The Wright Place
For a unique getaway, stay in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian home
by Miriam Carey
Ohio Magazine - March 2003

When Louis Penfield, a high school art teacher, and his wife, Pauline, wanted to build a new house in the early 1950s, he went straight to the top. At first glance, it might have seemed like a pipe dream to commission world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the home. But the Penfields read all they could about the architect they admired, and found that Wright was designing what he called “Usonian” homes — affordable and elegant houses for the average American.

Armed with this knowledge, the Penfields corresponded with Wright, fitting their profile into the architect’s Usonian vision with one additional card to play — Penfield’s height. Standing at 6-feet, 8-inches tall, Penfield knew he might pique the interest of the diminutive architect who was famous for building low-to-the-ground housing. Wright took the challenge.

The resulting design took into account the client’s height, his family’s desire to live casually and the natural landscape of the couple’s 30 acres along the Chagrin River in Willoughby. The cost? An affordable $25,000.

To keep the price low, Wright’s design incorporated as much do-it-yourself and low-cost building as possible. The Penfields worked with local contractors, and the home was built in 1955. Constructed of concrete block, wood and glass, the home achieves Wright’s intent. It is long and subtle, blending with the fantastic woodlands on the Penfields’ property, and meeting the needs of the couple and their two children, Paul and Tisa Ann.

Nearly a half century later, the Wright-designed home can be experienced by visitors, who can rent the structure and enjoy both the Usonian architecture and the beautiful property that surrounds it.

Inside the home, the first level is one big room that incorporates the kitchen and living areas. The entranceway doors — in fact, almost all the doors in the home — are 8 feet high and 22 inches wide. The ceilings also reflect a need for height in the room, extending 8 feet in the entranceway portion of the home and rising to 12 feet in the living area. An expanse of glass across the length of the room draws the wooded property into the living area visually; a long, built-in bench stretching across the length of the far wall provides a place to sit and enjoy the view.

The home is heated through its floor, using an in-floor radiant heating system that Wright innovated in the 1930s. A series of boilers emits heat through cement flooring. The cement itself is designed to withstand many years of use. Tinted with “Colorundum,” a process that colors the cement while it’s still wet, the floor will never need painting, and only occasionally needs waxing. The cement walls are similarly easy to care for. The kitchen and utility room, near the entrance to the home, blend in with the rest of the first level.

A narrow, floating staircase extends to the second level, where the master bedroom and two additional rooms for the Penfield children reflect Wright’s idea of simplicity. Plenty of storage and closet space is built into the bedrooms, as if to say, “put your things away and enjoy the look of this room in its intended simplicity.”

If Wright and Penfield differed in size, there also was a disparity in their philosophies about budgets. In this case it was the reverse: Wright thought big, always going over budget, while Penfield was conservative. He stopped building when the house reached its original budget of $25,000. The house was finished, but the furnishings and some of the extra cabinetry originally designed by Wright were never made.

This is where Paul Penfield comes in. One of two Penfield children who grew up in the house, Paul has since inherited the property, which has been in the family since 1876. He worked for years to restore a cottage and farmhouse while maintaining the tree farm here. He left restoration of the Wright home for last.

“It’s almost as if restoring the house was waiting for the trees to grow,” says Paul, with a smile. Most of the details left undone by his father involved woodworking. Looking at Wright’s original designs, Paul slowly began the process of cutting the wood and working the pieces into the furniture and cabinetry intended by Wright. As he negotiated this delicate process, he sometimes had to retool or build new machinery to accommodate unusual sizes and needs demanded by Wright’s designs. He also sought advice from John Origlio, a consulting architect on the project, and a member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Working together, they re-created the original vision that was among Wright’s last projects.

The results of Paul’s labor are a series of tables, chairs and cabinets all handcrafted from cherry wood found on the property. Paul and his wife, Donna, chose area rugs reflective of Wright’s designs. Accessories throughout the home finish off the Wright look with style.

The rehab was a labor of love for Paul and Donna. But all through the process, their dream was to share this house with other Wright fans. “We wanted to offer something to the public that’s more than a house to tour or a museum to see,” explains Paul. “We wanted to create a space where they could take up residence and occupy the house. It’s such a different experience to watch the light change through the day, enjoy the fireplace at night and actually wake up in the morning thinking, ‘ the house is mine.’ ”

Beginning this month, the Penfield home will become only the second Wright house in the country to open its doors to vacation rentals. The other is in Wisconsin. There are only 11 Wright designs in Ohio.

For $275 a night — with a two-night minimum — a maximum of five people can enjoy the home and the woodland property that surrounds it. “There is fishing in the Chagrin River,” notes Paul, “and wooded trails to walk throughout the property.” The Buckeye Trail winds its way through the nearby North Chagrin Reservation, and visiting nature-lovers can further indulge themselves with a visit to the Holden Arboretum, which is a short drive from the Penfield house.

For reasons now inexplicable, Wright didn’t include an oven in the home’s plans. There is a stovetop and a micro- wave, though, and visitors can enjoy a visit to Gavi’s restaurant in downtown Willoughby if they want a treat. Paul and Donna also recommend Corks Wine Bar and the Willoughby Brewing Company, and they provide directions and information on other places to eat in the downtown area.

Paul and Donna point to a set of drawings near the entrance, explaining the story that goes with it. Not long after the house was originally completed, plans for Interstate 90 were announced. At first, the Penfields were terrified that the highway would claim eminent domain over their new home, but Wright’s name and reputation seemed to ensure that the house would remain — but with a highway nearby. There was talk about actually moving the home, but Wright was as good a businessman as he was an architect. He simply designed another home for the Penfields. As it turned out, the highway wasn’t such an intrusion, and the home was never needed. But, it was on the drawing board when Wright passed away in 1959, so the firm sent the plans on to the Penfields. Paul and Donna’s dream is to build this house, believed to be among the very last residential commissions worked on by Wright.

For Paul, the entire process is about learning. A songwriter and performer by trade, he’s written a little ditty about his experience: “I knew its history, but I didn’t know what it could be. I haven’t restored the house, [it] restored me.

If you go:

The Penfield House, St. Rte. 174, Willoughby. For reservations, call 440/942-9996. Rates: $275 per night, with a two-night minimum stay. Bookings begin March 15.

Gavi’s, 38257 Glenn Rd., Willoughby, 440/942-8008. Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 4:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Appetizers $4-$8, entrees $13.95-$24.95.
Corks Wine Bar, 4084 Erie St., Willoughby, 440/918-9463. Mon. 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Tues.-Sat. 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers $4-$8
Holden Arboretum, 9500 Sperry Rd., Willoughby, 440/946-4400. Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: adults $4, seniors $3.
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