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BY TIMOTHY TOTTEN, MASTER STORYTELLER
(This is long, but truly worth reading, I promise! The best part is how they found Tim to ask him to speak!
Tim spoke at Westhope on May 25, 2022, for a very successful fundraiser. - Robin)
With more than 500 buildings completed and more than 400 still in existence, Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy is dotted across virtually the entire United States, with a number of high profile buildings in out-of- the-way spots like Florence, Alabama and Lakeland, Florida and Silverton, Oregon. Some, like the Zimmerman House and the Kalil House in Manchester, New Hampshire, are owned by an organization and available for tours, but the majority are still privately owned and seldom opened to the public.
Even with that barrier to entry, many of them do come up on an occasional local historical house walk tour or can be seen when the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy works out a special event to tour the harder-to-see places for a fee. Still, there has been no movement in the last thirty years for tours of one of Wright's largest homes, the 10,000+ square foot Richard Lloyd Jones House, also called Westhope.
The home was designed for Wright's cousin, newspaper publisher Richard Lloyd Jones. A former owner of a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, Jones had moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma and started the Tulsa Tribune, an afternoon paper, in 1919. By 1929, when the stock market crash had pretty much ended any projects that Wright had been cultivating, a commission from a relative that Wright may or may not have really liked was not only welcomed but necessary.
But that's getting too far ahead, or maybe, before, the reason for this article. It wasn't the original client or the construction method or even the location (all of which I'll address later) that made this house off-limits to guests. It was, in fact, mostly to do with the client who purchased the home as an occasional stop and the more recent purchase by a preservation specialist.
Tulsa legend Stuart Price bought the house in 2021 from the previous owner, Barbara Tyson. Tyson was a member of the Tyson family - yes, the chicken people - and was a member of the board of directors for Walmart at one point. Walmart has always kept their corporate offices close to home in Bentonville, Arkansas. And that meant that anytime the board of directors met, they all traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas, even if few of them could locate it on a map. That also meant they had to travel from around the country and the closest airport, at the time, was Tulsa International.
Even flying in a private jet, Tulsa is still two more hours of pretty flat, uneventful driving away from the humble headquarters of the nation's largest retailer. Tyson, possibly looking to find a place to settle for the night before traveling on to Bentonville, purchased the Wright-designed Westhope as a rest stop in Tulsa to bracket her important trips to Bentonville for board of directors meetings. By all accounts, she used the home this way until the tiny Bentonville airport expanded. That was driven by the influx of large manufacturing satellite offices that now dot the once-small Arkansas town's business centers.
Because the home was privately held but seldom visited by the homeowner, the house was seldom used for parties, tours, or other gatherings. In the final years of Tyson's ownership, a caretaker managed the home, which is where my part of the story comes in. About five years ago I planned a trip through the Arkansas and Oklahoma areas to visit several Wright sites, including the recently-relocated Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Wright's only urban skyscraper, Price Tower. I knew of the Richard Lloyd Jones House and hoped to at least snap a picture from the street.
To prepare for my trip, I mailed out brochures about my storytelling sessions and a handwritten card asking for permission to take photos of the home from the sidewalk to use in my presentations. By sending these to any of the public and private Wright buildings I planned to visit I found that more than half would respond with either permission or an invitation to chat with them when I was in town. On several occasions, this turned into a booking for a storytelling session, either when I was in town or on a follow-up visit in the next year. For this Oklahoma/Arkansas trip, it also worked out: Crystal Bridges asked me to perform a gallery talk about Frank Lloyd Wright that same year. But no answer from Westhope. Not even a "please stay off our lawn" response. I chalked it up to a busy caretaker and an absentee owner and continued on my trip.
