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The House That Kraus Built

The House That Kraus Built

Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian Comes to Life in St. Louis

by Deborah Meister©2022

I had given up the thought of becoming the owner of a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. My artist’s income, as for most young artists in the post-war years, hardly paid the rent. How would I be able to afford paying a great architect for the blueprints, much less the cost of building the house itself? The dream of living in one of Mr. Wright’s extraordinary homes would have to be put to rest, at least for the time being.

I’d turned my attention to finding a few rural acres of inexpensive land, perhaps fifty or sixty miles outside the city of St. Louis, where I could become a gentleman farmer and still tend to my art, surrounded by nature, peace, solitude, and seclusion. I even toyed with the idea of having a few chickens, goats, and maybe a cow. In pursuing this dream of living off the land, I happened upon an article in one of those magazines geared to housewives, I suppose, who strive to make homemaking an art in itself while putting aside pennies for a rainy day. Since about all I had at the end of the day were pennies, the feature article drew my attention. It highlighted a Usonian Home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Loren Pope, the author of the article. Mr. Pope’s modest income as a copy-editor earned him the annual salary of $3,000, which I hoped to be able to earn as a commercial artist and master of art glass design. This particular architectural plan promised to meet the daily needs of the moderate-income family, while offering all-natural artistic beauty for a reasonable financial investment. Immediately, my dream of owning a home designed by the incomparable Frank Lloyd Wright once again took flight.

It’s important to mention at this point that between one dream and the next I’d met a special woman who happily accepted my proposal of marriage. Ruth and I had been dating off and on for a couple of years. I’d instantly been taken heart and soul by Ruth’s beautiful spirit and, to add to her radiance, she was an intelligent, attractive, and gracious woman. She had an uncanny ability to listen with her heart. Like me, she’d graduated from Washington University, though—if I may dare to speak of a woman’s age—we’d never met at school because Ruth was more than a few years my senior. By the time we met, Ruth had been practicing law for some time, and we had both found work with the WPA during the war. Eventually, I pursued my career in commercial illustration and marketing for such esteemed corporations as Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola. My fiancé and I shared the dream to escape urban congestion, leaving behind the noise and filthy air, and one day live in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organically designed houses.

When I showed Ruth the magazine article and photos of the Usonian design, she had some reservations. Though the size of a Usonian keeps the cost down, we’d heard that Mr. Wright had a reputation for ignoring a client’s budget. As an astute attorney, Ruth sensed the danger in investing with someone who may disregard our financial interests. I pointed out that the cost of the Pope’s home was $7,000. Of course, the Pope’s had built their house a decade earlier. The cost of living and the expense of building materials in general had risen steadily due to the post-depression economy. Add to these impediments the federally ordered shut-down on providing steel for residential purposes in order to safe-guard what little production was left for national security. The price of steel sky-rocketed. All in all, despite the hurdles we’d face in building a custom designed home, we wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright asking him if he’d design for us “a little house.”

Thinking back on our decision, I admit our naiveté was a bit like writing to Picasso asking if he’d paint a portrait for us. Not everyone would care to have their portrait painted by the great Picasso, but what utter chutzpah to think one is worthy of it. At the time we wrote the letter, Mr. Wright was nearly eighty and fully immersed in the design stage of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But when two thirty-somethings are in love, anything’s possible.

He responded quickly, and the day his letter arrived in the mail we were over the moon with happiness. Mr. Wright instructed us to buy our land, as much as we could afford. His fees for the blue prints of our Usonian house would be based on the estimated cost: $35,000. While this price was at the upper end of our budgeted funds, Ruth and I boldly agreed to proceed. In the end, what we could afford for the design and construction left us enough money to acquire six acres west of the city. Land once used for farming was being sold off in large parcels, mostly to contractors for subdivisions—still less than twenty miles from the city limits. We secured our acreage and before long Mr. Wright’s apprentices showed up to survey the property.

By this time, it was 1950. We corresponded with Mr. Wright at regular intervals, answering his questions about our lifestyle, our needs for space, number of children, and what kinds of shapes we preferred. Simple, flexible, none, and angular, we told him. I suppose those same factors led us to the Usonian design in the first place. The organic principles of a Usonian matched our needs and reflected our appreciation for simplicity in the beauty of nature. Mr. Wright set to work designing a Usonian home just for us, at 1900 total square feet. No garage, no basement, and no attic. Those are three non-negotiable Usonian principles. Eliminating these features would save money—another key principle of Mr. Wright’s Usonian designs. We had no problem with parking our car in a motor court (later to be known as a “carport”) and no particular need for a basement or attic, both of which generally become the place where people park the things they’d be better off throwing away. Our 1900 sq. ft. home would serve our needs very well.

Construction began in 1951. Due to the shortage of some of the unique materials Mr. Wright included in his design, like Tide Water Cypress and specially shaped bricks to achieve the 60/120 degree angles of the parallelogram grid on which the house would be built, the entire building phase would take five years. We moved in on New Year’s Eve 1955.

Our little house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright would serve us well. We could not have been more proud of the house we’d built with the world-renown architect. Modest in size and exceptionally unique in artistic flair, the home brought us over forty years of happiness. Ruth’s health began declining in the 60’s and by the 80’s she rarely left the house. Nothing brought me more pleasure than to share Ruth’s joy as she sat in our “hearth room” and looked out into the grove of persimmon trees that surrounded the terrace, watching the golden sunsets. After she passed in 1992, I continued living in the house, constantly aware of the joy-filled memories of living with Ruth in the house of our dreams.