** Update 12/19/2011: The Laurent House Foundation successfully purchased the home at auction and plans to turn it into a museum. **
Accessibility discussions usually seem to center around ways to retrofit historic properties to better accommodate people of all abilities. Why? Because it's an issue that still needs to be addressed at historic places all across the country that weren’t originally designed with universal accessibility in mind. Hey, we even blogged about the subject last week. It’s far less often that we come across old and historic buildings that were accessible from their start.
That said, it is incredibly refreshing to hear about efforts to preserve the Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, which is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home originally commissioned to be wheelchair-accessible. Completed in 1952 on a stretch of then-rural land four and a half miles outside the heart of Rockford’s downtown, the low-slung brick home was commissioned by Kenneth Laurent, an injured World War II veteran, and his wife Phyllis.
The Laurent Home and its furnishings are scheduled to be sold at auction on December 15. We had the opportunity to talk with John Groh, President and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and founding member of the Laurent House Foundation, about their efforts to buy the house, preserve it, and open it up to the public.
Tell us about the Laurent House Foundation. How did it start and what is its primary goal?
JG: The Laurent House Foundation started to come together about 3 years ago. It was within the last year that the group incorporated and appointed its first board of directors. The group's primary goal has always been to acquire the Laurent Home and its original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed contents from the original owners, Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent, in order to open the home to the public and ensure its lasting place in our community.
What are some of the design characteristics of the home and what is most inspiring about it as a place?
JG: The Laurent House was one of FLW's Usonian homes, in the "hemicycle" style, based upon intersecting arcs and circles. The Laurent House is the second of only eight hemicycles he designed and the only one in Illinois. The culmination of this “arc and circle” experiment was the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent are the home’s original owners and still reside in the house. They are 92 years old and had a wonderful relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Laurent, confined to a wheelchair as a result of injuries sustained in World War II, "challenged the master" to design an accessible home. Completed in 1952, the Laurent House was fully accessible some 40 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. Mr. Laurent credits his home with giving him the will and motivation to live - and to do so fully. He noted that the home has allowed him to focus on his ability rather than his disability.
How has the community reacted to the pending auction?
JG: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has granted a $500,0000 challenge grant that can be used to acquire the home, its original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed contents, and open the house to the public as a museum. On Monday, our City Council voted unanimously to grant $75,000 to the project. We have received additional donations from individuals, local companies, and foundations, and continue to approach others interested in helping us secure the home at auction. The state's funds are presented as a dollar for dollar challenge grant. So, any funds we raise will be matched with the state's funds. We are not, yet, in a position to bid at auction, but are open to all credible pledges, payable over time up to five years.
Why is this an important national preservation story?
JG: Shortly before his death, Frank Lloyd Wright designated this home as one of the top 35 designs of his career. It was included in the book "Frank Lloyd Wright -The Masterworks." Wright also called this home his "little gem."
In that it is the only house that Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed for a person with a disability, I think it is a fitting and proper tribute to his work - decades before other architects - on behalf of the disabled community. Paraplegic News has written the house up on three separate occasions.
Take me on a “five years later” tour of the Laurent House. What would you showcase? How has the property been restored and/or changed?
JG: The home has not changed much and is still in pristine condition. The only visible change is that the carpet throughout the house will be removed (Mr. Laurent installed it to protect the concrete floor from his wheelchair).
Our intention is to showcase the home "as is,” and want visitors to be able to really experience the home as Mr. and Mrs. Laurent and their family have. Mr. Laurent credits the home with helping him live a long, full life. We hope that this home and its design will be an inspiration to the new generation of wounded soldiers returning home from war, and hope it will inspire architects and builders to more fully integrate accessible design moving forward.
David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If you have stories you think would interest PreservationNation, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.