In 1938, LIFE magazine commissioned a handful of architects to design the American dream home. Frank Lloyd Wright, at the top of his career, was assigned to create a modern plan for a Minneapolis family—the Blackbourns—with a median income of $5,000 to $6,000. Wright called his model a "private little club" and made the argument that its design—with super high ceilings, an expansive living room, and massive fireplaces—made for superior family living.
"Space," said Wright in a story LIFE published about the project on September 26, 1938, "is characteristic of this free pattern for a freer life than you could possibly live in the conventional house."
In the end, the Blackbourns went with a more traditional design—which they built in Edina—but a businessman named Bernard Schwartz read the article and was determined to make Wright's home his. He and Wright tweaked the plan for a new site in the Two Rivers, Wisconsin, area called Stillbend, which the architect dubbed the home. Better known now, nearly 75 years later, as the Schwartz House, it's one of the few Wright homes you can rent. Families and fanatics come from as far as Australia, Japan, and Saudi Arabia to see what made Wright so convinced that this was the ideal way for a family to function.
Much like his grander homes, this property plays with space and light in every way possible. The initial wow factor upon entering is the 63-foot space from the front door to the back lounge. Keeping with Wright's minimalist philosophy, furniture is sparse and low profile, with several built-ins, from desks to banquettes with hidden storage to tuck away toys and games. Clutter simply does not exist here, and for most families, it's an instant breath of fresh, thoughtfully flowing air.
Connecting with nature—one of Wright's key principles—is every bit apparent in the Schwartz House. His goal of few doors and lots of windows guides the eye outside. The backyard lawn stretches to the riverbank, beckoning kite flying or croquet. Viewing the lit house from outside on a warm evening and studying its crisp lines and floor-to-ceiling windows, the home looks both vintage Midwest Wright and Hollywood Hills. The understated glamour of the patio makes outdoor meals with kids so downright enjoyable one would believe the place is solely meant for summering. However, the guest journal suggests that sipping wine with a 360-degree view of falling snow is equally enticing.
The Schwartz House is one of Wright's Usonian homes—an early prefab style, built with simple materials, a flat roof, and affordability in mind. In true prefab fashion, after the millwork was completed, the house was screwed together onsite with brass screws. Wright, known for his ego and desire to control, insisted every screw be set horizontal.
Since this dwelling wasn't built for a wealthy family, as many of Wright's early Oak Park residences were, the design and décor is more simple. There's no elaborate leaded glass, but there are cutout abstract motifs in the clerestory windows. Architecture buffs will find plenty to marvel at from theater-style ceiling moonlighting to cantilevered rooflines.
There is no basement—Wright encouraged people not to have so much stuff—and no garage, just a carport (Wright said modern automobiles aren't horses and do not need their own rooms). The kitchen is tucked away and bedrooms are small—intended only for sleeping—forcing everyone out into the common area, which Wright believed was the true heart of the home.
"The structure of the house is also the decoration," says Michael Ditmer, the home's third owner, who manages it with his partner and brother. He points out Stillbend's four main materials: red brick, red concrete, red Tidewater cypress, and glass, all of which function in solid pieces as exterior and interior walls. It's also one of the first houses in the United States to have radiant heat embedded in concrete floors—it is said to be the longest continually operated radiant-heat house in the country. This lack of forced air heating—along with passive solar heating and an absence of paint on the walls to diminish indoor air quality—is one of the original defining traits of green building.
It was the warm flooring that convinced Ditmer and his partner, Lisa, to purchase the house. They visited in the middle of winter, took off their shoes, and could comfortably walk around barefoot. Now the couple spends several weeks a year at the home and loves giving others the experience of living in a FLW house—one they consider to be among the best.
"I have visited maybe 40 Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes," says Ditmer. "The intuitiveness of the spatial geometry of the Schwartz House is what I think makes it really unique."
In the common area, or the "recreation room," the ceiling height goes from cathedral-like to dangerously low, where anyone taller than six feet will have to duck, which Ditmer calls a "psychological effect of compression that exaggerates the space." It's not ideal for tall people (Wright was well under 6 feet tall) but the spatial differences give that sense of room to breathe.
The rec room sports a tiny divider, giving the illusion of a wall, and therefore lets adults read or talk near one fireplace while children play in the other lounge area. While visiting, I was surprised to see Wright's "master plan" materialize throughout the day and into the evening. My young city kids seemed to gravitate to the lounge corner with their toys—and they never once mentioned TV. Meanwhile my husband and I relaxed and read on the sofas. It was quiet, civilized, and a little eyebrow raising. Perhaps it was the novelty of being away, or perhaps, an insight into a better way to live.
Schwartz House Strategies...
Stay: The Schwartz House is in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, near Manitowoc and about a five-hour drive from the Twin Cities. (Manitowoc is the western port for the Lake Michigan car ferry, S.S. Badger, so it's a great jumping off spot for points east.) The house has four bedrooms and two and a half baths. Children are welcome; pets are not. Rates are $295-$375 per night while New Years is $895 for the weekend. To book, visit theschwartzhouse.com).
Eat: The best local spot is Kurtz's Pub & Deli, circa 1904, which feels like a German beer hall, full of surprising beers and a lengthy menu of sadnwhiches, salads, and entrees. 1410 Washington St., Two Rivers, Wisc., 920-793-1222.
Visit: Founded in the nondescript Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum shows off the process of printing with wood type. For decades this was the largest producer of wood type in the country, and it still churns out great design and iconic letterpress–Target even commissioned a back-to-school line this year. 1619 Jefferson St., Two Rivers, Wisc., 920-794-6272, woodtype.org.
Regional Frank Lloyd Wright Detours
Only about a half-dozen Frank Lloyd Wright homes are available to rent, and the Schwartz House is the largest. The smaller Seth Peterson Cottage (sethpeterson.org) in Lake Delton near Wisconsin Dells is another option near the Twin Cities–It was one of Wright's last commissions. Other Midwest Wright home available for occupancy include Haynes Housein Fort Wayne, Indiana (hayneshouse.org); the Penfield House near Cleveland (penfieldhouse.com); and the Duncan House, near Wright's legendary Fallingwater, southeast of Pittsburgh (polymathpark.com).
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, the acclaimed Taliesin (taliesinpreservation.org) lies west of Madison at Spring Green–tours of the estate and gardens are offered (there's even a Loving Frank tour based on Nancy Horan's historical novel). In Racine, the Wright-designed SC Johnson Administration Building is quite amazing. For more suggestions, visitwrightinwisconsin.org.
Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, is the hub for most of Wright's early work, including his home and studio (check out gowright.org for planning). The annual Wright Plus weekend each spring is when the most FLW designed residencies are open for viewing. Tickets for next year's event, June 2, 2012, are on sale at gowright.org.