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The Laurent House: Touched by a Genius

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Though he had a reputation for being self-centered, Frank Lloyd Wright also had an uncanny ability to put himself into the shoes of his clients. Step inside a Rockford home where Wright did just that, in a special way.

The living room of the Laurent House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Nels Akerlund Photo)

The living room of the Laurent House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Nels Akerlund Photo)

Because his work still shines so brightly, and because he was such a maverick, it’s easy to forget that Frank Lloyd Wright was born just two years after the end of the Civil War. He was 82 years old when 28-year-old Ken Laurent, a disabled World War II veteran from Rockford, asked Wright in 1948 to design him a home.

“To give you an idea of my situation, I must first tell you that I am a paraplegic,” Laurent wrote to Wright. “… I am confined to a wheelchair. This explains my need for a home as practical and sensible as your style of architecture denotes.”

Ken and his wife, Phyllis, first learned of Wright’s home-building style through an article in House Beautiful magazine titled “The Love Affair of a Man and His House,” by Loren Pope. The Laurents were impressed by Wright’s open floor plan, a rarity in that era. From his room in a VA hospital, Ken read Wright’s lengthy autobiography and became convinced the world-famous architect could design just the kind of house he needed.

“By then, Wright was at the zenith of his career, having designed many significant buildings, such as New York’s Guggenheim Museum,” says Jerry Heinzeroth, president of the Laurent House Foundation. “He certainly didn’t need Ken Laurent’s modest job. But it intrigued him.”

Wright loved a challenge, like the one he’d tackled at Fallingwater, a home he built over a 30-foot waterfall outside of Pittsburgh for the wealthy Edgar Kaufmann family. Ken Laurent’s request was a different kind of challenge. Wright had never designed a home that would be viewed from the vantage point of a person in a wheelchair. And the Laurents could only afford something in the $20,000 range.

“Something about the challenge – and perhaps the Laurents themselves – appealed to him,” says Heinzeroth.
As it turned out, Wright not only built the Laurent House, but affectionately called it his “little gem in Rockford.” He personally selected it as one of his 38 most significant projects, for a book about his life’s work. And, the less-than-amiable architect maintained a special friendship with the Laurents for the rest of his life.

“Probably more so than any other client who wasn’t rich, the Laurents enjoyed a close, personal relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Heinzeroth. “They attended his birthday celebration every year at Taliesin [Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wis.] and he visited them at their house here in Rockford. When Wright died in 1959, his widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, personally invited the Laurents to a memorial dinner in his honor.”

For nearly 60 years, from 1952 until 2012, Ken and Phyllis Laurent lived in and loved the remarkable space Wright built for them on Spring Brook Road in Rockford. The home not only met their practical needs; it satisfied a craving for aesthetic beauty they hadn’t known they possessed.

“The home met 80 percent of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements 40 years before the Act existed,” says Heinzeroth. “That, in itself, is amazing, when you consider how marginalized people with disabilities were in that era. But it went much further. Part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius was his ability to see his clients as individuals with specific needs.”

Heinzeroth spent much time talking with the Laurents during the last eight years of their lives. He recalls Ken telling him how much it meant to emerge from his bedroom each morning and take in the beautiful, natural view of his backyard, through the 60-foot-long window wall that effortlessly blends indoor and outdoor spaces.

“He told me that view helped him every morning to focus on what he could accomplish that day, rather than focus on his limitations,” says Heinzeroth.

This is one of the aspects of Wright’s genius and complexity that most intrigues Heinzeroth: No two Wright homes are the same because each was built for a particular client. “Even though Wright was perceived as a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ personality, he had this ability to step into a client’s shoes and view the world from that perspective.”

And Ken Laurent’s perspective began nearer to the ground than most; he must have tired of looking up all the time. So, instead of the soaring vertical spaces found in most of his designs, Wright kept Ken’s ceilings low and allowed sightlines to stretch out horizontally.

“The 60-foot window wall in this modest home is longer than the bank of transparent windows in any other home he designed, including the most expensive ones,” Heinzeroth notes.

Wright also designed the home’s built-in banquette seating, and other chairs, to be shorter in height than is typical.

