The Rubin House: Memories of its Creation and Creator

Jeanne Spielman Rubin is one of a rare breed- she is not only the owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, she is the original client for whom the house was designed and built. Jetsetmodern is grateful to Ms. Rubin for sharing her recollections of Mr. Wright and the design process, and her appreciation for the final result. - Sandy McLendon
If it had not been such a hot summer day in Spring Green, Wisconsin, when we first met Frank Lloyd Wright, we wouldn’t have been so surprised to see him approach us with a wool scarf neatly tucked into his jacket. The man seemed full of surprises. His leonine features, majestic voice (that we had already heard on recordings), and formidable stature as an architect had all projected a much taller person than the one whose eyes were able to look straight into mine as we stood opposite each other, shaking hands. I was short. My husband was not much taller. Mr. Wright was still the giant- but, somehow, one with short legs. 

It was the moment we had long awaited. As a result of our visit to his Weltzheimer house in nearby Oberlin, Ohio- which, incidentally, was prompted by a  Cleveland Plain Dealernewspaper article about that house- we were encouraged by the proud new owners to contact the legendary architect, who turned out to be surprisingly approachable. The Weltzheimers told us, contrary to information given elsewhere, that they were able to build their house with less expense than would have been required for a traditional one largely because Mr. Wright, unlike many traditional architects, tried to stay within their budget. Having already suffered at the hands of one of the many, we decided to plunge ahead with Mr. Wright. As we talked, a little girl- perhaps three years of age at the time- kept polishing the expansive cement floor on her hands and knees, using a single sheet of facial tissue and a good deal of energy. The sun shone warm on the red cement and her golden hair.

Shortly after our initial letter to Mr. Wright, we received a request for a topographical map and a description of our family: size, occupations, hobbies, life style, etc. We answered: a one-acre, triangular-shaped heavily wooded lot, sloping down from front to back and from west to east; family of four: two parents, one a physician, the other a musician; two sons, ages eight and six; all, lovers of nature, casual lifestyle, and so forth. This response was soon followed by the announcement that we were in luck because such requirements had already been met in an unbuilt plan projected almost two decades earlier for Okemos, Michigan. As a result, the plan was submitted for our approval much sooner than it would have been without that good fortune. We also received a rendering (colored drawing of the finished product on its site, this one with the supposed lady of the house walking eastward on the terrace and holding a small bunch of red flowers evidently plucked from the bushes surrounding the terrace). Much as we would have liked to keep the rendering, it was returned within the time stipulated only to find, later, that it had disappeared along with others, possibly coincident with the departure of an apprentice. 

We felt, however, that certain modifications of the plan would be desirable. That was the purpose of our appointment. How Mr. Wright would react to modifications suggested by a client remained to be seen.

We were scheduled for two appointments--one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the latter one shortly after Mr. Wright, then an octogenarian, would be finished with his nap. Not knowing how long the trip to Spring Green would take and not wanting to take the chance of being late, we arrived early. Eugene Masselink, his secretary at the time, then took us on a leisurely tour of the valley. It had been home to two generations of the Master’s maternal ancestors, the Lloyd Joneses, before one of the daughters, Anna (really Hanna), married a William Russell Wright, whose scion would later bring it fame, if not fortune.

As we toured the grounds, we noticed a farm cart being decorated, costumes being carried quickly from some unknown source to some unknown destination, and altogether too much excitement for a normal weekend. Along the way, we were introduced to Mr. Wright’s son-in-law, Wes Peters, and his grandson, Brandock, who were both swaggering along a covered walkway, armed with double-holstered guns slung low over their hips and with fierce scowls on their otherwise fair countenances. Masselink explained that they were simply getting into character for their roles in the theme-party to take place that night. As they walked off, we could see Wes, well over six feet tall, bend his head to the side in order to clear a typically low-ceilinged area; his young son, about ten years of age at the time and considerably shorter, carried his head at the same angle.

Whenever the apprentices had been working too hard and needed a break, Masselink further explained, Mr. Wright would declare time out for a party. Out would come the trunks of costumes and trappings stored for such occasions, a theme for the party would be decided upon (this one was based on the antebellum south), and musicians would begin rehearsing (all apprentices either played some instrument, sang, or were learning to do so). The menu would be planned, servers and cooks assigned, and the party hall would be decked with flowers and greens. We couldn’t help envying those who were to enjoy the results of all that preparation. 

