Automatic for the People

Only a handful of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Automatic homes were built. Take a look inside the Tonkens House in Amberley Village.
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When this home was built, “Amberley Village was up in arms,” says owner Beverly Tonkens Vangrov. “They didn’t want to have a newer home there.” Today, Amberley is dotted with dozens of modern homes. One of construction manager Eric Wright’s fonder memories of the project was running across the roof’s overhang as soon as the concrete cured. “Poor Mr. Tonkens was beside himself,” Wright recalls.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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.”

“The change of ceiling level in Wright’s homes is purposeful,” says architectural historian Walter E. Langsam. That’s evident in the entry (left), where a two-story, book-matched Philippine mahogany wall gives way to a long, narrow hallway leading into the living room. “The intention is to make it more dramatic as you go into the main space,” Langsam says.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

 

“There are no gutters,” says Tonkens Vangrov. Wright believed that gutters only “collected leaves.” On rainy days, a narrow pipe drains directly from the roof into the planter adjacent the front door.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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 liked to call his kitchens “workspaces”; this efficient design includes four enlarged awning-hinged windows for better airflow, piano-hinged mahogany cabinets so “doors hang better,” says Tonkens Vangrov (used on every cabinet in the house), a built-in clock, and a lowered cooktop (so peering into pots is easier). Before Tonkens Vangrov updated the countertops to granite, she consulted with Eric Wright on the color and style.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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.

“In the late 1940s you simply couldn’t get building permits or materials unless you were a veteran, so things like bathrooms were minuscule,” says Langsam. Even so, this master bath was sizable for its time, a feature that was enhanced by the strategic use of mirrors. The entire bedroom wing, including this and another bathroom, features 18-karat gold- leaf ceilings. The gold leaf was specified in Wright’s original drawings, says Tonkens Vangrov.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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.”

“Wright’s approach was to create an open floor plan that brought families together,” says architect and cf3 vice president Chris Magee. The Tonkens House living room, then, was intended to serve as command central. Most of the home’s nearly 400 windows are small enough to fit inside the Usonian blocks; by comparison, this room’s floor-to-ceiling glass doors seem all the more dramatic. Every piece of furniture here is original to the home. “Mr. Wright designed an incredibly large collection of upholstered furniture and casegoods,” says Janet Groeber, owner with Chuck Lohre of the Boulter house in Clifton. “Heritage-Henredon manufactured the collection, which in Cincinnati was available in Pogue’s.”

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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.

This 400-plus pound, six-foot-six-inch concrete “garden sprite” came from a Homearama showcase in Cincinnati. The sprite is modeled after works created by sculptor Alfonso Iannelli and Wright for Wright’s 1914 Midway Gardens entertainment complex in Chicago, says Janet Halstead, Executive Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Although Midway Gardens was torn down in 1929—all of the bricks and concrete from the building were bulldozed into Lake Michigan to serve as a breakwall—official reproductions of the sprites can be purchased through the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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.’

“I spent a whole afternoon there—we were doing tours. The changing effects of the light were just wonderful.” —architectural historian Walter E. Langsam

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

“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 carport’s pillars are wired for lighting, and have sliding glass panels to allow for changing the bulbs. The double doors lead to a storage area.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

“It does take someone with a really embedded mind to take an ordinary functional material and turn it into something aesthetic and also practical. When you think about it, Wright did so much with something so very simple, truly without decoration. There’s nothing extraneous to [the Tonkens house] at all.” —architectural historian Walter E. LangsamStill, 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.

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

“The house seemed to be magical—it attracted so many different kinds of people. [Once] when we weren’t home, my neighbor called and said: ‘Beverly, there’s somebody in my tree taking pictures.’ ” —homeowner Beverly Tonkens VangrovSee a gallery of images from this home.

“It goes without saying that any Frank Lloyd Wright building is important. There was a time when they were demolishing them, but now people are making an effort to conserve them and bring them back.” —Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, Director, Frank Lloyd Wright Archives at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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