Growing Up Wright

Donna Grant Reilly's parents built a Frank Lloyd Wright house, mostly with their own hands--one stone at a time

Grant
A glass peninsula integrates interior spaces with the natural world.

Credit: Alan Weintraub

In 1945, Doug and Jackie Grant set out to build a house on the wooded lot they’d purchased just outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa. To minimize expenses, they decided to act as general contractors and provide much of the labor themselves, everything from quarrying limestone they discovered onsite to finishing the interior spaces. Oh, yes, and perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright would agree to be their architect? They would write him a letter.

The Grants’ plan may have reflected audacity, naiveté, or a combination of the two, but the resourceful couple pulled it off. They mailed their letter, and Wright invited Doug and Jackie to his Wisconsin studio, Taliesin, and agreed to take them on as clients. Guided by Wright and his associates, the Grants built one of the finest of the Usonian houses—dwellings Wright conceived for clients of modest means—and lived there for the rest of their lives.

Now their eldest child, Donna Grant Reilly, has published An American Proceeding:Building the Grant House with Frank Lloyd Wright (Meadowside Press, 2010) chronicling the tale of a house that, in its glories and flaws, has remained a presence in her family for more than six decades. She recently spoke with Preservation from her own home in New Hampshire about a design so inspiring and ethereal, she never thought it could be built.

How did your parents decide to commission a Frank Lloyd Wright house?
Mother and Dad had this wonderful piece of property, and they always knew where they were going to put the house; it was just a matter of finding the right architect. So they started looking at magazine articles and books and pictures of architecture. They thought, “We’ll know it when we see it.” Then Dad got hold of an old copy of that very famous January 1938 issue of The Architectural Forum [an issue dedicated to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright], and it was just a “wow” moment. They loved the fact that Wright built houses that looked like they were part of the land.

What gave them the courage to approach an architect of Wright’s stature?
Remember, this was 1945, and I’m not sure how much that stature was apparent in eastern Iowa. My parents never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright until 1945. Would they have been intimidated if they had known more about him? Probably not. I think Dad would have said, “What do I have to lose?”

Grant
The fireplace in the living room is big enough to stand in.

Credit: Alan Weintraub

What do you remember about visiting Taliesin?
I remember the driveway at Taliesin—it’s quite a long curving drive—and catching glimpses of a building through the trees. It looked like outcroppings of rock. We were ushered into Wright’s study, and it was a lovely place. It was all stone and wood, and there were what they called “light decks”—almost like shelves up near the ceiling—with indirect lighting. It was a chilly day, and there was a crackling fire. There were sheepskins thrown over some of the benches, and Wright had all sorts of charming little Buddhas and things.

Of course, Wright was remarkable looking. He was wearing his wonderful suit and stiff collar and string tie. And it was cold, so he had a cloak over his shoulders, and I remember his flowing white hair. But the thing I remember most about Wright was that he made us feel welcome; he made us feel comfortable. He was a big presence, yet, as a child, I was not intimidated at all.

Were you surprised when you saw Wright’s design for the house?
When the preliminary drawings—the perspective drawings—came, we had no idea what to expect, and they were absolutely beautiful. We just pored over them, wondering, “Is there some mistake? Is this really our house?” I remember going back to look at them time and time again. At one point I said to myself, “This is really wonderful, but it will never happen; it’s just too far out.” I should have known better.

Your parents built the house themselves. That must have made for an interesting family life.
Construction started in the fall of 1949, and my parents spent every spare moment building the house. The first thing they did was to quarry every single stone that went into that house themselves, and that was hard labor. They must have been exhausted every night. But they were young, and they were doing something very exciting—and very unusual. They must have grasped that they were breaking new ground. As kids, though, we pretty much took it for granted; we thought our parents could do anything. It wasn’t until much later that I began to realize that what they did was amazing. We moved in on Christmas of 1950.

What did you think of the house as it took shape, and what did your neighbors think?
It was fun to see the house as it gradually went up. We lived very near it, so my brother and sister and I could trot down there as soon as we got home from school to see what had happened that day. We knew all the workmen, and the process was quite interesting, so we learned a lot. Although it wasn’t like any house we’d ever seen, my father explained to us as we went along why it was that way. It was much harder to explain to other people, who just couldn’t understand the concept of having stone walls inside the house, or of having no paint, no wallpaper, no plaster. This was heresy!

Dad had a very hard time finding stonemasons who would even do the job. The bank fought the project for a while, because they were convinced that the cantilevered concrete roof would never work. It was defying gravity! The workmen were somewhat skeptical too. After the roof slab had been poured, they let it cure for about two weeks. And when the day came for them to remove the forms, they would kick out a key support and run back and watch for a while.

They weren’t taking any chances.

Grant
Stone inside walls were unusual in Iowa when the house was built in 1950.

Credit: Alan Weintraub

What was it like to live in the house?
It was a beautiful place to live. We had one small fireplace in our former house, but we had three fireplaces in this house, and the one in the living room was big enough to stand in. The living room had glass on three sides, so we were very much affected by the seasons and the changing colors. In the summertime it was absolutely incredible, but the house changed with every season.

There was a huge sugar maple outside the living room, and when it turned yellow in the fall, that was the color scheme. We were very much aware of nature in that house. There are huge storms in Iowa, and we would watch them roll in. In fact, we saw the occasional tornado in the distance.  In that house you didn’t get away from the weather; you lived it.

Sometimes at the expense of comfort, we understand.
The first winter we lived there, the living room was boarded up because the glass hadn’t arrived yet, so we were nice and warm and toasty. But with the second winter it became very much apparent that [Wright’s in-floor “gravity heat” system] was not up to the task of heating that two-story living room with all that glass. It was cold. That was a problem my parents fought all the rest of their lives, and they never solved it. And it did leak. The cause turned out to be a construction error, but it must have been the 1960s by the time they solved that. So in the winter it was difficult. But in the summer, spring, and fall it was just wonderful.

Are there plans to preserve the house?
That’s a huge question mark. Another Usonian, the Walter house, was given to the state of Iowa as a museum. But Mrs. Walter left a large trust fund for maintenance. And the Grant house isn’t ready to be a museum; it’s going to need a massive restoration. My brother, who now owns the house, is happy to show it. But he has no interest in giving it to the state, and I don’t think the state would take it.

With all that in mind, have the pleasures of owning a Frank Lloyd Wright house outweighed the burdens?
They are very high-maintenance houses. When you’re young, you take those things in your stride, and my parents definitely did. The older they got, though, the less able they were to do the maintenance and withstand the cold. My father loved that house, and I think he loved it until his dying day. Mother was another story. She also loved the house, and she was proud of it, but it just got to be too much for her.

It’s a little ironic that Wright designed his Usonian houses for the “common man,” but the cost of keeping them up puts them out of that realm. That’s the only flaw I see in his philosophy.

But if I had been given the choice to live anyplace else, I don’t think I would have. It was so perfect for our family and for that site. You look at that house and you still catch your breath. I think the stairway going down to the living room is one of the most beautiful things that Wright ever did. My parents felt, and I certainly feel, that it was a tremendous privilege to live in that house and be associated with it, and I think I’ll always feel that way.

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