Cut to five years later and the phone rings. It's Stuart Price, a real estate developer and preservationist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He's just bought Westhope and wanted to chat with me about coming to give a talk to a group INSIDE THE HOUSE! Yeah, the house that's been buttoned up for 30 years is going to be reopened to some of the first guests and he wanted me to give them a presentation INSIDE THE HOUSE! Our conversation went really well - Stuart is a fascinating man who has done some amazing work preserving and restoring so much of the Art Deco buildings in downtown Tulsa - but I was still so confused. I know I have a great website and plenty of accolades from those who have booked me before, but I still kept wondering which of my marketing or networking efforts had led to this awesome opportunity. As if prompted by my silent wondering, Stuart said something that blew my mind.
"When we were going through the kitchen at Westhope," he started. "We found a bulletin board with all kinds of important numbers and stuff on it. There was the number for the plumber and a card from the roofer. And just under those was a brochure for you."
That's right, the brochure I'd sent out all those years before hadn't been lost or thrown out or ignored. They had pinned it to the bulletin board for a day when they would need a Frank Lloyd Wright Storyteller! And that day was finally here. With a heart full of joy and an appreciation for the kind of luck that comes when you aren't afraid to send people unsolicited mail, I prepared for my trip.
Westhope is not just significant for the amount of time it's sat unseen by the public, but also because of its construction method, the client it was originally built for, and the point in Wright's career when it was commissioned. The Lloyd Jones clan, Wright's mother's side, were an industrious people, having conquered the Central Wisconsin valley where they'd settled after emigrating from Wales, and later branched out to Madison, Chicago, Tulsa and beyond. Contrasted with Wright's father's lack of business success, they must have seemed like the hardest working and most successful people in Wright's life. Richard Lloyd Jones was no exception to the family tradition of excellence and used this acumen to become a well-known and successful newspaper publisher.
While Frank Lloyd Wright had certainly inherited the Lloyd Jones drive (no one stages more than 100 exhibitions of their work unless they are striving for success), he also had his father's bad spending habits to try to overcome. The scandals from 1909 and 1914 (leaving town with his mistress and then the murders and fire at Taliesin) did not help Wright find work. He spent a period wandering from Japan, where he was creating the magnificent and enormous Imperial Hotel, to California and Arizona trying to reinvigorate his career. Things were looking up In 1929, which saw Wright busy creating hundreds of drawings for the San Marcos in the Desert resort. Wright fully expected that this ambitious project would help put him on the map again and signal a professional resurgence in a field that was increasingly dominated by European architects.
The stock market crash wiped out the resort project and virtually all the other possible commissions Wright could hope for. Unlike most of his potential clients, Wright's cousin Richard Lloyd Jones was not as badly affected by the stock market crash. People still bought newspapers and he had apparently concentrated more of his investments locally than in publicly-traded stocks. It's not known why he reached out to Wright for a house, but I'd speculate that familial obligations and a request from his wife for a new home collided and the letter was sent.
Jones' request is quite detailed, going so far as to specify how many bedrooms on each floor, uses of public spaces on the main floor, the number of vehicle bays, and the inclusion of some type of well-lit greenhouse type spaces so that Jones' daughter Florence, who they called Bisser, could continue with her amateur plant obsession. Jones didn't exactly specify a prairie style house, but since those would have been the only type the family had seen of Wright's, it's safe to say that's what they were expecting. In fact, when Wright did send along plans for an unusual home built of textile blocks, a technique he and his son Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. had pioneered in California, there was quite a bit of confusion about the look of the house and how it would possibly fit the family's needs.
The letters between Wright and Jones reveal an antagonistic relationship tinted by family ties but also, perhaps, a grudging respect for each other. Jones doesn't hesitate to call Wright out on his hubris, even going so far as to say that Wright believed there were two classes of architects in the world: Frank Lloyd Wright and everyone else. And the second category wasn't worth too much. Wright's letters are surprisingly direct, considering that they are written to the person he's hoping will pay his commission!
In the end, Wright won his cousin and his wife over to the textile block construction method, but was forced to eschew the diamond-shaped blocks he had hoped to use and settle for simple square shapes. Wright found a contractor who he'd used on other projects who would relocate to Tulsa for the job and work began. It was slow going because the textile block method was still being refined - even after four California projects and the Arizona Biltmore Hotel project where Wright had consulted on the process - and workers had to be trained on this new technique.
