Wright house designed for wheelchair occupant

By Michael Raffety 8-26-13

Part of our Chicago trip was devoted to visiting a Japanese garden in Rockford halfway across the northern tip of Illinois from Chicago. An added bonus to the side trip was seeing another Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home.

This particular home was unique. It was the only home Wright designed for a wheelchair-bound occupant. It was made for retired WWII-injured veteran Kenneth Laurent and his wife Phyllis between 1949 and 1952. The Laurents had visited Taliesin frequently and then met with Wright at his home in Spring Green, Wisc.

The house is 2,500 square feet with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The key feature is a long, curved series of floor-to-ceiling windows facing the backyard. The elliptical curve faces inward and is echoed on the outside by a low brick wall enclosing the patio, maple tree and landscaping. The patio wall curves in the opposite direction of the windows.

The curved windows are an open run for Kenneth Laurent’s wheelchair. Along this run are built-in sofa cushions, pull-chords for the lights under the curved soffit. Higher up are display shelves. Beyond the seating are cupboards easily accessible by Kenneth from his wheelchair. All the furniture and cabinetry were designed by Wright, including bookshelves accessible by Kenneth.

The open floor plan made sure there were no difficult corners to maneuver around.

Kenneth Laurent lived in the house until age 90. He died in January 2012 at the age of 92. His wife had moved to a retirement home and died in November 2012 at age 94.

The Laurent Foundation, composed of local community leaders, purchased the house in February 2012 for $578,500, with half coming from a state grant and the rest raised by the foundation.

The house was supposed to be open for tours just before we arrived in Rockford in June. But heavy rains that caused flooding in various parts of Illinois damaged the roof and led to the postponement of opening the house to the public to June 2014.

Now the foundation that bought the house is raising $500,000 for roof repairs that will include removing the roof to allow for ducts and air-conditioning to be installed, along with some interior work.

The foundation board also bought from a collector furniture that had been original to the house.

By coincidence May 17 the Wall Street Journal’s Friday section called “Mansions” led off with a feature about 20 Frank Lloyd Wright houses on the market that featured a subhead that read, “But owning an architectural treasure can come with significant headaches.”

Leaking roofs are an issue with Wright homes that have flat roofs. I even noticed a tarped-over section of roof at Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

The Millard House built in 1923 in Pasadena out of decorative concrete blocks that let in light and give it what has always appeared to me to be an Aztec look, is prone to leakage during heavy storms. Television producer David Zander has spent $3 million in renovations on it.

In Cherry Hill, N.J., the Sweeton House was bought in 2008 by an architect and his wife for $350,000. It’s an 1,180-square-foot house and they have already spent $55,000 to fix a leaky roof.

A 1949 Eric Brown House in Kalamazoo, Mich., was purchased for $500,000 a year ago. It has five bedrooms, a view of a lake, but doorways are only 22 inches wide. Some furniture had to be brought in through an oversized window.

Some of the Wright homes go for six figures and quite a lot go for millions.

The Laurent House in Rockford is among the Wright houses with a tarp on the roof. When we tracked it down with our Garmin we discovered it was not open, but the exterior view certainly was interesting and featured a number of Frank Lloyd Wright detailings that denoted his Usonian house period. The interior views available on the Web show this to be a very interesting house, one well worth a visit after it opens next year.

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