“This meant that, in his own home, even from his wheelchair, Ken was the tallest person in the room,” Heinzeroth says.

The front of the fireplace drops down further than usual, too, making the seating area around it all the more intimate. It was in front of the fireplace that Heinzeroth and the Laurents shared many conversations about the home and the subtle ways it exudes Wright’s genius.

For example, one might expect to encounter ramps and grab bars at the Laurent House, but there are neither. Entrances are built on grade with the driveway, carport and back patio. The only clues that this house is designed for a wheelchair-bound person are the low-slung furniture pieces and low-positioned light switches and doorknobs.

“It fascinates me that Wright understood what clients wanted before they did,” says Heinzeroth. “He was able to integrate the wheelchair-friendly mechanics of the home with an aesthetic sense of calm and beauty, without there being an obvious slap in the face that this is the home of a disabled person.”

Wright viewed Ken Laurent not only as a paraplegic, but as a man like other men. Indeed, it hadn’t been that long since Ken and Phyllis had lived “normal” lives, working jobs at Rockford’s National Lock Co., where they met and fell in love. They married in 1941, then moved to San Francisco in 1942, after Ken enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It was during his military service that Ken began to experience numbness in his legs and abdomen. He was discharged in 1946, and Rockford physicians removed a tumor from his back. The surgery damaged his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He spent the next eight months in a fracture bed at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago.

“When he was finally able to get up and move around, Phyllis and her father had to physically carry Ken and put him into a wheelchair,” says Heinzeroth. “Ken hated that, of course. It fueled his desire to find housing that would help him to be as independent as possible.”

The Laurents lived a life rich with love, friendship and fulfilling work. Ken returned to National Lock as an accountant. In 1959, he and Phyllis adopted son Mark and daughter Jean, which prompted the need for a home addition to the two-bedroom, one-bath home. Wright designed it for them before he died later that year. His apprentices oversaw the construction, and today the home has three bedrooms, two full bathrooms and an entry foyer that leads visitors through a narrow area before opening into the airy living area with its light-filled wall of windows.

“That’s something Wright just liked to do – most of his homes have a place where the space suddenly opens up dramatically,” says Heinzeroth.

Rockford craftsmen constructed the addition, just as they had built the original home in 1952.

“The work was all done by local contractors,” says Heinzeroth. “It’s not like we had Home Depot-type stores back then, so materials were custom-made to Wright’s specs. Wright absolutely loved the craftsmanship shown by Rockford builders. He installed his signature red plaque near the doorways of his favorite homes, and this home has one.”

Although modest in size, the Laurent House is surprisingly well-suited to entertaining, and the Laurents did their share. They were proud of their connection to Frank Lloyd Wright and never took their home, or his friendship, for granted, says Heinzeroth.

“No one spoke a bad word about Wright in front of Ken Laurent,” Heinzeroth recalls. “And he was always to be called ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’ or ‘Mr. Wright’ in Ken’s presence.”

The couples’ respect for the home showed in their maintenance and meticulous record-keeping.
“The Laurents were probably the best stewards of any Frank Lloyd Wright home in existence,” says Heinzeroth. “Ken was a statistician by trade and kept every single invoice related to the home. The provenance for this collection is just wonderful. The Laurents kept and used all of the original furnishings Wright designed for them. They made very few changes.”

The Laurent House contains handmade tables and chairs, two built-in banquettes, built-in desks, cabinetry, shelving and lighting fixtures, all part of the original overall design.

“The only big change the Laurents made was switching the interior color palette from its original earthy green, gold and orange hues to a sort of Nancy Reagan mauve, in the early 1990s,” says Heinzeroth. “But we have original fabric samples and will probably change it back some day.”

Because building costs were kept low, you won’t find any of Wright’s stained glass windows at the Laurent House. Instead, common materials were used in uncommon ways.

“At the time, Red Tidewater Cypress wood imported from southern swamps was dirt cheap,” says Heinzeroth. “It resisted water and critter damage and, for that reason, was used to make shipping crates during World War II.” Craftsmen coaxed the long, horizontally placed cypress boards into gentle curves with the arc-shaped interior walls. Only the exterior walls of the Laurent House are load-bearing, and they’re made with Chicago common brick, as is the fireplace.

