Wright Around the Corner
At East High Street and Greenmount Avenue in Springfield, a house designed by America's most famous architect is opening to the public, thanks to a dedicated group of preservationists.
As in most homes, it was the missus who decided the way the place should look.
Sometime in the earliest years of the 20th century, Orpha Leffler Westcott accompanied her husband Burton on a trip to Chicago, most likely keeping him company as he attended to business, and as a way to escape the comparatively quiet scene in Springfield, Ohio. And on one of those trips, she came to learn of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Today, given his reputation as America's best, and best-known architect, it might be difficult to think of what it must have been like to encounter him for the first time back when he was still building that reputation one inventive blueprint and offbeat structure at a time. It might seem odd to think back to the days when seeing a Wright house in an average turn-of-the-century neighborhood would have been as strange as seeing an alien spacecraft nestled onto your street.
Mrs. Westcott turned out to be one of those people who got it. She got it so well, and accepted Wright's bold and futuristic vision so completely, in fact, that she decided she wanted to live within its angled, hard-edged embrace.
And so came into being what is known in Springfield as the Westcott House. Designed by Wright between 1904 and 1907 and built by Burton and Orpha between 1907 and 1908, it still squats like a living creature at the corner of East High Street and Greenmount Avenue just east of downtown.
For many years, however, the creature was just barely breathing. A group of dedicated and hard-working folks in Springfield have spent the last few years bringing it very much back to life.
"It was pretty bad," says Rob Kearns, a local marketing executive who serves as president of the Westcott House Foundation, the organization that was formed to buy and restore the house. "It was to the point that if it hadn't been acquired, it would have been gone in a year."
To best understand what would have been lost, one should go back to the beginning.
Start with Wright. Born in 1867, he lived 91 years and spent a 70-year career revolutionizing the way people thought about the spaces they inhabit. "Beautiful buildings are more than scientific," he said. "They are true organisms, spiritually conceived; works of art using the best technology."
Early in his work, that aesthetic translated into a type of architecture that came to be known as Prairie style, characterized by low-slung, highly geometric designs with lots of horizontal lines that often blended into the terrain in which they sat. Prairie buildings sprawl with large, open interior spaces -rooms that blend together in function and design, usually well lit by large windows that make the most of exposures and natural light, and marked by quirky design features such as built-in furniture, stained glass and innovative lighting and storage spaces. Wright didn't build these homes to be convenient to the dweller; rather, he felt it was the mission of the architect to define lifestyles with the buildings he created. Most famous of the homes he created in the Prairie style is the Frederick C. Robie House, a dramatic red-brick place he built in 1906 in Chicago.
The Westcotts had signed on with Wright before then, however. And in working with them, he conceived what the Westcott House Foundation claims to be one of his most significant buildings.
"The house represents a revolutionary point in Wright's development," Kearns says as he surveys the work being done in the place. "More importantly, it represents a point in time when men like Wright and Westcott were creating a lot of special things, and were changing the way the country lived. What's important is the spirit of innovation that is embodied in the house."
Burton Westcott was himself an innovator who must have, at some level, strongly identified with Wright and his vision, even if, as Kearns says, it was Orpha "who was more artistic and more interested in architecture."
Westcott was a year younger than Wright, born in 1868 in Indiana, where his father owned and ran a small manufacturing company. When he was a young man, the company branched out and grew, including a new enterprise he ran called the American Seeding Machine Company, which made farm equipment. In 1903, Westcott moved to Springfield to open a factory for the company there. He eventually opened the Westcott Motor Car Company in Springfield, in a day when carmakers sprouted across the country in many cities, and lots of money was to be made on America's burgeoning hunger for the wheel. Westcott also had major civic ties, serving on the Springfield Town Council from 1916 to 1922, including a two-year stint as council president.
He, Orpha and their two children, Jeanne and John, lived downtown when they arrived in Springfield, and soon started looking for the right place to build a home. They settled on High Street, a gorgeous boulevard of moneyed Victorians, Queen Annes and Georgians, tree-lined and liveried. They caught up with Wright as he was right in the middle of his Prairie-style years, and Mrs. Westcott may have noticed a Wright design similar to the one she ended up getting in an April 1907 Ladies' Home Journal.
Wright completed two sets of plans for the Westcotts, and they broke ground in October 1907. All the elements common to Prairie style are there, and then some.
The house incorporated some unusual Japanese touches in its design, inside and out, after Wright's first trip to Japan. Screens on the interior and long, continuous banded windows bear a decidedly Asian influence.
The front of the house, along High, is marked by two massive concrete urns that flank a broad terrace over which a canopy could be extended. Somewhat perversely, the front door faces Greenmount, a typical Wright trick.
