Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than 1,000 buildings during a career that spanned seven decades. But for every Fallingwater or Guggenheim, there are dozens of smaller projects that continue to fly under popular history's radar. This is one of those projects.
The Lowell and Agnes Walter House on today’s claass HAUS.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Fallingwater, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Johnson Wax Building as much as the next Wright aficionado. But there’s something about his small Usonian houses- the refined simplicity, modern informality, and well, just plain beauty- that continues to draw me to their concealed front doors. Commonly known as “Cedar Rock”, the Lowell and Agnes Walter House, a serene Usonian retreat near Quasqueton, Iowa, stands on a dramatic limestone bluff overlooking a scenic bend in the Wapsipinicon River. A standout example of Wrightian order, the estate (that also includes a boathouse, entrance gate, and outdoor hearth) was designed for the Walters, who had recently sold off their successful Iowa Road Building Company in anticipation of a quiet retirement.
In 1942, the Walters contacted America’s most famous architect in hopes of commissioning a three-season home for their 11-acre riverfront property near Mr. Walter's hometown. Wartime building restrictions delayed the project, but by 1948 construction began on the couple's Usonian retreat. Showcasing its natural site and reflecting the flat Midwestern landscape, the main house is simple but impeccably detailed, appearing to grow organically from the earth. Compact and efficient, the plan follows Wright's “tadpole form”- a central cluster of living spaces (public) with a wing of bedrooms (private) extending at an angle. A complete design, the house includes furniture, cabinetry, draperies, and accessories, all executed to Wright's specifications.
Wholeheartedly Wrightian from cantilever to carpet, the small but sophisticated design incorporates many of the typical features of Usonian housing. Refined, informal, and seamlessly integrated into the natural environment, the country retreat offers efficiency and order, a perfect retirement home. Accentuating the horizontality of the Midwestern landscape, the Walter House sits long and low, complimenting the site with its broad overhangs with upturned edges, walls of glass, and clerestory windows. The main living area of the house, aptly named the "Garden Room", consists of three glass walls offering stunning views of the valley, while clerestory windows and skylights flood the interior with soft sunlight, filtering nature into the domestic realm. The chain of windows, shifting ceiling heights, and walnut board and batten walls, all serve to reinforce Wright’s devotion to the horizontal, a long house harmonizing with the unfolding stretches of Iowa countryside.
Located about a 100 yards from the Walter's home, a cleverly designed boathouse echoes the main residence in its flat roof and cantilever construction. A mini Usonian design, the two-story boathouse utilizes the same accessible materials (brick) and efficient organization of space to create a personal escape for Mr. Walter. Hovering over the river, the boathouse provides access to the landscape, offering the family a connection to their sprawling property. (You can see images of the boathouse here).
Completed in 1950, the Walter House functioned as the family’s primary retreat for the next thirty years. Today, the house is owned by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and is run as a state park, attracting approximately 10,000 visitors annually from around the world. Retaining much of its original integrity, the Lowell and Agnes Walter House remains a Wrightian time capsule, an artifact of the architect's seemingly timeless approach to American domesticity.
You can find out more about visiting Cedar Rock here.
Image at the top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Cedar Rock, the Lowell and Agnes Walter House, completed in Independence, Iowa. Buchanan County, Iowa, United States, 2016. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016630505.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.