At some point along the tour, a messenger arrived, took our guide aside, and we were subsequently told that Mr. Wright would be ready to meet with us shortly. Oddly enough, in spite of that message, we were again taken to one of the spots we had already been shown. 

Not long after, Mr. Wright came forth, holding out his hand and looking dapper as a dandy. He appeared genuinely pleased to meet us and, while extending an invitation to the party that night, he repeatedly ran his hands back and forth over the tops of our boys’ “beaver” haircuts, one hand for each boy. “I understand that one of you is a musician. Which one?” Because his eye wandered back and forth between us, my husband hastened to clear himself of the charge by saying “not I- I’m physical”; then pointing toward me, “she’s musical.” Mr. Wright seemed much amused by that rapid-fire response. If there had been any remnants of initial trepidation on our part, they dissipated entirely. From then on, conversation flowed easily. Good thing. There was a lot to be discussed.

We wanted a basement, if only a partial one, even though we knew that this would not be characteristic of a Usonian house. Furthermore, we didn’t like the idea of the boiler, hot water tank, water softening tank, and incinerator taking up so much beautiful space on the ground floor. 

The first meeting took place in the schoolhouse of Mr. Wright’s aunts, on the same grounds as his residence, “Taliesin.” The deep balcony loomed large at the end of the spacious room in which we sat on small, three-legged stools. Experiencing some difficulty in distributing my weight on the little stool, I must have amused Mr. Wright. He kept smiling as he waited for me to settle down before saying “you can’t squirm on those, can you?”

Squirm I did soon after, when a battalion of bats flew through the open window under the eaves of the balcony and straight over our heads. I had known that he was not in favor of screens, which was consistent with his well-known philosophy of “letting the outside in.” (I, with an irrational phobia about flying things, decided that I would have to request an exception.) Again he smiled, and with a wave of his hand, as if to dismiss the terror, said "Fledermaus, only fledermaus.” 

While Mr. Wright was explaining some of his more prevalent architectural traits and their corresponding philosophies, such as the principle of “knitting” (overlapping, demonstrated by interlocking outstretched fingers of both hands), the simplicity of a good design, (“simple, but not as simple as a barn door”), etc., he was interrupted by the entrance of someone with arms held high, bearing long, black opera capes suspended from hangers in each hand. “Which one would you like to wear tonight?” After some deliberation, he settled on “The London one.” Then, looking at me, Mr. Wright said “you should have seen me before my hair turned grey.” Many years later, when I repeated the remark to apprentice Ling Po, he laughed and explained “he was flirting with you.” (Via the apprentice grapevine, I later heard that there was once a time when Mr. Wright tried to ward off his greying hair by rubbing it with pencil shavings.)

The conversation then turned to our issues: “Could we make this a little wider?” One question would be answered by another, sounding something like this: “Where do you want me to subtract the inches you want to add over there?” Then came the double concern that we hoped might be considered in tandem: “We would prefer that the main entrance not be through the carport where the boiler, hot water heater, water softener and incinerator were occupying valuable space in the ground floor utility room”; and “we live in tornado territory so might we have a basement?” “I don’t normally design basements but perhaps, if you really want one, we might arrange to have only a partial one, within the core, to which you could gain access through a trap door in the kitchen floor [an eight-inch-thick slab of solid cement].” “No thank you [with much laughter at what we thought was his sense of humor], we’ll take stairs.” “Where do you want me to subtract the inches you’ll need for your stairs?” And so it went, on and on. (Later, we were told that he really meant to design a trap door for the kitchen floor.)

Upon entering Mr. Wright’s residence for the second meeting, we were led to the study. As we passed the hall leading to private quarters, we caught a quick glimpse of a turquoise hoop skirt swooping around a corner and, of more interest, a rear window overlooking the same spot to which we had been brought for the second time in the morning. 

Mr. Wright proved to be a good deal more flexible than we had been led to believe. As a result, we now have one of the few Usonian houses, if not the only one, with a (partial) basement. Also, as a result of moving the utilities down to that basement, we now have a spacious parallelogram room (with large skylight and thick laminated maple counter top), which has served us well as a woodworking shop, breakfast room, studio, laundry room, or whatever our needs may have been at the time (we found that not only was the architect surprisingly flexible but also his architecture had unsuspected flexibility). Without a right angle in the room, we were forced to build a parallelogram corner table for the built-in 120-degree corner bench. “We” consisted of our family of four, who had also filled with bits of redwood dowels the thousands of holes, inside and out, created by countersunk cadmium screws that hold together the “plywood sandwich” walls consisting of redwood boards and battens on both sides of an inner sheet of plywood (no airspace between).