Wright and Jones also disagreed on the way the blocks would be treated. Wright argued that a switch from the dry-packing technique they'd used in Southern California worked for that climate (even though the resulting blocks soaked up rain and moisture owing to the nature of such a dry mix of concrete) to a new wet mix concrete technique would make the blocks immune to the weather. It did not, and even though Wright had also suggested using roofing tar to treat the insides of the blocks, Jones insisted on applying a sealant to the blocks to protect them. Wright had instructed his contractor to mix a dark red tint with the concrete to give the entire house an unusual red color or "old rose" as the architect described it. I haven't found record of Jones' reaction to a dark red house but even before construction finished the home had been painted a beige color.
The house now sits in an area filled with larger residential houses, but was originally sited on several acres of land with no one nearby. The property was quite empty, with stories told that Wright chucked a bag of potatoes in the yard for a random dispersal and told the contractor to plant a tree at every point a potato lay. During construction of the stark concrete building, several confused locals stopped to ask "what type of factory are y'all making?" Amused construction workers began telling passersby that it was meant to become a "pickle factory" when construction was complete. (Photo of the "pickle factory" at the bottom of this article!)
Completing the construction was a struggle for Westhope, as it was for a number of Wright projects but especially the experimental ones, and the cousins exchanged some tense letters. When Wright sent along a catalog of Bauhaus home furnishings to show what style would fit the house, Jones fired back that he would spend not even a dollar on a rug until they sorted out the issues still plaguing the project. Wright had already designed furniture for the home, but when a few of the standalone pieces were executed so poorly - due to Jones' insistence on more affordable materials - the rest were abandoned, save for a few built-in pieces.
It's interesting to note that Jones and the contractor had settled on a price of $72,500 for construction of the house, which Wright would have ostensibly agreed was accurate. And yet every previous textile block house project had schedule overruns and issues that raised the price. It's possible that Wright himself knew this would happen, so much that he sent a letter to a colleague during early construction of the house claiming that he was busy "building a $100,000 house in Oklahoma for my cousin."
The results of this tense relationship is a house that, perhaps, the family had to grow to love. It was certainly not the prairie style house that Mrs. Jones had wanted, and it wasn't the diamond textile block experiment that Wright was eager to create, but it is one of the grander of Wright's designs in terms of scale and light.
Walking into the home, I was immediately struck that the "suburban middle school" vibe that the concrete and glass exterior gave me disappeared as the entry foyer welcomed me into the home. Because this is a formal home with oversized spaces, Wright has to compress the exits from this space to achieve his signature "compression and release" and make the size of the living room really pop. To accomplish this, he steps the east wall of the corridor in a number of times to not only mimic a similar wall treatment in the main living room, but also to squeeze the entry to the living space so that the occupant is not only surprised when the space opens up to reveal the full living room but to provide a moment of tension before achieving release by fully entering the room. It's an amazing feat that spaces with soaring ceilings can still feel tight and confining. Once in the living room, the wall of alternating glass and concrete pillars actually becomes a large screen through which to see the outside world. And the glass greenhouse area that Jones requested is accomplished with three of the spaces the owner would call "Bissorum" after his daughter. These stepped glass protrusions stand apart from the concrete and glass column walls and provide a space of relief along a barren or plain façade.
Overall, the house shares the sensitive design touches of other Wright designs but really stands out with the size and scale of the project. Walking through the spaces, I was struck by just how expansive everything was, including ceiling heights unheard of in other Wright homes. The lot, still quite large considering the number of homes that now encroach on it, especially on the south side of the property, allows the home to breathe and sit stately in its place.
Despite their disagreements and construction difficulties, this collaboration of cousins turned out an unusual Wright design that occupies an unusual place in Wright’s career and makes a compelling case for unadorned textile block as a building material, even for the home of a wealthy family.
