Little House on the Prairie

Off of a two-lane road in unincorporated Plymouth, Michigan, hidden among a thick tree line, is an American icon. Its striking lines and burnt-red color are out of sight, obscured by the rise of a sloping driveway. A closed gate and security cameras send a very clear message to visitors: don’t bother us here.

A security camera keeps a watchful eye over the Goddard premises.

At the Lewis Goddard House, a privately owned 1953 Frank Lloyd Wright home, every attempt has been made by the owners to stop the incessant flow of curious visitors ringing the gate buzzer and leaving their fan mail in the mailbox out front.

Dave Ohryn, who married into the Cook family’s Wright ownership, is the only reason I’ve even made it this far. His wife Karen, he tells me, would have thrown out my desperate plea for an interview (“We happen to get a lot of notes”) without a second thought. After all, the Ohryns are, as Dave keeps repeating, a private family. It’s telling that this precept keeps popping up in our initial conversation; it’s hard to say if it’s a warning or simply an explanation.

The Goddard home is one of many remaining privately owned Wright homes, drawn up by America’s most renowned architect for Lewis Goddard, a sales manager for Goddard & Goddard Company in Detroit, to house himself and his four daughters. Briefly owned by Domino’s owner Tom Monaghan, the home, along with the neighboring Carlton D. Wall house, has since been owned by the Cook/Ohryn family. Karen has spent roughly three decades in the Carlton D. Wall house.

Owning a Wright home is in many ways a great gift; the architect who redefined the conventional living space built homes that instantly stand out for their unbroken lines, full windows, and wide open great rooms. It’s easy to recognize the dark wood and colored brick, warm and enveloping. It’s a history museum built to live in.

Of course, history museums draw curious customers. Not every homeowner is up for hosting visitors six days a week. That’s how the Ohryns have gotten where they are. “We’ve done that whole thing,” Ohryn says. “My wife isn’t into it.”  

A HOME IN THE HEARTLAND

Not all Wright owners have the same mindset. Jane Paulsen and her husband, Ken, own the Paul Trier home in Johnston, Iowa, a suburb just north of Des Moines. It was commissioned by Jane’s parents, Paul and Ida Trier, and finished in 1958. After moving out as an adult, she bought the house back when her mother passed. The Paulsens have lived there for eight years but still aren’t over the occasional stream of curious guests trailing through their driveway or yard.

“We just had some people like two weeks ago come up from Kansas City,” Paulsen says. “They really like Frank Lloyd Wrights; they’re just in awe, especially of the living room. And they’re just respectful and thankful. No crazies.”

Call it a welcome change. When the house was first built, it was as though an alien had landed in Johnston.

“They used to call it the space house,” says Paulsen, laughing. “Or people would think it was a school. You know, they definitely knew the house around the area.”

A metal printing of a 1978 news article concerning the Trier house’s unconventional design. Photo by Jenna Cornick

“The houses are different than everybody else’s,” Paulsen says. “And this is something that my mother experienced when they were building the house. Before it was even done, she and my dad came out to do some work themselves. Somebody came by and just struck up a conversation and says, ‘Boy, the people who are building this house must be crazy.’”

Ida Trier, Paulsen’s mother, said nothing. Maybe it was a little true. There were questions about how the Triers could afford the services of a man like Wright, whose lengthy resume at that point included a civic center in Baghdad and a hotel in Tokyo. They expressed those concerns to the famous architect, who was uncharacteristically flexible with them. Wright’s initial design, which would have cost the Triers $34,000 in 1958, was made more cost-effective through the use of lower-end materials. The house went up, remaining largely the same ever since, faithfully maintained by the Triers and now the Paulsens.

THE COST OF LIVING LLOYD

Unfortunately, such dutiful preservation comes at numerous costs. Wright’s visions for the American living experience were radical then and remain perhaps even more divisive now. The layouts don’t always make sense for day-to-day living.

This is apparent immediately in the Goddard home. Upon entry, a hallway more akin to a submarine corridor sits on the left. Walking down the passage reveals four doors, evenly spaced, that each open to a bedroom not much larger than 10 square feet. When this house was first built, the furniture in the bedrooms was preinstalled: a desk with a bed that would slide out from underneath.

“Go out as far as you can go, and when you get there, go 10 miles farther, and still you won’t be out far enough. By the time your home is completed, you will be part of suburbia.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

Ann Galezio, daughter of Lewis Goddard, says it wasn’t nearly as constrictive to her as it might be to current generations.

“I remember liking my bedroom,” says Galezio. “Small as it was, it was very shipshape. Everything was built in, and you only went there to sleep at night.”

Paulsen had similar memories growing up.

“The bedroom thing was to keep the family together, and growing up, that’s how it was,” she says. “You know, we didn’t spend time off in our bedrooms much. We interacted as a family; we’d all watch TV together…I liked that part of growing up. I liked being with family a lot.”

Paulsen recalled that her mother was a bit dismayed to leave behind their beloved bed set from a prior home, but there simply wasn’t room for it anywhere amid all the pre-installed furniture. And that furniture wasn’t great. Though Wright designed much of it, it’s hard to tell if he actually thought people would use it. “No one, I mean, nobody, sits here,” Ohryn says.

