Frank Lloyd Wright was an American visionary. He was an architect but also an interior designer, writer and educator. Wright, who designed more than 1,000 structures in his 7-decade career, created structures and living spaces that were in harmony with the surrounding environment and with the humanity that would inhabit the spaces. He was instrumental in creating whole new movements in architecture and his designs were for spaces as varied as churches, office buildings, museums, skyscrapers and homes. He was a phenomenally busy man.
Russell William Morland Kraus was also a very busy and driven man. Kraus, who was trained at Washington University and the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, had worked in a supervisory capacity for WPA art projects in the 1930s. Kraus had also served with the Army Engineers Map Office during World War II, and, after the war, he began to search for a large suburban site where he could build a new house and enjoy the St. Louis countryside.
Kraus read about a house Wright had built for a middle-income client near Washington D.C. and decided to contact the architect, whom he greatly admired, with a proposal that he design a home in the Usonian style for him. Wright was, at the time, working on his late-life masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and was, in addition to being considered extremely eccentric, quite famous and busy trying to complete the many ideas and projects he was attempting to finish in the time he had left. Perhaps Wright’s eccentricity, and his desire to bring his design concepts to a wider audience, worked to Kraus’ advantage.
Though Wright had designed and built homes for the fabulously well-to-do, including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park, he had developed a design theme he called the Usonian home back in the 1930s. The Usonian home was modest in size but, as with all of Wright’s designs, built in harmony with nature. It also incorporated well-planned “work areas” for kitchen, laundry and other chores, a highly accessible dining area and a living space that sometimes comprised up to half of the home’s floor space. He was also very interested in these living spaces having uniquely American stylings, departing from the high-ceilinged boxes of Victorian or other European designs.
Wright’s designs, for public spaces, Prairie style homes and Usonian homes were guided by sharp angles and low profiles, the use of natural wood and stone and, in the case of Fallingwater, the incorporation of a waterfall into the house itself. Angled bricks and corners that met at 60 and 120 degree angles confounded many contractors but, once completed, gave a Wright-designed home a look that is instantly recognizable. Often, in order to achieve the total immersion of design he wanted, Wright would design not only the house but the furniture and glass work and carpeting; he would even hand pick the vases and artwork that would be allowed in the home.
Wright asked for and received a “wish list” from Russell and Ruth Goetz Kraus, detailing what they did and did not want in their home. The phenomenally busy, but also phenomenally productive, Wright returned a design built on the idea of intersecting parallelograms which are used throughout the house, furniture and even flooring.
The wood that Wright chose for the home was also a problem. Tidewater red cypress was extremely difficult to find and was available from only a very few suppliers in a couple of southern states. So difficult was the wood to find that the initiation of building was delayed and then stopped later until new supplies could be found.
The construction took over four years and the cost was far over what was expected. Problems with bricks, copper and wood were encountered, and adjacent properties needed to be purchased to prevent the construction of other buildings that would have, to the Kraus point of view, detracted from the masterpiece of living style they were creating.
The ordeal of building the home often was nearly too much, but the home was finished, even after Wright’s death in 1959, and was the home for the couple for 32 years. Ruth passed away in 1992 and Russell sought to sell the home. After three decades of living, the home needed work, however, and a buyer seemed elusive. The home was certainly worth saving and to that end a conservancy was created. Over the next several years the board worked to raise the money, over $2 million, to buy and restore the home and surrounding property.
In 2001, the group had completed its work and opened the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park. The property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is open year-round for guided tours by appointment. The home is located at 120 North Ballas Road and tours can be arranged by calling 314-822-8359 or by visiting www.ebsworthpark.org.