Mr. Wright, visibly pleased with his solution to the problems of what to do with the space opened up by moving utilities to the basement as well as of where to place the main entrance, called attention to the virtues of what he had newly created. Whereupon he sat back in admiration and declared the entrance to be “monumental.”

As he was working out that monumental entrance and other problems, we barely breathed for fear of disturbing the remarkable flow of creativity we were witnessing. In the meantime, our younger son had quietly sidled his way up to the hallowed desk, determined to ask a question: “How much does a horse like that cost?” he asked, pointing to a photograph of Mr. Wright’s grandson with a pony (gift of grandfather). Fortunately, the hallowed hands kept drawing.

L-o-n-g after, when those hands had completed their task, came the reply: “How much money do you have?” 

As evening descended, the dining and entertainment began. Outside, a decorated farm cart offered a variety of hors d’oeuvre and beverages. Inside, apprentices, resplendent in their large, blue-cuffed, canvas furnace gloves and wearing neatly folded towels over one arm awaited. Green boughs, transforming the inside to the outside, reached a climax of profusion in one corner where they formed a highlighted bower under which both the golden harp of turquoise-skirted Iovanna, Wright’s youngest daughter, and a string quartet playing Beethoven were sheltered. 

Mr. and Mrs. Wright led the dancing-- he in his London cape, she in formal raiment--as all watched before gradually joining them on the floor. Vaudeville-like skits were presented by apprentices impersonating Mr. Wright’s rivals, who used very large pointers while describing (with appropriate accents) the various features of their various “boxes” (much to the host’s delight). Choral renditions of songs of the old south rounded out the evening.

Looking back, I never did request permission for the screens I once wanted so badly. We soon added them, however, after having to hunt down the children’s clothing-dutifully cleared from the bathroom floor by our mongrel, Tippy, and found deposited all over our acre. 

The eastern boundary of our property, once exposed when a road was later cut through, has become so heavily shielded that passers-by are no longer aware of the house behind the shield.

Trees planted as saplings have grown to a degree that the house, once assaulted by summer heat burning down on bare roof, skylights, and terrace fully open to the sun, now enjoys cool shade throughout the warm months. Within the house, as before, wall-to-wall shade in the summer and wall-to-wall sunshine in winter miraculously appear, with or without trees, all monitored by depth of overhangs that are calculated in conjunction with the angle of the sun in all seasons. Within the past fifty-three years, both house and occupants have wrought changes in each other. Whereas I had originally changed draperies from wheat to yellow-green in the first decade, the house now changes “draperies” seasonally, from shimmering multi-greens to golden yellows, oranges, and reds, then, to sparkling white. This, plus watching our sun-pierced, “perforated windows” cast their patterns on inner walls--constantly migrating to new places, transforming shapes with every hour and every season, never exactly the same till the cycle returns the following year--cannot help but make any occupant fall more closely in step with the rhythms of Nature. 

That alone would be enough. Yet, from the first lighting of the central fireplace, which simultaneously set the other three (120-degree) living room window-walls ablaze, to our continual discoveries of inner-wall patterns in places never noticed before, the house never ceases to amaze and amuse us. All told, this particular creation by Mr. Wright seems to be as full of surprises as its creator.

Jeanne Spielman Rubin is emeritus professor of music, Kent State University, where she founded its Suzuki program for young children. She has also served as concertmaster of the Canton, OH and Akron, OH symphonies, and is a contributor to many research and professional journals devoted to music, architecture, and child education. In 2001, she published the results of her extensive investigations into the influence of crystalline structures found in Nature on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Intimate Triangle: Architecture of Crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Froebel Kindergarten, Ms. Rubin traces the immediate influence of the Froebel Gifts, educational aids created by Friedrich Froebel, on the young Wright. Her detective work also reveals that Froebel had been profoundly influenced by German crystallographer Samuel Weiss, and that crystalline structures first defined by Weiss pass through Froebel's teachings to emerge as Wright patterns and structures.

Intimate Triangle: Architecture of Crystals, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Froebel Kindergarten, by Jeanne Spielman Rubin, is published by Polycrystal Book Service, and is reviewed elsewhere in this issue. It is available through Amazon.