On the Road: A Tour of an All-Electric House in Kansas and a Wright-Designed Icon in Iowa
text and photos by Robyn Arn
The weekend before Labor Day I set out on another architectour with a focus on Frank Lloyd Wright. This time I ventured to two states I’d never been to before: Iowa and Wisconsin. But first, as I headed north on I-35, I stopped at the Johnson County Museum in Shawnee, Kansas to see what wonders the 1950s All-Electric House held. The following text is a mash-up of their promotional material and a few of my own observations:
Whether you’re a child of the ’50s or just curious about lifestyles from this nostalgic era, the 1950s All-Electric House offers an eye-opening look at the technology of the times. Showcased inside are futuristic gadgets like a hidden television, electric curtain openers, a garage door opener and “the year ’round air conditioner” — known as the heat pump.
Originally constructed by Kansas City Power & Light electric company in 1954, this five-room ranch house captures why a home in the suburbs was part of the American dream after World War II. The home was open for a period of six months as a model home in the bedroom suburb of Prairie Village. It was a must see for many — over 62,000 people toured the home in 1954, a number equal to Johnson County’s entire population. However, all those gadgets did come with a price tag. Normally a house this size would sell from $12,000 – $15,000 but this one was priced in the mid $40s and it took quite some time for the first buyer to step up.
A family home for forty years, The 1950s All-Electric House is once again a model house open for today’s tourists ($5.00 a pop). It was cut in two sections to be moved to the museum site before being carefully put back together. The county museum will be moving to a different space in the near future and luckily they plan to move the All-Electric House again. Apparently it gets all dolled up for the Christmas season, so that might be an especially fun time to visit.
Back on the road, I headed north to Waterloo, Iowa for the night. I’d marked a home in a vintage Better Homes and Gardens located in “Cedar Heights outside Waterloo” that was just about perfect in my mind and attempted to find it the next morning. I did find a road in Cedar Falls called Cedar Heights Drive so I headed there. I felt hopeful when I came across this fabulous God Mod.
Though I ultimately didn’t find that house, I did find the most lovely wooded neighborhood that backs up to George Wyth State Park. It had a slew of mid-century modern homes – several apparently designed by local professors from University of Northern Iowa (as was the home I was searching for). Though some of the most stunning examples were hidden in the dense foliage, I got one decent shot for sampling.
Time constraints pulled me back on the highway to find Cedar Rock State Park where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lowell and Agnes Walter House is located (seriously, Cedar is used to name so many places in Iowa it can get downright confusing). The visitor’s center at the park is a small history museum of the house and contains the coolest original models of the home and boat house.
At 11:00 our modest tour group climbed into a tractor-pulled-wagon and was slowly driven down to the site which is situated on a bluff overlooking the Wapsipinicon River.
This serene Usonian is designed in the “tadpole” form with the bedrooms in the tail and the 900 square foot living / dining room in the head. In the picture above, to the right of the carport, is another separate small bedroom, bath and storage space. The formal entry is down the porch landing in the shadow just behind the far left bush.
The following photo is the back of the house taken from the other side of the carport.
Started in 1948 and finished in 1950, the home has had practically no changes made. That includes all interior furnishings, finishes and decorative items meticulously curated by Wright.
The ceiling has a grid of copper lined skylights that, when lit at nightfall, create a beautiful glow. The clerestory windows open to release the trapped hot air but, during the heat wave we were experiencing that weekend, modern floor fans were an abundant if unphotogenic necessity.
You can tell why Wright dubbed this “the Garden Room.”
The guide showed us a ceramic pitcher and cups high on a shelf in a corner of the kitchen that were gifted to the Lowells and proceeded to tell us how Wright had come by, seen the set, and told them it would not stand. After a “discussion” the Lowells got that one concession, but it’s definitely relegated to a Cinderella spot.
The bathroom has a system none of us had ever seen before (and frankly I’m OK with it not becoming the norm).
The bedrooms, of course, are modest and cozy and feature beautiful built-ins like the sliding wooden shelf system in the master.
All the landscaping was done by Wright as well, which includes a large firepit / seating area called the “council fire” up the sloping hill from the back of the house, and a large fountain down the slope from the garden room.
A vintage photo from a 1955 House Beautiful shows the house from the river – the trees have filled in so much now it really is hard to recognize.
The boat house with its own bed and bath is in the foreground. It has yet to be restored, but is fetching just the same:
The original family boat is gorgeous, too and is parked outside the visitor’s center:
Already enough great design to fill my heart and I was just getting started: next stop Taliesin.