Usonian: Beyond the Prairie, The Laurent House, part three

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-tSfbWoIj2w.jpg’, ‘Photo by author’, ‘Exterior view of Laurent carport. A very special thank you to Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent for welcoming me into their home.’);

Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of a three-part series on the Usonian design of the Frank Lloyd Wright Kenneth Laurent House in Rockford. This part offers a detailed description of the exterior and interior of the home.

The first part of the series was published in the Feb. 25-March 3 issue of The Rock River Times and detailed the Wright “Prairie School” of architecture on which the Laurent house is based. The second part, published in the April 21-27 issue, explained how Laurent settled on the design of his home.

The series was originally published as a research paper by the author at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is republished here with permission.

Approaching the Kenneth Laurent house in Rockford, one realizes that it is one with the earth. Although it does not have the berm of the Jacobs II house, the lay of the land is such that the road sits at roof level.

You drive down to the house, seeing first the roof and entering under the cantilevered carport. All of the materials are there to greet you. The brick of the exterior and the patio wall is also utilized in the fireplace, which dominates the living space.

The red concrete floor in the carport flows through the house on the patio. A floor-to-ceiling wooden sculpture is actually a light fixture and also appears in the interior of the house.

Standing at the front door, all materials are visible on the interior. The board and batten walls direct you into the living space. One turn and the southwest wall of windows opens the entire living space to the inviting patio and spacious backyard.

The Laurent House is also a hemicylce plan,18 constructed of Chicago common brick. The original material chosen was Wisconsin limestone, but due to budget concerns, the brick was used.

The floor is poured concrete in 3-foot square increments, emphasizing the grid and sits on a drained gravel bed. The 4-inch concrete floor mat is deep red in color (pigment was added to the top layer).

The floor was the first step of construction, poured before the walls and roof were begun. Two leaf imprints decorate the kitchen floor and give a small indication of construction methodology.

The board and batten walls are of redtide cyprus. To emphasize Wright’s concept of harmony between the exterior and the interior of the house, the battens continue into the window framing, and the same board and batten is on the exterior.

The exterior brick is utilized in the fireplace, and the aforementioned continuation of the floor material further emphasizes the interplay of interior and exterior.

The furniture consists of built-in and loose Wright-designed pieces. The small hexagonal tables are flanked by hassocks and a variation of the barrel chair.

The benches that surround the living space are built into the board and batten wall and have upholstered cushions. The furniture is lower than average, but fits in perfectly with the 7-foot 3-inch ceiling height.

Everything was designed with Laurent’s viewpoint in mind. The built-in benches and the ability of the hassocks to nestle under the tables makes for easy access in his wheelchair.

The master bedroom features a small fireplace with a cantilevered desk next to it. This again was created for Laurent’s use. The nicest feature of the master bedroom, however, is the north wall that features three tall, thin windows with mirrors in between. Once again emphasizing the interplay of interior and exterior.

The natural use of materials gives the home a very warm feeling, as does the “gravity heat.”

Wright discovered gravity heat when in Japan building the Imperial Hotel. While dining at Baron Okura’s house, the dining room was so cold, Wright could not eat; after dinner, the Baron led his guests to the Korean room for coffee.

“The climate seemed to have changed. No, it wasn’t the coffee; it was spring. We were soon warm and happy again-kneeling there on the floor, an indescribable warmth. No heating was visible, nor was it felt directly as such. It was really a matter not of heating at all but an affair of climate.”19

The Baron’s interpreter explained that a Korean room was heated under the floor. Wright felt that it was such a natural way to heat a home and incorporated gravity heat into his Usonian homes.

The Laurents discussed an addition with Wright in 1958, but unable to agree on a design, did nothing until after Wright’s death in 1959. The addition was completed by Taliesen architect John Howe, whom Wright referred to as “his mightiest pen.”20

The dining area was enlarged and a third bedroom was added. In further keeping with their Taliesen connection, the Laurents had three screens designed by Taliesen artist Ling Pao.

The fireplace screen for their bedroom is an abstract of their floor plan. The two floor screens which flank the living space, are Wright-inspired.

The Laurents and Wrights became friends. Beginning in 1950, the Laurents would travel to Spring Green on Saturdays during the summer months. The afternoon would be spent looking over blueprints for current projects, posted on the wall of the studio. In the evening, they would enjoy dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Wright and the students, followed by a musicale or movie in the theater. They enjoyed these field trips every summer until Wright’s death in 1959.

Wright visited the Laurents often, stopping on his way from Chicago to Spring Green. His first visit was soon after construction was completed, and he came to inspect the design.

Walking into the master bedroom, he looked up at the fireplace, a niche in the brick work, and said, “Oh, so that’s how that turned out!”21

Wright also visited after the Laurent children were born. “Little Laurent”, as Wright referred to him, was in his play pen near the window as Wright entered one afternoon. Placing his tam on the child’s head, he shook his tiny hand and said, “Now you can tell your grandchildren that you shook the hand that shook the hand of Sullivan.”22

Necessity brought the Laurents to Wright, they did not realize what they were in at the time. Only later did they realize his genius and what a treasure they had in their Usonian. After 40 years, they are still in a love affair with their house.

18 Frank Lloyd Wright, The Natural House (New York: Horizon Press 1954), p. 184.

19 Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings; Volume 5 (1949 – 1959), New York: Rizzoli International Publications, p. 108.

20 Laurent Interview.

21 Laurent interview.

22 Laurent interview.21 Laurent interview.

22 Laurent interview.

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