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

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part series on the Usonian design of the Frank Lloyd Wright Kenneth Laurent House in Rockford. This part explains how Kenneth Laurent settled on the design of his Rockford 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 series was originally published as a research paper by the author at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is republished here with permission.

Kenneth Laurent was born in a small town in northern Illinois to Norwegian immigrants. He moved to Rockford in 1937 to work for National Lock Corporation. At this time, he met Phyllis, a native Rockfordian, and they were married.

Laurent served in the Navy during World War II. Due to a spinal injury during the war, Laurent was confined to a wheel chair.

Laurent spent several months in the Veterans’ hospital with Phyllis by his side; making plans to return to Rockford and National Lock.

The subject most discussed at this time was the house that they were to build on a previously purchased lot located in an established neighborhood on Rockford’s fast-growing east side. Their main concern, obviously, was a house that would allow Laurent easy access to all areas in his wheelchair.

The Loren Pope home built in 1940 in Falls Church, Va., was the building that brought Kenneth Laurent and Frank Lloyd Wright together. Pope, a journalist for the Washington Evening Star, was in love with his house. His family thrived in it, and in 1948 he wrote a glowing article for House Beautiful, extolling the virtues, not only of his house, but of its designer.

Pope chose Wright as his architect because of his unique beliefs of habitation and the follow-through of those beliefs into the structures.

“It is the only kind of habitation fit for man because it has a presence and a soul. Why? First, because it is a work of principle, it is honest, and being honest, it is both eloquent and quiet. Buildings are close to our lives and influence them, consciously or subconsciously. Mr. Wright’s buildings are a tangible expression of his philosophy. He thinks of America as synonymous with freedom. And to him, freedom has many ingredients; among them truth, courage, frankness, and space to live in, uncramped. All these things are a part of the house and proclaim themselves, eloquently and quietly.”12

In Pope’s article, titled “The Love Affair of a Man and his House,” he speaks of the ease of living in his Usonian. Upkeep was minimal due to the natural use of materials. Heating costs were low due to the “gravity” heat. Pope sold his Wright-designed home in 1948, to move into a larger Usonian designed by Wright to accommodate his growing family.

The patients at the Veterans’ hospital received magazine subscriptions during their stay, and the Laurents started reading House Beautiful. In August of 1948, Laurent believes it was the first issue he received, contained the above-mentioned article by Pope. However, it was not the glowing critique of the architecture that intrigued Laurent; he liked the idea of an open floor plan and built-in furniture. The centers of the room were uncluttered, easy maneuvering for a man in a wheelchair.

When he visited home that weekend, he showed the article to Phyllis, and they decided it might be something that could work for them. Pope became interested in the architecture of Wright by reading An Autobiography, so Laurent checked it out of the VA hospital library as soon as he returned. It took him three weeks to read the book, however, “When you’re lying down, it’s very heavy reading.”13

Laurent continued to educate himself on the architecture of Wright and finally wrote with a request for a residence for his special needs on a limited budget.

Laurent was quite specific with his needs for the house, outlined in a two-page letter to Wright dated Aug. 23, 1948. The budget was $20,000 and their treeless corner lot measured 145 feet by 100 feet, north and east.

He went on to describe his desires in the living area, dining room and kitchen, utility room, bedrooms, garage, and bathroom, specifying a shower stall 44 inch by 44 inch.

Laurent followed the letter with a phone call and received a two-line letter from Wright dated Sept. 6, 1948: “We are interested but don’t guarantee costs. Who knows what they are today.”14

The Laurents were invited to Taliesen on Sept. 20th to discuss the project with Wright. He had never designed a house for anyone in a wheelchair, and he was interested in doing it. Wright decided the city lot at Rural and Vale would be unacceptable and suggested they “drive into the country about seven miles, and when you think you’ve found the right place, go another seven miles.”15

They did stop at the first seven miles, securing a beautiful wooded lot with Spring Creek designating the rear lot line. Wright approved of the lot in another two-line letter dated Jan. 18, 1949: “All right. Seems good.”16

By the spring of 1949, the Laurents were getting very impatient; they realize now that this was the way Wright always worked. He would ponder a design for some time before committing to paper.

Letters dated March 28 and May 24, 1949, illustrate their growing anxiety. Due to the inaccessibility of their current home, Laurent had to remain at the Veterans’ hospital during this time, a total of three years. The Laurent house was finally on paper in July of 1949.

Laurent explains, “The staff and students were all over at Hillside for choral practice, and when they came back from that, Mr. Wright had sketched it out, and that was the original sketch which changed a little bit.” 17

The original sketch placed the fireplace where the doors to the terrace are and the grand piano near the center of the room. With these exchanged, the Laurents received a detailed plan in a couple of months, and it was accepted. The plans were received Aug. 6, 1949, at an estimated cost of $25,000.

Once again, the Laurents traveled to Taliesen for a conference with Wright. On Aug. 13, they met and finalized plans. Working drawings were started, and the job actually went out for bids in August of 1950, two years since Laurent read the House Beautiful article by Pope. Life has a way of coming full circle. In Wright’s book, The Natural House, the Pope and Laurent houses appear back to back.

12 Loren Pope, “The Love Affair of a man and his house,” House Beautiful, August 1948, p.34.

13 Valerie Olafson, Interview with Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent, October 1995.

14 Getty Museum, Taliesen correspondence, doc# L114D05

15 Laurent Interview.

16 Getty doc# L118B03.

17 Bear Run Foundation, Frank Lloyd Wright, Drawings for a Living Architecture, Bear Run Foundation, p. 214.

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