A Frankenstein dream: Spending the night with Frank Lloyd Wright

Chicago Tribune

Gazing through 12-foot windows at the gently sloping bank of the Chagrin River, my wife, Judi, and I spotted three does grazing near a clump of hemlock trees. A band of blue jays fluttered by.

“Idyllic,” Judi said.

We were sitting on a built-in bench in a living room decorated with Asian prints and Buddha statues. The outdoors was drawn inside; the inside was drawn outside.



It was all by design — the design of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He called this concept “organic architecture,” fitting a house into nature, rather than just slapping a house on a slab.

Wright, whom many (including the architect himself) consider the greatest architect of the 20th century and maybe of all time, applied this principle in homes, offices and other dwellings. He designed more than 1,000 buildings in a career spanning his debut in Chicago in 1887 to his death at age 91 in Phoenix in 1959.

Judi and I are die-hard Frank Lloyd Wright fans — what some call Frankensteins. We’ve toured 20 Wright properties and have viewed a couple dozen more. We recently decided to up our game and spend the night in a Wright house for the first time.

En route to a meeting in Cleveland, we stayed in the Louis Penfield House, a two-story, three-bedroom home, completed in 1955, following Wright’s Usonian design aimed at middle-class Americans. We spent a day “living” here, walking the grounds, admiring the natural environs and simply relaxing.

Growing up in Chicago, we were well aware of the Wisconsin-born architect’s works, including the famed Rookery building in the Loop, Robie House in Hyde Park, and his home and studio, Unity Temple and various houses in Oak Park. But it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that the Wright bug bit us hard. While visiting family, we’d stumbled upon Fallingwater, Wright’s breathtaking work finished in 1939 in a mountainous area about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Wright surprised the family by designing the house so it appears to float above the falls. The water actually runs through the home. It’s magical. And we were hooked.

Wherever we’ve traveled, we’ve sought out Wright buildings, from the Marin County Civic Center and post office in San Rafael, Calif., to the Florida Southern College campus in Lakeland, as well as Wright’s architecture school and estate, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., and his winter home and the main campus of his architecture school, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

All told, we’ve toured 20 Wright-designed buildings. Sixty are available for tours in the U.S. and Japan, according to the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Some 380 Wright-built designs still exist, including 270 private residences, said Janet Halstead, executive director of the conservancy.


I first heard the term Frankenstein from Paul Penfield, who grew up in the Usonian home where Judi and I spent the night. We’ve also visited two other houses available for overnight stays: the Palmer House, a 1950s Usonian design, about a 10-minute walk from the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, and closer to home, the Emil Bach House, a Prairie School design built in 1915 for a brick magnate along Sheridan Road in Rogers Park.

We like Wright architecture’s long horizontal lines, the link to natural settings, hidden entrances, low ceilings leading to dramatic spaces, the Japanese influences, stained glass windows, the built-in furniture (Wright called it “client-proof”) and more. When touring a Wright building, you may feel a certain vibe, a unity with nature. By staying in a house, we hoped to explore this spiritual or emotional feeling without the rush of a one-hour tour.

Fellow Frankenstein Matt Banning, 40, and his wife, Cheryl, spent their honeymoon weekend at the Penfield House, near their home in Chesterland, Ohio. The Bannings have toured 35 Wright homes, stayed overnight in five and driven by many more.

“The buildings always seem to belong where they are,” he said. “That’s the organic architecture he was going for. They don’t just sit there or try to dominate the location — they become part of the site.”


Patrick Mahoney, 53, an architect from Amherst, N.Y., may be the ultimate Frankenstein. He’s visited virtually every Wright building in North America, staying in eight homes as well as two Wright buildings that are hotels. Mahoney is involved in preserving Wright’s work in Buffalo, including the Graycliff estate on Lake Erie and the remnants of the Larkin administration building.

