Stumbling on Wright

Finding Frank's designs in unlikely places

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Writer

When the owners of Magic Tree Bookstore, Iris and Victor Yipp, planned their annual winter vacation, architecture was the last thing on their minds. They planned to ski in the small town of Whitefish, Mont., and visit Glacier National Park afterward.

So the Oak Park residents were surprised to find a touch of their hometown in the far-off state when they happened upon a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.

As Iris tells it, spotting the building was pure luck. "We just planned to ski while in Whitefish, but we usually take a day off the mountain, and we planned to go into town. We were looking at the schedule for a tour bus, and one of the pick-up points was labeled 'Frank Lloyd Wright Building.' We thought we had to go check it out."

The Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish was designed in 1958 and later transformed into a bank. The building now serves as law offices. Yipp notes that it has obviously been altered significantly over time. A drive-thru was added for the bank and a pagoda houses a new air conditioner. Still, Yipp says, it's hard not to see Wright's hand in the building. 

"There are his signature windows to bring nature into the building, and there was a planter which originally housed a plant that was part inside, part outside the structure. Also, like so many of his designs, you can see there are problems with the roof and drainage. He never quite got that right."

Wright designed only three buildings in the state of Montana, and while the Yipps were surprised that Wright made his way to this tiny town with a population of only 6,400, Wright structures have turned up in some odd places. The master architect was prolific and lived long. He designed approximately 532 buildings during his 91 years, and 400 are thought to still be in existence. Only 11 states in the country have no Wright-designed buildings. Much of his work is found in the Midwest, Northeast, California and Arizona, but his buildings pop up in some unexpected places well off the beaten path.

Cloquet, Minnesota

Outside of Duluth, Minn., in the town of Cloquet, stands the R.W. Lindholm Service Station, the only gas station ever built from Wright's designs. The gas station is for sale for $750,000. The Lindholm family first hired Wright to design their home, Mantyla, in 1952. Mantyla, which is Finnish for "house among the pines," is currently available for sale for $690,000 and includes original blueprints and furniture according to savewright.org. The home sits on 15 acres and is primarily composed of concrete blocks and red cypress.

The gas station is still in operation in this town of 11,000 and represents the embodiment of Wright's Broadacre City project plan. Never implemented, the project was Wright's Utopian vision of a physical, emotional, democratic and architectural landscape for America. He based this vision on the use of the car, and thought the service station would be "the future city in embryo." While his plan never caught on, those driving through this small town can fuel their cars and their Wright tourist leanings in one stop.

Florence, Alabama

In 1938, Stanley Rosenbaum and his wife Mildred were given a plot of land and the funds to build a home in Florence, where he was a professor at Northern Alabama University. The Rosenbaums had read Wright's autobiography and a Time magazine cover story on the famous architect, and hired him to design their new home.

The only Wright-designed building in Alabama, photos of the home were exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art upon the home's completion in 1940. One of Wright's Usonian designs, it forms an L-shape. When the Rosenbaums had their fourth child, they brought Wright back to design an addition to the home, which remained in the family until 1999, when Mildred entered a nursing home. The family donated the home to the city of Florence and donated its contents and furniture to the city as well.

The house had suffered significant water damage over the years, so the city undertook plans to rehabilitate the structure with the help of plans provided by Taliesin West. The city opened the home to the public in 2002 as the Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House.

Cody, Wyoming

Ruth Blair was a student at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts during the 1930s when a professor took the class to see Wright's Taliesin in Wisconsin and meet the architect. On a later visit to Arizona in 1951, Ruth and her husband Quintin decided to visit Taliesin West. Wright is said to have met them in the driveway of the home and invited them in for lunch. Over the course of that day, he expressed interest in designing a home for them in Wyoming since he had no buildings in that state.

The Blairs set out to find a parcel of land that met Wright's requirements — being outside an urban setting. They bought a 40-acre site outside of town in Cody near a small creek, and Wright designed a flat-roofed house for them with a stone exterior and walls of glass windows. Wright never visited the home, but directed its construction over the phone.

Bountiful, Utah

Like many others, Donald M. Stromquist was so taken by an early meeting with Wright that he later had the architect design a home for him and his new wife, paying $32,000 for the construction, which was completed in 1961. The only Wright design in Utah, this home was built on a grid supported by a poured-concrete foundation. Wright died in 1959, before construction on the home was completed, and the Stromquists were forced to leave the home when Donald's position with U.S. Steel was transferred to Pennsylvania several years later. When the Stromquists returned to Utah, they found the house had been abandoned and vandalized. Another couple bought and restored the home with help from Taliesin West, and the Stromquists were able to purchase the home back from them and live out their final years there.

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