News & Feature Articles Written About People & Places in Lake County, Ohio            

House of their dreams is a Frank Lloyd Wright

Couple has plans architect drew in '50s
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Steven Litt

Plain Dealer Architecture Critic

Paul Penfield received a treasure when he inherited a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his parents.

But his legacy includes an even rarer gift: The right to build a second house that Wright designed for the Willoughby Hills property, but which his parents never built.

After spending years restoring and finishing the house built in 1955, Penfield, a 62-year-old retired union plumber, self-trained carpenter and one-time roving guitar player, now wants to build the second one.

His quest is significant in the world of architecture. The second Penfield house is one of Wright's last residential designs. It's also the only house planned by Wright that could be built on its original site and authenticated by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz., the ultimate arbiter of all things Wright. So said Bruce Pfeiffer, director of the foundation's archives.

Wright (1867-1959) is beloved for his spiral-shaped Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., the much-visited house built atop a waterfall for the Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann.

But the architect spent much of the last third of his career designing a line of custom houses he called "Usonian." It was Wright's way of bringing his "organic" architecture within reach of middle-class clients like Louis Penfield.

An independent-minded sculptor, high school art teacher and amateur builder, Louis Penfield opposed the conservative architectural taste of Cleveland in the 1950s, and wanted to challenge it by hiring Wright.

"My dad complained about it," Paul said. "Why can't people in this region understand what a great architect Frank Lloyd Wright was? Why was there so little enthusiasm for modern art and architecture in this region?"

The elder Penfield gained access to Wright in 1952 through Eugene Masselink, Wright's secretary, a mutual acquaintance. Then he had to persuade Wright to design a house for someone as tall as he was. Louis Penfield was 6-foot-8, making him a foot taller than Wright, who claimed to stand 5-foot-8 and who usually designed houses (some would say egotistically) to suit his own proportions.

Wright took the job and designed a house that reflects Penfield's beanpole physique, with tall, slender doorways and a living room that seems to soar beyond its 12-foot ceilings. Penfield took the plans he got from the master and arranged to have the housebuilt by local laborers.

Characterized by interlocking rectangular shapes and built with concrete block, wood trim and wood-fiber panels, the Penfield House has a sweeping horizontal roof and deep overhangs, a "floating" staircase with treads but no risers, and a central hearth that anchors the living room. Floor-to-ceiling windows on the far side of the room blur the difference between interior and the surrounding woods, making the 1,800-square-foot house seem far larger than it is.

Scholars consider the Penfield House a classic Usonian, but Pfeiffer thinks the second would be even better.

"It's a more elegant house in every way," he said, speaking by phone from his office at Taliesin West, Wright's home and studio in Scottsdale. "It's a lovely design."

The second house would be mainly built of stone, with a prow-like form enclosing a living and dining area overlooking the nearby Chagrin River.

Building it would create "a tremendous sense of completion not only for my father and his memory, but also for the community and the region," Paul Penfield said. The two houses, he said, would be a strong attraction and bragging point for Cleveland.

The only obstacle Penfield faces is the same one that faced his father: Money.

Penfield and his wife, Donna, who live in Willoughby, said they derive a modest income from renting the first house for overnight stays. It's one of only four Wright houses available for such visits. Two others are in Wisconsin and a third is in Indiana.

But even though the Penfield House is booked more than 300 nights a year and draws visitors from around the world, it can't provide enough for the Penfields' retirement, let alone construction of the second house.

"It's a (do-it-yourself) bed and breakfast without a business plan," Donna Penfield said.

The simplest way to raise money would be to sell the Penfields' 30-acre property to a developer. But the land has been in Penfield's family since 1876, and the couple said they would hate to see it carved up and filled with McMansions.

Plans require some investors .

So they formed a partnership with two Cleveland-area entrepreneurs, Craig and Susan James, to brainstorm ways to build the second Wright house and to make the two buildings part of what they call an "inspiration center" for special meetings and retreats. The Wright mystique would be a selling point, they believe, for the center.

The Jameses estimate that $4 million would be enough to build the second house, improve utilities and landscaping, and provide a nest egg for the Penfields. They're seeking investors.

So why did Wright design the second house?

Paul says his father was devastated in 1957 when he learned that highway engineers planned to build Interstate 90 across his property about a quarter-mile to the north of his house where he and his family had been living since 1955. So he went back to Wright and asked him to design a second house farther south - and oriented away from the traffic.

Paul said that even though his father didn't have the money to finish the interior of the first house where they lived, he thought seriously about building the second one himself.

Paul said his father taught himself masonry by gathering stones from the land and building walls of the type Wright specified for the second house. He even built a small sculpture studio a la Wright, with stone walls, a broad, flat roof and large windows.

But Paul said it dawned on his father at some point that the second house "was more than one human being could do." Even so, "he hung onto the idea of getting it built somehow. It was an idea central to his life."

Now it's central to his son. A self-described hippie, Penfield left the University of Hawaii at Honolulu in 1963 before graduating and became a concert guitarist and wandered Europe picking up gigs before settling in England and learning construction skills in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile, his parents divorced, leaving the Wright house in his mother's possession. When she died in 1983, she left the house to her son. Paul returned to Cleveland, rented out the house, and derived a small income from it and from a farmhouse on the family property. He also worked as a union plumber on projects as large as Cleveland Browns Stadium.

All the while, he dreamed about finishing the first Penfield House. His parents exhausted the $25,000 construction budget specified by Wright before they could finish scores of details, including the built-in furniture for the living room. So they simply did without.

In 1992, Paul married Donna, whom he met working at Lakeland Community Theatre, and who shares his passion for Wright. While earning a living in construction, Penfield taught himself carpentry - a skill he knew he would need to finish the first house.

In 1998, Paul quit his day job, took a $100,000 line of credit from a bank and got to work seriously on the first house. He put on a new roof and hung ceiling panels in the bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen before embarking on the detailed interior carpentry that had never been finished.

"You worry about it a long time when you approach Frank Lloyd Wright, because you have a whole lot of invisible people standing over your shoulder, most of whom are art historians," he said.

After four years of work, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation blessed the house as fully authentic. And in 2002, shortly before his death, Paul and Donna showed Paul's father the finished interior, with its gleaming woodwork.

"One of his ways of expressing enjoyment was just giggling and laughing and going on and on," Paul said. "You kids are just great," Louis Penfield told his son and daughter-in-law.

Today, the roar of 65-mph traffic on I-90 fills the woods around the house. But Paul says the noise never bothered him, because he grew up with it.

He also acknowledges a debt to the highway. Without it, his father never would have asked Wright to design the second house. And he wouldn't be dreaming about realizing one of the most unusual legacies in the 0annals of American architecture.

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