Each visit to The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park (FLWHEP) is a completely different experience, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Only two of the approximately 60 Usonian-style homes that were designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright can be found in the metro area – the FLWHEP being the only one open to the public. Thankfully for area residents, the FLWHEP sits in their own backyard – and it’s open for public tours year-round. The site, located in Kirkwood, is a local treasure that continues to reveal the history of its famed architect and the family who lived in the home for four decades.
“I have both the privilege and responsibility to find the balance between preservation of the house and making it available to the public,” says FLWHEP executive director Kathryn Feldt.
The house traces its roots to 1951, when Wright designed the home for St. Louis artist Russell Kraus and his wife, Ruth. The couple moved into the 1,900-square-foot house when it was completed in 1956 and lived there together until Ruth Kraus died in 1992.
“The fear was that we’d lose this house completely,” Feldt says. “Joanne Kohn, our current chairman emeritus, was the one who was able to organize and raise the money to save the house.”
The FLWHEP nonprofit organization was founded to rescue the property from being sold and razed by developers. By 2001, FLWHEP had raised enough money to purchase the home and surrounding 10½-acre grounds, which were then deeded to St. Louis County for the formation of a public park.
The move turned out to be a boon for historians and fans of Wright’s work. Much of the personal correspondence between the architect and the Krauses was preserved with the purchase, leading to a better understanding of Wright’s intention and the Krauses’ desire to fulfill that intention.
Feldt acknowledges that Wright knew the people he’d previously been designing homes for lived much more lavish lifestyles than the Krauses and similar families. “He wanted to create an artistic home for middle-class, middle-income people,” she says.
The Usonian style, as pioneered by Wright, emphasizes the connection between interior and exterior, between home and nature. Open spaces and purposefully limited storage capacity result in a scaling down that represents an antithesis to the modern megamansion, where minimalism is as practical as it is beautiful.
“When you see guests walk in, you can see them responding to different things … the stained-glass windows, the geometry of the house, the brilliantly designed interior space,” Feldt says. “For me, it’s the light that flows into the house and the way you are integrated into nature. It’s designed to bring the beauty of the outside into the inside … what Frank Lloyd Wright called organic architecture. And this house does a masterful job of that.
“Touring the house is a transformative experience, and making it possible for people to have that experience is incredibly satisfying.”
Preservation is key with a historic home like the Kraus house. The organization goes to great lengths to balance preservation of the architecture and original furnishings – with its commitment to welcoming more than 3,500 visitors each year.
“I spend way more time considering decisions about maintenance and preservation in the [house] than I do in my own residence,” Feldt says with a laugh.
One of those major decisions is the future development of a visitors center, which requires just as much study and consideration as every other choice that needs to be made. As for now, however, tours for the public and student groups and an annual lecture are the main highlights of the visitor experience. The docent-led excursion is available by appointment only and is limited to 12 people per group to provide the most intimate look at the home.
“We’re constantly discovering nuances of the house and new facets of the house’s history,” Feldt says. “We share what we know through the lens of the architect and owner with our guests, and sometimes we discover things – a new perspective or element of the house – from a guest. The element of discovery is what Frank Lloyd Wright wanted, and it is well and alive in the Kraus house.”
And as with any remarkable piece of art, multiple viewings are essential.
“The house is a different experience each day, each season, each exhibit,” Feldt says.
Several different membership levels are available and offer various benefits for visitors, including unlimited free admission, and some levels include membership in the Frank Lloyd Wright National Reciprocal Sites Program – which features free admission to 31 Frank Lloyd Wright historic sites open to the public – and more. For nonmembers, tours run Friday through Sunday and cost $10 for adults and $5 for children 7 to 12. Ultimately, however, each visit and membership supports the ongoing mission of preservation for this truly unique piece of history.
“People leave with such a sense of awe and wonder and inspiration,” Feldt says. “For most people, the house really knocks their socks off.”
The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park, 120 N. Ballas Road, Kirkwood, 314-822-8359, ebsworthpark.org