Of the ten structures in Iowa designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the one nearest my home is in between Dubuque and Waterloo, just south of Highway 20 near Quasqueton. The original owner, Lowell Walter named it Cedar Rock for the limestone formation on the site at the shore of the Wapsipinicon River.
It is one of Wright’s designs for which he coined the term “Usonian” – short for United States of North American. His intent with this departure from the more well known Prairie Style was to make innovation and good design affordable and available to Middle America*.
The site is of a spectacular beauty that would surprise those many not familiar with Iowa away from Interstate 80. It is secluded, heavily wooded, and perched above a wide and swift Wapsipinicon river. Local lore has it that a Native American tragedy akin to Romeo and Juliet played out nearby.
The design is called tadpole in plan with the ‘head’ being the all important open square “Garden Room” and ‘tail’ the rectangular living spaces articulated forty-five degrees off the southeast corner. Wright wrote Walter “there will be no basement or attic” which tone pervades every square foot.
He designed each space, selected every object, and arranged it all with incredibly great painstaking care. Upon a return visit, he would scold and say “you can use that pitcher, but it must be returned to its original position precisely so”. The Walters wanted a queen sized bed, but Wright would not have it. He insisted upon two doubles like a curator establishing symmetry in a gallery.
It is a wonderful sculptural object well rooted, plinthless, in its site like an earth toned dolman laid flat. But it wouldn’t be a great place in which to live. Once shorn of initial zeal, it’d stale one’s concept of heaven. Who’d want to live in a monastery?
It must though be said that compared with the contemporaneous Farnsworth House (Mies van der Rohe) and the Glass House (Philip Johnson) Wright’s ‘Organic’ approach makes the Walter’s Garden Room more down to earth.
There is an antiphonal relationship between the greenery inside and out made possible by the abundant glass and light surrounded by the solitude of the site. It should come as no surprise that Wright was familiar with Japanese gardens and the “capturing with window” technique. ***
Also, there were several elements of the original design that would today evince environmental concern including in floor heating and related elements of passive climate control as well as a thick concrete roof intended to be covered with fertile soil and vegetation.
There is one bit of neat whimsy. Wright’s Prairie Style homes often have stained glass windows which would be too expensive for the Usonian concept. Here, Wright arranged brilliant blobs of colored glass in small niches in a wall by way of allusion.
The boat house is down a path about fifty yards away and is serene. It sits above the river with wide views up and downstream. There, one could indeed quietly revel in the sound of water and muse about our place in the universe.
*The Walters were not middle class having built a fortune and retired in their forties. Original project budget was $20,000, but ended up at $150,000. And that was in 1950. Today that’d be more than a $1 million. Walter wrote Wright of his frustration with delays and overruns to which FLW responded: “We were brave men to try to set up the last work in heaven way off in the mid-western prairie-miles from anywhere?”
**See post of November 7, 2008
*** The Walters left a $2 million trust to provide for the well being of their cherished country home. The trust is now bust and it will be interesting to see what the Iowa DNR will do with the place especially in these turbulent times.
**** Do visit. It is part of the state park system and the staff are fervent, knowledgeble, and enthusiastic.
*****The top photo is of the entrance at the articulation point between Garden Room and living spaces. Garden Room to the left. Second photo is from the Garden Room looking through a glass corner. Third photo is same place outside looking in. Fourth photo is looking downstream from the boathouse. Last photo is perhaps extreme, but not undemonstrative.