The solar hemi-circle shape of the home takes full advantage of warming sunlight and also allows for a circular, less-confining spatial pattern in the home.

“Ken could move down the length of the home, out the patio door, up the length of the patio and back indoors again, without ever turning around in his wheelchair or requiring assistance,” Heinzeroth notes.

One of the first things visitors notice about the interior of the Laurent House is its warm, glowing quality. Some 84 square, wooden ceiling insets throughout the home contain a single light bulb each. Such recessed lighting was a relatively new concept at the time, having been developed by Ivan Kirlin in the 1930s.

“The lighting makes this house glow,” Heinzeroth observes.

A skylight illuminates the small, central kitchen.

The concrete floor is set in a large grid pattern, in the tradition of Wright’s other Usonian homes, which are all meant to be inexpensive, tasteful and compatible with their natural surroundings, yet designed so simply that laymen can take part in their construction.

“The grid system acts as a guide for setting walls and furniture in Wright homes,” says Heinzeroth. Below the concrete is a hot water piped radiant heating system, which kept the floors so toasty that the Laurent children played on them all winter long.

In the master bedroom, three slender vertical windows frame natural views that change with the seasons. Very little artwork adorns the house because there’s neither place nor need for it. The exception is a set of three folding screens painted by Ling Po, a gifted apprentice of Wright, who later worked as an instructor at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. The screens, one depicting an abstract rendering of the Laurent House, well served the home’s dual principles of practicality and beauty. Ling Po died this year on April 28, his birthday, at the age of 97.

“Living in one of these Wright homes is like living in a piece of artwork,” says Heinzeroth. “But in a way, residents did have to give up some of their own lives. There are many stories of Wright coming back to houses he designed and re-arranging furniture or clearing out clutter. He even designed his wife Olgivanna’s clothing so it would better reflect the architecture at Taliesin.”

In subtle ways, Wright empowered Ken Laurent every day. Example: A long, narrow fishpond runs along the back of the home, just outside the window wall. Wright made sure a faucet was built into the indoor concrete floor so that Ken could personally monitor the water level of the pond and refill it himself.

The Laurents lived independently in the home until they reached their 90s. Ken died at age 92 in January 2012; Phyllis, who was mostly deaf and suffered from scoliosis, died the following December, at age 94.

Heinzeroth befriended the Laurents in 2004. “I’m a design engineer by trade, and have always admired the maverick in Frank Lloyd Wright,” Heinzeroth explains. “He was one of those rare people whose genius was inborn. It was a privilege for people just to be around him. My wife, Barb, and I were born and raised in Rockford, so I’d always known about the Laurents’ home, and I knew they had spent considerable time with him.”

But making contact with the Laurents wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. “I resorted to driving to Oak Park to take part in a Frank Lloyd Wright bus tour that started there, then went to the Laurent House in Rockford and ended at Taliesin. There were 42 of us on the tour and Ken and Phyllis graciously welcomed all of us. Afterward, I wrote the Laurents a glowing letter of appreciation, noting that I would love to come back and visit them. I thought my letter would bowl them over, but I never got a response.”

In time, a mutual friend told the Laurents that the Heinzeroths would like to bring them dinner and a bottle of wine. They accepted.

“In the eight years before they died, we had many of those dinners and became good friends,” says Heinzeroth. “Ken and I sat by the fireplace and just talked about Frank Lloyd Wright and their memories of him and life in that home.”

Although the disabled were largely marginalized during the 1940s, there was some growing interest in their needs, thanks to paraplegic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who was in the White House from 1933 until his death in 1945. “FDR had a cottage designed to accommodate him as a paraplegic, but even it was not designed with as much out-and-out ‘I’m going to meet your total needs!’ gusto as this house was,” says Heinzeroth.

Through his many chats with Ken Laurent, Heinzeroth learned that not everything was smooth-going between Wright and Ken, early on. Although they signed a contract for the commission early in 1949, Wright procrastinated, thereby inviting a number of strongly worded letters from Laurent, who was anxiously biding his time in a VA facility.

