Automatic for the People

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Only a handful of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Automatic homes were ever built. Now, one of those—the Tonkens House in Amberley Village—is on the market for the first time. Take a look inside the master’s domain.

Concrete block structures are so common today that, to an untrained eye, this home hardly seems unique. And yet, in 1954 when it was built, stone, wood, and brick were the materials of choice for builders. “You can have a common material used for specific functions,” says author and Cincinnati architecture expert Walter E. Langsam, “but it takes a genius to see that material’s potential aesthetically and practically.”

In this case, that genius was legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had begun experimenting with concrete block back in the 1920s. “His first prototypes [for concrete block houses] were in California,” notes Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Wright referred to his experiments as “textile block” construction—“think of warp and woof in weaving,” says Pfeiffer, who also notes that Wright’s goal was to develop a building process that did not require skilled laborers, and therefore was less costly to implement.

Wright eventually came to describe this less expensive way of building as “Usonian,” and although his first official Usonian structures were built with wood as well, the rising costs of carpentry following World War II led him to revisit the concrete prototype. This time, Wright went one step further and developed a building system called “Usonian Automatic,” which was akin to a life-sized concrete Lego kit. These homes were theoretically simple enough to build that homeowners could construct them alone, without the help of skilled laborers, thereby driving the cost down even more. “The homeowners made the blocks, and they participated in the building of the house,” says Pfeiffer.

For years, Gerald Tonkens, a Cincinnati area car dealer (who had grown up in Milwaukee and seen much of Wright’s Chicago work firsthand) had been vowing to his friends and family that he would one day commission a Wright house of his own. “People said: ‘He won’t take such a small commission,’ ” says Tonkens’s second wife and widow, Beverly Tonkens Vangrov. “But Gerald wasn’t one to be stopped at all. He made an appointment with Mr. Wright.”

When they met, the story goes, Tonkens showed Wright some preliminary plans for a home on an Amberley Village hillside site; they had been drawn by one of Wright’s former students. When Wright, then 86 and a known egotist, saw them, he “flipped them into the fireplace” with his cane, says Tonkens Vangrov.

Tonkens’s needs presented a challenge for Wright—although, notes Wright’s grandson Eric, “he always kind of liked it if it was a little difficult.” Not only was the four-acre site on a hill, Tonkens also needed a home that was low maintenance (“I’m not one to paint the shutters,” Tonkens reportedly told Wright) and most important, he had a limited budget—for a Wright client, anyway. Enter Usonian Automatic. “Wright said, ‘I really would like to use you for my guinea pig,’” recalls Tonkens Vangrov. “‘I have a new concept and I’m calling it Usonian—it will be a very simple thing for middle class America. All I need is inexpensive labor, a ball of twine, and a cement mixer.’

“P.S.,” she adds today with a laugh, “[suddenly it’s] 17 months later, the cost overruns, and you could not build it yourself.”

The Tonkens house is the only construction project Eric Wright supervised for his grandfather before leaving to work for his own father, Lloyd Wright; he admits that the concept worked better in theory than in practice. “Unfortunately, the blocks were handmade, so they didn’t come out exactly equal,” Wright says. “So at the end of a course of 20 or 30 blocks, you could be a quarter-inch off in elevation. You had to keep shimming them.”  Which could explain why the Tonkens house—under Tonkens Vangrov’s care since her husband’s death—is just one of a handful of Usonian Automatics ever built.

Still, Wright adds, “it definitely is one of his finest concrete block houses. They maintained it well, it was beautifully built, and it has wonderful proportions.” In other words, it’s a truly concrete example of what can happen when the right client meets the right architect at exactly the right time.

See a gallery of images from this home.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue.

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