The Wright house for our family
Clutter-free, natural spaces fit perfectly with our next chapter.
Courtesy of Douglas LaFerle
Throughout our 28 years of marriage, my architect-husband and I have usually purchased houses that are older than we are.
Our first house, the 1945 brick-and-stone cottage we bought as newlyweds, was the first of two fixer-uppers we owned before our only child was born. Six years later, we moved with our son to a brooding 1920s English Tudor with drafty leaded-glass windows. We stayed rooted in suburban Detroit, and happily renovated or repaired vintage kitchens, crumbling plaster, haunted basements, and antique toilets.
But after our son graduated college and our nest was emptied last summer, the two of us started thinking. Maybe it was time to track down a low-maintenance ranch – or a small beach house – that would coast us through our retirement.
That's when we stumbled on a Frank Lloyd Wright house that needed us.
As every old-house lover knows, just when you think you're in complete control of your real estate plan, the house you didn't plan on buying will choose you. It will charm you, keep you awake at night, and take your financial adviser by surprise. And there will be no turning back.
The Wright house we discovered was designed for industrialist Carl Schultz in 1957, representing the architect's final mark in western Michigan before his death in 1959. The house, overlooking a wooded ravine in St. Joseph, was surprisingly affordable for a Wright house – and even came with some of its original Wright-designed furniture.
Used in recent years as a vacation home, the Schultz house had been neglected, but not abused. Even so, it needed a fair amount of repair and attention. It had our names written all over it.
Oh, we tried to talk ourselves out of it, but we couldn't. Our timing was perfect. My husband had just sold his architecture practice and he was ready for a new project. Like many architects, he'd secretly harbored a longtime dream of owning a house designed by the most legendary architect in America. As a freelance writer, I could work from any location – especially now that my role as Mom had faded to a cameo.
Still, it occurred to me after taking possession that nobody ever really "owns" a house that boasts enduring historic value. Restoring a Frank Lloyd Wright home is not a project for the timid. And it's not for people who like to get frisky with a sledgehammer or even remotely creative with paint and wallpaper. It demands solemn respect for authenticity – not to mention time, energy, and cash flow.
The moment we decided to purchase the Schultz house, we began poring over books and articles on Wright's residential architecture. Fortunately, the previous owners had saved a notebook stuffed with copies of letters exchanged in 1957 between the original clients, Carl and Betty Schultz, and Wright's personal secretary.
During our research, we also learned that the Schultz house was categorized as a Usonian home – the term applied to a series of middle-income family homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936. At the time, the style seemed bold and unabashedly modern. Usonian homes, designed to be affordable to the average American, are typically single-story dwellings without a garage. They often employed native materials, reflecting Wright's passion for organic architecture that appeared to have taken root in its landscape.
Our Usonian features a flat roof on one side and a long cantilevered terrace overlooking the woods and the St. Joseph River below. It was the beauty of the river – along with a worrisome roof leak and a stubborn plumbing problem in the laundry room – that inspired me to name the house "Runningwater."
As my husband warned me early on, Wright was known for his arrogance as well as "structural issues," including leaky roofs. I was reminded of a story about a client who complained about water dripping on his desk, to which Wright replied, "Move your desk."
The first autumn weekend we spent working on the house only intensified the love affair that began when we first toured the place on a whim with our real estate agent.
Our Wright house, totally unlike our previous homes, greets us with natural light, uncluttered spaces, and a panoramic view of nature each time we enter. And despite all the work ahead of us, the place still inspires a sense of peace and reverence. It invites us to take our time as we get to know it better in the second half of our lives.
Every other house we've owned always seemed to need "something more" as the needs of our family grew – a state-of-the-art kitchen, another bathroom, a better family room. Naturally, we needed more furniture and more accessories to fill those new spaces.
But our Wright house is teaching us how to simplify, pare down, and let go of our past. And ultimately, to leave the place better than we found it.