The reason is obvious. The chairs are unbelievably low to the ground. For reference, I’m a flat six feet tall in shoes. Sitting in one of the Paulsens’ chairs, I have to either fully extend my legs in front of me or hunch my knees up to my ribs. The theory with the low chairs was that Wright wanted to compensate for low ceilings. The low ceilings, then, stemmed from the Usonian ideal that each home should blend and join with the surrounding prairie landscape.

Low-rise chairs make the Trier ceiling seem much higher than it is. Photo by Jenna Cornick

Some other practicalities were sacrificed at the altar of idealism. The master bedroom’s shower in the Trier house was initially built with wood paneling — an unfathomable design both then and now. It was finished with the same surface applied to bar countertops as a method of waterproofing, but such a method was beyond ineffective. The shower leaked constantly.

Worse, when the Triers tried to tile over the wood, they merely trapped moisture in the wet wood behind the tiling. This caused a mildew problem. The shower has since been entirely overhauled, but the Paulsens use it as a go-to when indicating Wright’s infamous impracticality.

FRANK’S FAULTY PHILOSOPHY

Strange proportions and ill-planned panels are just some examples of the Wright ideas that govern his home construction. But Wright’s impractical vision wasn’t confined to wooden showers and tiny hallways. Wright often touted that his houses weren’t built to survive beyond a century. Over half a century since his death, the houses are starting to make good on his promises.

“He was more concerned with motion and design versus the practicality,” says Steve Jaskowiak, an architect with West Studio Construction Services in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Jaskowiak, a Chicago native, studied architecture at University of Illinois-Chicago, and his own home takes on some of Wright’s aspects — just not all of them.

“You can see elements of what he did: some good, and some kind of a caricature,” Jaskowiak admits.

There’s a reason. Numerous owners of Wright’s Usonian homes — homes designed for his vision for prairie living — have suffered leaky or sagging roofs. The flat roofs, made of all natural materials, weren’t able to effectively drain or dispose of the rainwater they collected.

Ken Paulsen holds a cutout section of the old roof materials, separated into its distinct four layers. Photo by Jenna Cornick

“He was pushing the envelope so much that the technology really wasn’t there for what he was doing at the time,” Jaskowiak says. “I’ve actually benefited hugely from the fact that some of his houses are (so) high maintenance.”

Clients often find Jaskowiak when they’re scared away from the ballooning maintenance costs that Wright homes can pose. He offers a contemporary solution with, you guessed it, a sloped roof. His homes incorporate the vibrant earth tones and 90-degree angles of a true Usonian while acquiescing to the modern demands of homeowners; still, there’s no mistaking where Jaskowiak’s inspiration stems from.

Unfortunately for those already in Wright homes, there are really only two options. Some owners, like the Ohryns, have simply shrugged off the costs and dealt with the issue. Others, like the Paulsens, have replaced their roofs with a contemporary system.

“He had (slanted) roofs coming into flat roofs,” Ohryn says. “It’s like, what the hell are you doing right there?”

UNITED IN USONIAN

Beneath and around the stress of owning and maintaining a Wright home is a community of people all sharing in their experiences. The Paulsens are close friends with the Donovans, another Iowan Wright family, and Abigail Donovan’s historical knowledge of the Trier house has enhanced the friendship.

“Gosh, (Abigail) and her husband, they know more about Frank Lloyd Wrights and all,” Paulsen says. “My brother and I gave a talk one time and it’s like, ‘hey, we lived in the house, but you guys know more about all the intricacies than we do.’”

The Donovans and Paulsens met at a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Abigail was quick to provide Jane and Ken with artifacts and information that she’d accrued over the years. Among the collectibles was a scaled model of the Trier house, constructed by students at Iowa State University.

Owners have also leaned on historical societies like the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and the Taliesin Associated Architects, who provided the Paulsens with Wright-consistent plans for an addition to the Trier home.

“Wright had a rough draft for what an addition would be because he knew my folks would want more room as the kids grew up,” Paulsen says. “Then they went to the Taliesin Associated Architects and had real plans drawn up.”

That relationship cuts both ways. The FLW Trust prefers that owners keep their roofs stock whenever possible, meaning that preventative maintenance is often discouraged until it’s too late. For the Paulsens, putting on their membrane roof was a matter of preserving the rest of the house at the cost of changing a small portion.

Ohryn also expressed a desire to undo his changes to the two houses in the future.

“Eventually we’ll redo the whole thing, put it back to the original,” he says of the Carlton D. Wall house. “That’s years ahead. It raised our kids, and they’re almost gone.”

“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

He’s converting the Goddard house into an office space (“for the tax breaks,” he tells me) and the Wall house will remain a residence, though it sounds like it will change a little bit in the coming years. The house is just visible through the trees at the edge of the Goddard home. It’s much larger, more imposing.

As I’m walking around the Goddard house for photos, I can’t help myself. I try to snap a few pictures of the Wall house across the field.

“Oh, you’re in trouble now,” says Ohryn after I finish rounding the house for photos. He’s putting down the phone as he says it, my driver shaking his head at me just out of Dave’s sightline. It’s his wife on the line, who’s spotted me from the Wall windows. Visitors are still not welcome. Taking the hint, I shake hands with Ohryn once more, walk to the car, and leave the Goddard House. The gate closes behind us on the way out, once more shielding an American masterpiece from the public.

Featured image by Jenna Cornick.

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