I will go well out of my way—even plan a whole trip—to see a Frank Lloyd Wright house. So on a recent weekend getaway from Des Moines, my husband and I found ourselves just northwest of Quasqueton, Iowa (population: 550), on a scenic bend of the Wapsipinicon River. In this relatively remote location sits the Lowell Walter residence, a pristinely preserved example of Wright's Usonian style.
The house at Cedar Rock State Park is one of just three Frank Lloyd Wright sites in Iowa that are open to the public. We had already seen the other two, both in Mason City: the Stockman House and The Historic Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank (yes, we spent the night in the hotel!).
The Lowell Walter home, built in 1950, is considered one of Wright's most complete designs. The architect designed or selected furniture, carpets, fabric and many of the accessories. He chose to include a rare signature tile on the exterior, a sign that he approved of all aspects of the house.
Businessman Walter and his wife, Agnes, didn't get exactly what they asked for, but Wright's clients rarely did. (Wright, for instance, refused to build a two-car garage). The home far exceeded Walter's original $60,000 budget, with a total cost of $125,000 to $150,000—at a time when a typical 1,800-square-foot home could be built for about $7,000.
But it's beautiful. And it looks almost exactly like it did during the years the Walters lived there. Walter died in 1981 and left the home, as well as money for its upkeep, to the state; today, the home is open seasonally for tours.
The compact house's most dramatic feature is The Garden Room, a living-dining area that maximizes the view of the river and surrounding property with three glass walls, clerestory windows and skylights. Thriving indoor plants enhance the sense of a seamless transition from inside to outside.
Wright's homes always captivate me with their special touches—usually a distinctive blend of geometric styling and color—and this one is no exception. Here, three striking brick grilles in the entryway and Garden Room hold colored glass in varying sizes. (If you're really in love with the idea, you can buy glass pieces in the gift shop.)
In addition to the living-dining area, visitors tour a small kitchen and the bedroom wing. Down toward the river, the Wright-designed boathouse is another unusual feature of this property. You can wander through, but you'll need to use your imagination to envision the boathouse in the Walters' time, when it was considered something of a "man cave"; it's targeted for renovation beginning in 2015.
Perhaps the Walters always knew they would donate their home so others could enjoy it. When it was completed in 1950, the proud owners opened the grounds to public tours on the first two Sundays of July. More than 4,000 visitors came. According to a handout printed at the time, Walter "desired to prove that a beautiful home could be built in his home town here in the Middle West without going to Florida or California."
I, for one, am glad Walter decided not to build his home in Florida or California. That would have been a really long drive.
(Photos of boathouse and Garden Room interior courtesy of Cedar Rock.)
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