Staying in Wright homes “gives me more time in them than you can get on a tour, (and the opportunity to) watch the light change,” Mahoney said.

Sue Cox, who runs Michigan’s Palmer House with her husband, Gary, said her renters want to feel what it’s like to live in a work of art. The Palmer House is a poem to geometry. Wright used the equilateral triangle as a recurring design element — even the beds are parallelograms — in the tidewater cypress and custom brick house. The poured concrete floor is tinted in Wright’s trademark Cherokee red.


Typically, Wright homeowners require guests to stay two nights, although you may be able to wrangle a single night at some properties during slow periods.

“To experience this masterpiece to the fullest — in various lights and at various times of day — requires at least a two-night stay,” Cox said.

Another bonus of visiting Wright properties is the possibility of hearing anecdotes about the infamously persnickety and scandal-prone architect, as well as his clients.

“You did not have to have scads of money to become a Wright homeowner. What you had to do was employ extensive and persistent flattery,” Paul Penfield said. “‘Mr. Wright,’ my parents would say, ‘We can only live in a house designed by you.’ Subtext: We’ll be living under a bridge unless you help us.”


Paul Penfield told us his art teacher father, Louis, persuaded Wright to design a house to accommodate his 6-foot-8-inch frame. Wright, who was about 5-foot-8, considered anyone over 6 feet “a weed.”

The Penfields visited Wright and Eugene Masselink, Wright’s secretary and Louis Penfield’s college friend, at Taliesin.

Paul recalled: “My dad said, ‘Mr. Wright, do you think you could design a house for someone as tall as me?’ That stopped Wright in his tracks. He looked at my dad for a while and said, ‘Go stand under that beam.’ And then he said, ‘Yes, I see. That beam is 6-feet-9.’ It was a go.”

The Penfield House has an 8-foot entry door, a 12-foot ceiling in the living room and 8-foot ceilings in bedrooms — more headroom than was customary in homes built then.


When Paul’s wife, Donna, attended graduate school in Chicago, the couple lived — where else? — in Oak Park, center of the Wright universe.

“We’d go out in the evenings and walk around and see all this Prairie School architecture,” he recalled.

Spoken like a true Frankenstein.

Howard Wolinsky is a freelance writer.


If you go

Several Frank Lloyd Wright-designed properties are available for overnight stays:

•Alpine Meadows Ranch, Darby, Mont. Wright designed this site as a retreat for University of Chicago professors. Two buildings remain. The Frank Lloyd Wright House starts at $350 a night, the cabin at $250.

•Arnold Jackson House, Beaver Dam, Wis. Rooms at this B&B start at $129 a night.


•Cooke House, Virginia Beach, Va. The staff suite at this B&B starts at $148 a night.

•Duncan House, Acme, Penn. This house was moved from Lisle, Ill. Rentals start at $299 a night.

•Elam House, Austin, Minn. Home rentals start at $250 a night.

•Emil Bach House, Chicago. The house rents for $1,495 a night.


•Historic Park Inn, Mason City, Iowa. Hotel rooms with queens start at $109.

•Inn at Price Tower, Bartlesville, Okla. Hotel rooms with queens start at $145.

•Louis Penfield House, Willoughby Hills, Ohio. House rentals start at $275 a night.

•Palmer House, Ann Arbor, Mich. House rentals start at $350.


•Richards American System-Built Duplex, Milwaukee. Home rental averages $213.

Seth Peterson Cottage, Mirror Lake State Park, Wis. Cottage rentals start at $300 a night.

•Still Bend, Two Rivers, Wis. House rentals start at $350 a night.

Note: Homes typically have a two- or three-night minimum. Rates vary by time of year. Taxes and fees are extra. Contact lodgings for special rates.



Art object or house? Frank Lloyd Wright homeowners talk about what it’s like

Exhibit remembers Frank Lloyd Wright as ‘Most Distinguished Outcast’

Hayward, Wis., keeps its fishing roots while going upscale