“Wright wrote back something like, ‘Be patient, you’re going to love it in the end,’” says Heinzeroth.
Finally, one night in July 1949, at his home in Spring Green, Wright went to work sketching out floor plans and a perspective drawing for the Laurent House. “His apprentices went out for a few hours, and by the time they got back, he was finished,” says Heinzeroth. “This is what a genius can do. He had been planning it out, in his head, long before that night. He used to say of his fast sketching, ‘I like to shake them out of my sleeve.’”

Although a few adjustments were made after that, the Laurents didn’t ask to see the final plan before construction commenced. “They just trusted him,” says Heinzeroth. Wright projected a final cost of $25,000 for the home, excluding the lot.

The Laurents had originally planned to build at the corner of Rural and Rome streets in Rockford, but Wright rejected the lot as too urban. “He told them to go 7 miles outside the city, and then to go another 7 miles beyond that,” says Heinzeroth.

They went 7 miles, not 14.

Not much existed on Spring Brook Road back then, except a few farmhouses. When the new Frank Lloyd Wright home appeared, it didn’t exactly fit into the neighborhood.

“The Laurents’ home must have looked to passersby like something from Mars, in 1952,” Heinzeroth says with a chuckle.

Tragically, the Laurents lost their son, Marc Carman Laurent, to illness in 2007, when he was 54. After Ken and Phyllis died, daughter Jean Laurent, of Loves Park, Ill., was fully supportive when the Laurent Foundation purchased the home for posterity, with all of its pristine provenance intact – from original blueprints and furniture to the familiar objects Phyllis displayed on the built-in shelving.

“Jean was wonderful to work with,” says Heinzeroth. “And so was the community, which really stepped up when the time came to support this purchase.”

The Foundation has made more than $400,000 in repairs to the property, including the replacement of water-damaged plaster ceilings. “In that 8 inches between the ceiling and the roof, we had $265,000 worth of work done,” says Heinzeroth. While the roof was off, heat ducts were installed, in anticipation of the day when the 60-year-old forced hot water heat system beneath the concrete floors will fail. “It was a lot cheaper than tearing up concrete floors would be,” he says.

The Cypress walls were professionally cleaned and paste waxed by a wood specialist from the Twin Cities. Local electrical contractors replaced brittle wiring throughout the house, a process made more difficult by solid, as opposed to hollow, walls.

“John Eiffler, pre-eminent Frank Lloyd Wright restoration architect, and our architect of record, said this is one of the best restorations he’s been involved with,” says Heinzeroth.

Now the Foundation has launched a $1 million campaign to pay off restoration costs made possible, in part, by a bridge loan from BMO Harris Bank. Many other local businesses have stepped up to help, too, such as Per Mar Security, which donated $12,000 in security technology hardware.

In the Laurent House living room, near the long window wall, stands a 108-year-old Rockford-built Schuman grand piano. “Frank Lloyd Wright was himself a very accomplished pianist,” Heinzeroth explains. “He once said, ‘I don’t know if I am playing the piano or the piano is playing me.’ In his old age, Ken Laurent talked about the central role the house had played in his and Phyllis’ lives and riffed: ‘I don’t know if I’m living for the house or the house is living for me.’”

Either way, both the Laurents and their very special house benefitted from the relationship. Now, the public also has the privilege of visiting the home and gaining insight into the genius architect whose name remains a household word, 147 years after his birth. And Heinzeroth expects that people from around the world will come to Rockford to see it.

He recalls a visit by 46 Australians who were touring U.S. Wright homes. “They asked Ken, ‘After living here 60 years, what would you change, if this house was to be built all over again?’ He replied, ‘We never wanted nor needed to change anything at all about this house.’

“What we want to uplift is the idea that a handicapped person has more than mechanical and practical needs,” says Heinzeroth. “Each human being has a spirit and soul. If we don’t acknowledge those aspects of living, we won’t really reach our goals for people who are being marginalized.”

Learn more about touring the Laurent House or supporting the Laurent Foundation at laurenthouse.com.

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