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This house makes you feel Wright at home

Email|Print| Text size + By Joe Milicia
Associated Press / January 12, 2005

WILLOUGHBY HILLS, Ohio -- If Fallingwater is Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest work, then a house he designed in this Cleveland suburb is one of his most livable.

Owner Paul Penfield has opened up the Louis Penfield House to guests after spending four years restoring it to the iconic architect's original vision. It's one of three Wright houses in the country that allow Wright enthusiasts to spend the night. (The other two are in Wisconsin.)

Penfield, 60, lived in the house during his teenage years. His friends, who thought the place was a bit odd, nicknamed it "the steamboat house" because of its long, narrow design. Entering the house through slender double doors takes one past a floating wooden staircase, its steps suspended by rods from the ceiling. The entryway is like a bottleneck from which the home's spacious living area spills forth. Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and a third half-wall of windows allow for a panoramic view of the wooded lot and give the feeling of being outside while indoors. The sound of trickling water from a fountain and the glow from built-in wooden light fixtures set a soothing mood.

The living area illustrates Wright's fondness for open space. The kitchen is a narrow ribbon with a long counter that works great for a buffet line. Upstairs, corner windows in bedrooms give more sweeping views of the property's black cherry trees, poplars, and white pines. Wright's color scheme of ochre walls and reddish-stained wood provide a soft warmth.

"Here you really felt you were living with nature. That's what Frank Lloyd Wright wanted," said Marguerite Vonno, one of 300 people who've stayed at Penfield House since it opened for guests in 2003.

Matt and Cheryl Banning of Willoughby booked it first, for their wedding weekend, including pictures and the rehearsal dinner. They returned a year later for their anniversary.

"It's 11 o'clock at night. You've got a fire going. It's your house," Banning said.

That's the way Penfield and his wife, Donna, intended it.

"We want to give people the chance to experience it as if they were the homeowners themselves," Penfield said.

At other Wright landmarks, visitors are shuffled on tours from room to room. "Just walking through, you miss that sense of what it would be like to interact with it," Banning said.

Ron Scherubel, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which advocates the preservation of the 400 remaining Wright structures, said he likes the idea of the houses being opened to guests.

"It spreads the word about how comfortable and beautiful Wright's houses are," Scherubel said.

The Seth Peterson Cottage in Lake Delton, Wis., was the first Wright home to open to guests, in 1992. In Mirror Lake State Park on a bluff overlooking the lake, the once boarded-up structure underwent a $350,000 renovation financed by donations.

"It's a very good example of how Wright could make a small space seem big," Scherubel said.

The roomy Bernard Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wis., opened in June. Owners Terry Records and Jason Nordhougen teamed with Michael Ditmer, a Wright fan who does remodeling work, to renovate the four-bedroom house and share it with the public.

"It's really living in a work of art," Ditmer said of a stay there.

Wright (1867-1959) has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects as the greatest American architect of all time. He designed buildings to fit into their settings and viewed them as not just structures but as ideas that permeate the inhabitants' lives.

Penfield's father, Louis, was a painter who became acquainted with Wright and asked him to design a house that would fit his 6-foot-8-inch frame. Wright generally designed short entryways but took on the project, charging $2,500 and including plenty of clearance for Penfield's head.

Paul Penfield was a child when he accompanied his father to visit Wright at Taliesin, his home in Wisconsin. He remembers Wright as a stately man with long flowing white hair whose office was at the end of a long corridor.

"He's portrayed as a curmudgeon, but he really wasn't," Penfield said.

The Penfield House was built in 1955 for $25,000 and is one of Wright's "Usonians." Wright is well known for grand homes, like Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania, which was designed for the wealthy Kaufmann family. Its setting atop a waterfall is a supreme example of Wright's organic architecture, an integration of nature and structure. But his Usonians were more modest homes meant to be lived in by everyday Americans.

The Penfield House fell into disrepair after the family moved out and turned it into a rental property for about five years. Penfield put $100,000 into the restoration and did most of the work himself. He replaced its flat, leaky roof -- another Wright trademark -- and refinished the extensive interior and exterior wood surfaces, wearing out a number of power sanders along the way. He even milled trees from the property to build cabinets and furniture, such as platform beds, chairs, and tables, based on Wright's angular designs. Finishing touches included items such as a rotary phone and a typewriter that keep the feel of the decade in which the home was built.

"My favorite time is the dead of winter when the snow is falling and the fire is going. . . . It's as romantic as you can possibly find for a single-family dwelling," Penfield said. Vonno drove with her husband from Washington, D.C., to stay at the house and intended to visit Cleveland, only 15 miles away. But they enjoyed the place so much they stayed the entire weekend.

"I liked Fallingwater, but I was not attracted to living in the house," she said. "We could live in the Penfield House."

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