, we learn at the film’s end, of (spoiler alert!) his beloved childhood sled. I’ve not read that Welles, on his own deathbed in 1985, muttered anything at all related to Kenosha, Wisconsin or this still-lovely house, but who knows. Perhaps in his own mind at the end, he was picturing an innocent, wintry scene outside of this very house, and himself a happy young boy, but he expired just as he was about to say…

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Mr. Porter’s Garage: A Frank Lloyd Wright Connection in Decorah, Iowa

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

The Porter House in Decorah, Iowa, photographed in the fall of 2013.

While showing friends around lovely nearby Decorah late last summer, we happened to pass by the incredible Porter House Museum. This beautiful 19th Century Italianate house is notable for its one-of-a-kind surrounding rock wall, a contribution made to the property by its equally one-of-a-kind owner, Adelbert Field Porter (1879-1968). Mr. Porter, commonly known as “Bert,” was a gentleman explorer, naturalist, and photographer who culled from his vast collection of natural curiosities to create “nature art,” such as his remarkable wall.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Grandson’s Fab Prefab Home

Frank Lloyd Wright's Grandson's Fab PrefabDid you see the article in Dwell magazine about Tim Wright’s fabulous little prefab home? The grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright is living in a small home in the hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, not far from Taliesin in Spring Green. (This is actually a second home for Wright and his wife. Their main residence is in Boston.) For their home in Wisconsin, Wright chose a prefab model designed by Blu Homes which was manufactured in San Francisco and then transported to Wisconsin.

Our American System Built home was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early attempts at affordable prefab homes, which might have been more popular were it not for poor timing (World War 1 was right around the corner). While the ASB homes were not manufactured offsite like today’s prefab homes, the components were all cut, labeled and then shipped to their final destination to be constructed. Rumor has it that the components may have made their way from Milwaukee to Iowa via railroad.

It’s interesting to know that Wright’s grandson is still honoring his grandfather’s notion of affordable prefab housing.

Check out the full article on Dwell: Grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright Constructs Peaceful Prefab Near the Legend’s Famed School

Image: Dwell

Prairie Sale: A 1915 John S. Van Bergen House
741 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Illinois

John S. Van Bergen House at 741 Sheridan Road Evanston Illinois

I’ve been in the city a lot lately due to a new day job. While I usually make the trek out to the house on Friday nights, I decided to stay in the city this weekend. I had errands to run and I needed a break from the commute out the house. We were lucky enough to get a quick taste of spring this weekend, with temperatures in the 60’s and sunny skies above. So on Sunday afternoon I pumped up the tires on my bike and took myself out to soak up some springtime sunshine.

It was on my ride that I discovered this gorgeous Prairie style home in Evanston, Illinois. The house at 741 Sheridan Road was designed by John S. Van Bergen and, judging by the photos in the real estate listing, it’s everything that I want our house to be.

John S. Van Bergen Home at 741 Sheridan Road

If you think that this house looks a lot like Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs – and indeed our own American System Built Home – you’re right. John S. Van Bergen worked for Wright in his studio in Oak Park. As part of his work for Wright, Van Bergen supervised the Robie House and the Mrs. Thomas Gale House. Hailing from Oak Park originally, Van Bergen was undoubtedly influenced by Wright’s Prairie style early in his life. In fact, according to the Wikipedia page about Van Bergen, his “mother was friends with Wright’s mother, Anna, and Van Bergen’s third grade teacher was Wright’s sister, Maginel.”

I stopped in my tracks when I came upon the house at 741 Sheridan Road. Not only am I interested in Prairie style architecture, but this particular house is for sale! I stopped, snapped a photo and then pedaled my way back home, where I immediately searched for details on the house.

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The house was built in 1915, just two years before our ASB home. I can see some similarities between this house and the ASB homes that Wright designed. The wood trim and corner windows are hallmarks of the Prairie style, as are the stucco exterior and low roofline.

With a price of $1.75 million, this house is way, way, way out of our league. It is, however, a great reminder of what we want to do in rehabbing our own more modest house. We want to get the wood trim in our house stripped and refinished. And we want to have the exterior trim and windows repainted. (Speaking of, I love the green trim used on this house in Evanston, but I think we’ll probably go with a red or brown paint for our trim.)

For more information on the house at 741 Sheridan Road, check out the real estate listing at Sotheby’s.

Images: 1. This American House, 2. and 3. Sotheby’s

Peering Over the Fence: Dealing with House Envy

Delbert Meier House

When other Frank Lloyd Wright-designed properties pop up on the market, we can’t help but peer over the proverbial fence and compare notes. Mind you, this is more easily done with other Wright-designed Prairie houses, like our own. Recently, some Usonian houses have come up for sale. Each has been beautifully and thoroughly designed; one must feel as though one is actually living in a work of art, even more so than we do in our gorgeous house. A recent listing showed stunning interiors covered in wood – ceilings, walls, built-in shelves and furniture. We wonder, however, how much a completely designed house pushes out the homeowners’ ability to be co-creative with the space? If there are no walls to paint and little furniture needed to add, what more is there to do than fill up the built-in shelves and perhaps change out curtains and floor rugs?

Our house is somewhat of a blank canvas, held within a Wright-designed frame. The frame does dictate to some degree how we fill in the canvas, but for the most part it’s ours with which to play. We are certainly choosing to restore some interior elements to the house that were altered or removed years ago, like the original built-in cabinets, woodwork, and fireplace. We also hope to eventually “Wright” some alterations made to the exterior of the house, and frame it with more organic landscaping. But that said, we have little interest in making the house a museum. We would rather it be a space in which we can live in harmony with what it once was and was meant to be, but also with what it is now and can be. It’s a heady task, this balancing act between preserving the form of the house while updating its function, but we think we’re on the right (if not completely “Wright”) track.

— Michael

Image: This American House