On our way to my old hometown of Independence (Iowa) to take the Underground Independence tour, we visited Cedar Rock, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Quasqueton, Iowa. I had always known that this example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes was near my old hometown, but I only became aware of the specifics of its location when driving to Independence for the “Mini Reunion” mentioned in a previous post.
The owners of the Quasqueton house wanted Cedar Rock to be a retirement home, with their winters being spent in Des Moines, where Lowell and Agnes Walter lived and where Lowell had offices for his company, the Iowa Road Building Company. The Walters sold their road building company in 1944; they owned the patent on a chemical that helped keep the dust down on country roads. The family invested profits into Buchanan County land and owned 17 farms and 3,800 acres of land. The building site for Cedar Rock was 11.5 acres, The Kucharo Construction Company of Des Moines were general contractors and builders for the site. Budgeted amount was initially $50,000 in 1945, but it is estimated that it ultimately cost $120,000 to $150,000 to build the house, which was completed in 1950.
The Walters wrote to Wright on January 25, 1945, and asked if he would design this home for them. Even then, they had the idea of deeding it to the state, as has been done.
Wright obviously agreed and used materials he is known for, including glass and concrete. The design called for 17 tons of reinforced concrete. The roof would be flat, like many of Wright’s designs.
Wright also designed the furniture within the house. On the exterior of the house appears a red tile, which was Wright’s seal of approval, stating that the house had been completed to his specifications. Of the 10 Frank Lloyd Wright structures in Iowa, Cedar Rock is the only signed one. (Other Wright structures in Iowa are the Stockman residence in 1908 in Mason City; the National Bank & Park Inn Hotel in 1909 in Mason City; the Miller residence in 1946 in Charles City; the Meier residence in 1917 in Monona; the Sunday residence in 1955 in Marshalltown; the Grant residence in 1946 in Marion; the Alsop residence in 1948 in Oskaloosa; the Lamberson residence in 1948 in Oskaloose; and Cedar Rock (1948) in Quasqueton.)
The Cedar Rock house also has a boathouse that has the ability to sleep inside it, which most do not have. The house and the boathouse are both situated high above the Wapsi Pinicon River, which, according to the guidebook, was a place that many selected for picnics and swimming and had indigenous importance. The architecture is of such major national significance that Cedar Rock was accepted for nomination prior to the buildings being 50 years old, by notable two-time exception of the National Parks Service. (Only a few sites with this distinction are listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2 listings prior to meeting the age pre-requisite.) The building design is Wright’s only executed design of its particular type and construction: solid brick masonry and cast-in-place concrete used structurally and three-dimensionally, with lots of red brick. It is the only Wright design in which concern for treating a site already of historical importance, significant to indigenous American history, influenced Wright’s design and placement of the buildings. It is said that the layout of the house is like a tadpole. William Wesley Peters and John deKoven Hill, two of Wright’s most trusted students from the Taliesin School of Architecture, oversaw the building of the Cedar Rock house.
Among characteristics of the house that are known to appear in Frank Lloyd Wright homes, the entrance is dark, but opens to a very light room with sky lights helping bring nature into the space. The bathrooms were very small and the design of the movable sink, which swiveled, was odd. (We were told it was not Wright’s bathroom design, however.)
The bedrooms were very small and the hallway that led past the bedrooms were dark, with built-in cabinetry. However, Wright did not believe in having basements or garages or attics. He also nixed the use of an attached garage and the family had a car port, instead, with a small house that they lived in during construction later being moved to the perimeter of the site and used for housing cars. There was also a maid’s quarters, although the couple did not employ a maid.
The entire house seemed very small and it didn’t look like there would be much of an opportunity to escape from each other to any rooms within the structure. In the original letter to Wright, the letter suggested 30’ x 60.’ The closet space was sorely lacking. The bathroom and hallway outside it were less than optimal and very small.
On a positive note, the tables that Wright designed that were made to fit together were quite ingenious. Also, the overall site on the river is unique and beautiful, with a winding road leading up to the house through gorgeous trees.
Wright designed more than 1,000 structures over 70 years. He lived from 1867 to 1959, so Cedar Rock was near the end of Wright’s career, as it was only 9 years before he died.
I had the opportunity to play the Steinway piano in the living room of Cedar Rock, which was unique.
Although most of us are aware of the significance of Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture, the tragedies of his life included two divorces, an intentionally set fire tat led to the murders of 7 people, including Wright’s mistress, Mamah Cheney, her two children, studio and site employees, and the carpenter’s son by an ax-wielding handyman, Julian Carlton. Wright continued to be plagued, years later, by a second fire ignited by a lightning strike and lifelong financial struggles.