Today, the home also occupies an unusual place in Tulsa history, both because of the architect who designed it and the owner who built it. The home has, hopefully, a compelling future still ahead. With a preservationist like Stuart Price working to restore the home, it seems this home that has stood for nearly 100 years may yet find another 100 years of life in it. And who knows, if Price decides to sell in the future, perhaps some artisan pickle maker will snap it up!
Photo of Westhope by Timothy Totten, May 25, 2022.
There are more photos below the article.
Changes to our 2022 Adventure Calendar
Friends: We were eagerly looking forward to our August 2022 trip to Oak Park, Chicago & more.
However, we have some bad news and we wanted to tell those of you who have already expressed interest or paid part/all of the fees.
Due to changes in available sites and rising fuel surcharges, we must cancel the trip.
We know, this is disappointing news and we'd find a way to sugarcoat it if we had more time, but with less than two full months until the planned tour, we wanted to tell you as soon as we realized these things would cause these issues.
First, we had lined up two private homes to go along with the public sites that can already be toured. These were, for us, the value-adds that made this tour worthwhile to our guests. Both of those homes will no longer be available at the time we are going.
Second, the bus company has just informed us that the price of a tour bus is going up because of fuel and staffing issues.
Even with a full tour, we would have to raise everyone's price to break even, while still providing less of a tour that originally planned.
We are not willing to compromise your experience and take more of your money for the privilege.
So what next? (We have refunded everyone that had paid. Checks went out June 2nd.)
Is there any good news? Yes!
If any trip was going to be canceled, this is the best one, because the Oak Park, Chicago & More tour all takes place in a relatively small area and you can still do the trip on your own. No switching hotels or B&Bs, no finding elaborate transportation. The public sites we had planned to visit are all open for tours and so much is within easy walking distance of each other.
In fact, we were really close to finishing up the itinerary for that tour and we will release the details to you that you'd need to book tours at each location yourself.
Chicago is an easy city to navigate with the elevated subway train and a strong bus system. There are also plenty of taxis and ride-sharing services. Even better, rent a car and you'll be able to travel further out to places like the Sherman Booth Cottage, the SC Johnson Wax Administration Building (Racine, Wisconsin), and the Laurent House (Rockford, Illinois).
We'll have that travel guide to Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago ready in the next few days and post it on our website.
Again, we are very sorry this tour isn't going to work out, but we wanted to let anyone interested know as soon as possible so you can make other travel plans.
(You know we would rather do anything than cancel a trip, so please know this was not an easy decision to make. Since our trip this month to Taliesin is booked and ready to go, we will now focus on the trips we have on the calendar for 2023. It's not that far off!)
Fans of Our Frank Lloyd Wright Facebook Group
If you have not joined our Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright Facebook group yet, you should. The group is growing daily and there are some interesting discussions taking place, and lots of great photos from the places group members are going themselves! That link is https://www.facebook.com/groups/4176861322404798
Florida Library Association Annual Conference
You may have learned about Master Storyteller Tim Totten by attending one of his talks at a public library. We are always looking for those opportunities, as it's a great way for people to learn about Frank Lloyd Wright and our adventures, too. We attended the Florida Library Association's Annual Conference the last week of May as exhibitors. We wanted to meet the library professionals that plan adult programming so we could promote Tim speaking at their library. We did meet a lot of people and sent out a follow-up email. If you are a library patron or a member of a Friends of the Library group, we would love to be introduced to the person doing the adult programming at your library. Your recommendation could get Tim in yet another door for those that want to hear about Frank Lloyd Wright! Tim frequently speaks at our local libraries: Eustis, Mount Dora, Leesburg, and more.
For those that have wondered, we personally use Turo.com for car rentals. They are personally-owned vehicles and typically a good deal less expensive than the standard car rental companies. All of our experiences have been positive. They are like the Airbnb for vehicles.
We are currently gathering all the booking info to get these adventures ready to book! If you are interested in knowing more, let us know!
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