Photos courtesy of the Laurent House
Famed designer and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, considered by The American Institute of Architects to be one of the greatest architects of all time, set out to do nothing less than change the world through architecture. He created beautiful, practical edifices that people could inhabit with warmth and comfort — museums, hospitals, churches, banks — and a 1952 home for a paralyzed World War II veteran, Kenneth Laurent, who needed a barrier-free home in which to live. Laurent and his wife, Phyllis, spent the next 50 years of their life together in their one-of-a-kind home.
In June of 2014, per the owners’ wishes, the Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent House opened as a museum, just days ahead of what would have been Wright’s 147th birthday. The striking, red-cypress house is the only home Wright ever designed specifically for a person with a disability, and his genius is evident to even the most untrained eye. You’ll see the 2,600 square-foot dwelling arranges three bedrooms and two bathrooms within a flowing and gently curved space to provide accessibility. The curving shape means maneuvering from room to room is seamless and involves no navigating around difficult corners. There are thoughtful touches like built-in, wheelchair-height bookshelves and low, panoramic windows to make life easy for a person with a disability.
Decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, the Laurent House was designed to be appreciated aesthetically from a seated position. The house also includes switches, built-in desks, as well as other disability-friendly features — universal design decades before barrier-free living was on its way to being hip.
A Work of Art
During his WWII tour in the U.S. Navy, Kenneth Laurent developed a spinal tumor. The government’s Specially Adapted Housing program granted disabled veterans like Kenneth half of the cost for a house to accommodate their needs. In August 1948, Laurent wrote to Wright asking him to design a house for him and his wife: “I must first tell you that I am a paraplegic. … I am paralyzed from the waist down, and by virtue of my condition, I am confined to a wheelchair. This explains my need for a home as practical and sensible as your style of architecture denotes.”
Several false starts and bumps later, the plan was committed to paper. Formal drawings were completed and a contract signed in July of 1949. The house was completed in May of 1952 and the Laurents lived there until early 2012. Kenneth Laurent died that year, in January, at age 92. He often said the home gave him unrestricted access to everyday living. “I don’t know if I live for the house, or the house lives for me,” said Laurent, according to his daughter.
Local preservationists acquired the home and original furnishings designed by Wright at public auction for $578,500. On Aug. 28, 2012, the house was recognized by the National Park Service on the National Register of Historic Places. Three months later, Phyllis died at age 94.
“The building is unique in that it has been continually occupied by the original owners, and contains not only furnishings designed by the architect, but many personal items of the owners. In other words, it is a complete work of art,” said restoration architect John Eifler, who worked with the Laurent House Foundation to restore the home.
Universal Design: Has Its Time Arrived?
Wright selected the Laurent House to be included in a book showcasing 35 of his best buildings. He told his clients on their journey from Wisconsin to Chicago to stop in Rockford and see “my little gem.” Although Wright was clearly proud of his creation, according to Deborah Pierce, author of The Accessible Home, the house’s potentially revolutionary impact was not fully realized by its genius creator. Pierce’s book is a collection of 25 case studies in design for people living with different disabilities.
“Accessibility was not high on his list,” Pierce says. “I don’t think Wright ever quite made the leap that access was a natural progression from his universal design principles. We can only imagine what he would have done if he had 20 more years to explore these ideas.” For many architects and builders, she says, “there comes an ‘aha’ moment when they suddenly see accessible design as not a matter of code compliance, but really a matter of making a home that is truly easy to live in. It’s not just a matter of how a home looks, it’s a matter of how it functions. Wright was just so close to getting it.”
Based on the abundance of cookie-cutter houses lacking accessibility decades later, that “aha” moment has yet to arrive in mainstream architecture. But more than ever, many socioeconomic indicators suggest the time is ripe for a Wright renaissance. For instance:
• One in five Americans — 56.7 million people — has a disability. The boomers are quickly aging. Their tennis grip isn’t what it used to be, and reaching tall places or maneuvering at right angles in a wheelchair is a feat best left to a Himalayan Sherpa.
• More than one in eight Americans is 65 or older. The ratio increases to one in five as the last boomers turn 65 in 2029.
• People reaching age 65 have an average life expectancy of an additional 18.8 years, census records show. And close to 90 percent of Americans would like to stay in their homes as they age, according to the AARP.
If Not Now, When?
So why, over 60 years since the Laurent House was built, does universal design show up mainly in magazines of expensive homes but rarely in subdivisions and architects’ portfolios?
Inertia is one reason. Rigid city building codes are another. Some architects also argue that the strictures of the ADA have stifled creative design with the need for “reasonable accommodations.” They use the word “reasonable” as a pejorative. Slavish adherence to rigidity may undermine inclusive design. Turning a blind eye to prevailing demographics, status-quo architects still argue Wright is wrong for our time and place. Additionally, the vast majority of today’s new single-family homes are not designed by architects. Single-family homes and small, multi-family structures are not required to have an architect’s seal like commercial buildings. And home developers rarely want to pay an architect’s fee to design homes.
In today’s real estate market, there is another anti-Wright barrier — size matters. The “McMansion” is alive and well. “There is a false sense in the United States that whoever has the biggest, most ostentatious house somehow wins,” says Kansas City architect Neal Angrisano. “McMansions are rarely single-level structures. In fact, the more floors the better — not the best premise for barrier-free design.”
Yet another strike against Wright: Profit trumps popularity, says Paul Lillig of Picaso Design Build in Kansas City. Just because you have a better home design doesn’t mean investors will rush to mass-produce it.
Today’s typical developer buys a plan created by an architect and then goes about tweaking it to fit a spreadsheet of price points that lead to the greatest profit, Lillig says. And if the developer can mass-produce house after house, the cost per unit goes down, the material cost goes down and a predictable profit is made on every home. Why would a developer build a one-of-a-kind universal design home when he can knock out so many at a sweet profit margin?
In order to dream the Wright way, Lillig says, the consumer must be a part of a serious conversation with the builder to create a better housing outcome. And prospective home owners, he says, must get real, plan for their future accessibility needs and understand they are not immortal. “The mental image of our body holds us hostage to the thought of aging and injury and prevents us from demanding new housing standards like universal design,” says Lillig.
The fact is, Wright was simply light years ahead of his time. The majority of architects still are trying to catch up to him more than a half century after his death, his supporters say. “Frank Lloyd Wright was such a genius at the time he designed,” Laurent House neighbor Tina Ryan said. “I mean, the accessibility for Mr. Laurent to live in this home quite comfortably all those years ago is amazing.”
Despite persistent inertia, Pierce is optimistic that universal design’s time is near. She said she sees signs that Wright’s vision is steadily catching favor. A perfect storm of a rapidly aging population, a growing disability community and a still shaky economy is renewing interest in Wright.
Those factors, says Pierce, are forcing Americans to “rethink the American Dream and what it looks like in our imagination.”
Some Details About the Laurent House
• 2,600 square feet on a 1.3-acre lot
• Wright’s first elliptical-style blueprint
• Built with red cypress and Chicago brick
• A poured concrete foundation
• A flat tar and gravel roof
• Recessed square light boxes
• A two-car carport
• A 50-foot curved wall of glass
• Radiant heat from water pipes in concrete
• Larger bathrooms
• Central chimney (one in the master bedroom)
The Laurent House in Rockford, Ill., welcomes Saturday and Sunday tours on the first and last weekend of each month. Reservations are required. Contact Susan Myers at 815/877-2952. Tickets are $15. Student group tours are $5 a person. Guests with disabilities can call for easy access.
The Laurent House, 815/877-2952; email@example.com; www.laurenthouse.com.