Red clay roof tiles cover a widely set wood and stucco house of 12 rooms. The windows wrap around the front of the house, giving the sense that inside and outside are one space. Wright "began to bring the outside in," Kearns observes.
On the first floor, the combined dining room, living room and library sweep across the front of the house in a long, uninterrupted space that is 20 feet wide and 60 feet long. Walls consist of moody dark wood and an unusual wall material - roughened plaster with an earth-tone tint and finished in paraffin, giving the room an earthy, organic feeling that contrasts nicely with the airy feeling that is enhanced by large windows. Specially designed stained glass with brown highlights lends an elegant touch to several rooms; and in the central stairwell, a stained-glass skylight seems to pop the top off the house.
Those windows also made the house cooler in summer - and hard to heat during the winter. A long, graceful pergola connected the house to a garage and carriage house that will serve as the foundation offices and a gift shop once the restoration is complete.
"An architect must be a prophet," Wright said, and one has to remind oneself that the Westcott House, so thoroughly modern in its feel and mood, was built nearly 100 years ago.
As with many great buildings, it unfortunately spent many of those years in decline and disrepair.
Mrs. Westcott died in 1923 and her husband three years later. The house was never the same. A succession of well-meaning owners often did their best to keep the place up, but the massive and complicated structure required money and constant care. While it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, by the 1990s, it had been divided into apartments and was a pale shade of the home the Westcotts inhabited.
"The house was actually sagging in the middle," says Marta Wojcik, the curator of interpretation for the foundation. "There were six apartments, including one in the carriage house. There were termites and water damage."
Enter the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a Chicago-based organization whose mission is to save and preserve as many of the world's 350 remaining Wright homes as possible. (There are 11 in Ohio, including the next one that Wright built in the state after the Westcott House; in 1948-50, he designed the Weltzheimer/Johnson House in Oberlin in his Usonian style, which modified Prairie elements for smaller middle-class homes. It's currently owned by Oberlin College and is open for tours.)
The conservancy bought the Westcott House in 2000 for $300,000 from Sherri Snyder, who had lived there for 16 years and dreamed of seeing it restored to its former splendor. It was the first time the conservancy had bought a house to save it. The Westcott House Foundation formed locally the same year to start raising money for the work and make sure it happened.
The entire project will cost $10.7 million, raised privately. Of that, restoration and landscaping of the house will cost $5.4 million; $1.57 million will build an interpretive center and parking. The rest goes toward education, staffing, administration and a $2.5 million endowment.
Kearns says the grand opening of the house, after five years of work, is slated for the weekend of Oct. 14-16. "We're pretty excited," he says.
On a warm afternoon in June, work was still very actively in progress as contracting crews were looking ahead to the opening. Shawn Beckwith of Durable Slate Company in Columbus was leading work as project manager, and eagerly showed off the details Wright had incorporated into the design of the house.
"Half of the interest of this house is in the guts," he observed, and while that's normally something only true for a contractor, he made the point pretty well. Wright's plan to use natural breeze and windows to cool the house, for instance, was augmented by his hidden air ducts, which vanish cleverly into woodwork throughout the house. Beckwith pointed to the spacious, well-designed kitchen as a Wright innovation in an era when most homes were equipped with cramped, afterthought kitchens that are difficult to use today. This one has walls full of glass-doored shelf and pantry space, an ingenious ice-door to the outside for easy deliveries in the pre-fridge days, and wide, useful counter space.
With only two interior shots of the house from the Westcotts' days, both black and white, finding the right colors for the wall restoration was tricky, but emerged through a bit of artistic archaeological work and some pigment-analysis help from chemists at nearby Wittenberg University. Beckwith pointed with delight to kitchen doors that are oak with brass fittings on one side and pine with nickel on the other, each face of the door showing its appropriate side to either the family or its servants. Wright, it's often noted, always knew he was working for wealthy people.
Kearns notes that while the Westcott House will be open as a museum, combined with a strong educational program, the long-range plan is to have it stand as the centerpiece for a larger surrounding campus along Greenmount Avenue. This campus of several complementary buildings, designed by architectural firms from Japan, Columbus and Dayton helmed by famed Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, will be an "Innovation Initiative" complex that enhances the house and makes it a local cultural center. Design work for the campus is under way.
Meanwhile, people have been happily stopping by to have a look at the work on the main house. "I've seen 40 different license plates," Beckwith said in June. "People stop by all the time. We've had old architects from New York and even New Zealand stop by and want to look in."
All to pay homage to an architect from Chicago whose vision persists to this day.
For more information and history about the Westcott House, visit www.westcotthouse.org.