By Cindy La Ferle
Illustrations By Gary W. Odmark
Throughout our 34 years of marriage, my architect-husband and I have usually purchased houses that are older than we are.
Built in 1945, the 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. Staying rooted in suburban-Detroit, we happily renovated or repaired vintage kitchens, crumbling plaster, haunted basements and antique toilets.
But after our son graduated from college in 2008 and our nest was emptied, the two of us got to 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 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.
Designed in 1957 for industrialist Carl Schultz and his wife, Betty, the Wright house we’d discovered represented the architect’s final mark in western Michigan before his death in 1959. (Mrs. Schultz’s persuasive letter to Wright was instrumental in launching the project). Overlooking a wooded ravine in St. Joseph — and just a 10-minute drive from Lake Michigan — it was surprisingly affordable for a Wright house. It even came with some of its original Wright-designed furnit
Totally unlike our previous homes, our Wright house
greets us with natural light, uncluttered spaces and
a panoramic view of nature each time we enter.
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 couldn’t. Our timing was perfect. My husband had just sold his architecture practice and 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. A freelance writer, I could work from any location — especially now that my starring 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 countless books and articles on Wright’ residential architecture. Luckily, 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 built by Frank Lloyd Wright beginning in 1936. At the time, the style seemed bold and unabashedly modern.
Designed to be affordable to the average American, Usonian homes are typically single-story dwellings without a garage. They were often designed with native materials, reflecting Wright’s passion for organic architecture that appeared to have taken root in its landscape.
Hugging the side of a hill, 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 that 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 the classic story about a client who complained about the water leak dripping on his desk, to which Wright himself replied, “Move your desk.”
Yet 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.
Totally unlike our previous homes, our Wright house 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 Zen-like 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 require “something more” as the needs of our family grew: a state-of-the-art kitchen, another bathroom, a better family room. Of course, we had to purchase more furniture, more accessories, to fill those new spaces.
But our Wright house is teaching us how to simplify, pare down and release our grip on the past. And, ultimately, to leave the place better than we found it. ≈
Cindy La Ferle lives in St. Joseph and Royal Oak.