Wright’s “Little Gem” in Rockford

© Mark Hertzberg (2021)

Excuse me, but did you say that Frank Lloyd Wright referred to a house in Rockford, Illinois as his “little gem?” Rockford, that industrial city 88.8 miles northwest of Chicago? Not in Oak Park or River Forest or Racine or Scottsdale? That’s right, the Ken and Phyllis Laurent House (1949) is indeed in Rockford, a bit off the beaten track when it comes to Wright tourism (bear with me, I have another nearby Wright suggestion for you at the end of this article).

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Although the Turkel House in Detroit had an elevator for Mrs. Turkel who used a wheelchair, this house is the only Wright commission entirely designed for a disabled client. A World War II veteran, Laurent was disabled after back surgery.

The approach to the house is deceptive. We seem to be approaching yet another Usonian home chock full of right angles. The original carport, visible at the end of the brick wall, was enclosed in 1959-1960 by John (Jack) Howe, working from plans by Wright. It became a bedroom, after the Laurents adopted children.

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Instead, Wright’s 1,400 sq. ft. “little gem” is a hemicycle design, with intersecting arcs.

LR Laurent House 10.30.21 098.jpgThe living room and hallway to the master bedroom look out over the backyard and a semi-circular patio, under a semi-circular roof.

LR Laurent House 10.30.21 105.jpgThe master bedroom and its semi-circular aspect are not readily visible from outside. They are truly in a private wing of the house.

Let’s now take a tour of the house as we did in late October, as the guests of our friends Curt and Susan Pruitt and Dave and Barb Lange. I will intersperse some abstract photos to keep things lively. While some of the interior photos were taken from my normal height, 5′ 7″ (coincidentally said to have been Wright’s height), Barb Lange had an excellent suggestion that I also take photos from Ken Laurent’s vantage point, and she offered to push me through the house in a wheelchair. We start in the entry hall, where Mr. Laurent would have laid his hat and gloves after returning home:

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LR Laurent House 10.30.21 028.jpgThe dining room table and part of the kitchen are visible at right.

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A sitting area and a small fireplace – which reminds me of the one in the Keland House in Racine (1954) – are at one end of the dining room:

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I enjoyed photographing the tables and hassocks in this space:

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A long hallway stretches along the windows that face the patio and backyard. Unlike the narrow hallways in many of Wright’s Usonian homes, it was wide enough for Mr. Laurent to easily navigate with his wheelchair. The built-in cabinets would have been within reach for him:

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Mr. Laurent’s desk in the master bedroom. Again, note the cabinets at his level:

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Let us now step outside onto the patio. We can see the hallway banquettes through the windows:

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Remember that I told you about another Wright building nearby? According to Google, the Pettit Memorial Chapel in the Belvidere Cemetery is only 11.4 miles away. Top your day with a visit to, and lunch at, the lovely Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford.

For more information:

https://www.laurenthouse.com

https://andersongardens.org

https://belviderecemetery.com/our-chapel/

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— 30 —

A man, his camera, and Wright

© Mark Hertzberg (2021) Vintage photos © Estate of Al Krescanko. Portrait of Krescanko by Mark Hertzberg / The (Racine) Journal Times

Frank Lloyd Wright likely would have had conniptions if anyone had dared alter one of his drawings, but he thought nothing of altering one of photographer Al Krescanko’s negatives before signing and returning it to him. What had the architect retouched? He thought his hair looked too long, so he shaded it in on the negative.

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Krescanko was one of those quiet guys who said he was just doing his job when he photographed Wright some 60 years ago, but his insightful 1957 candid photos of the master architect have been republished in at least two landmark books about Wright. Yet, Krescanko’s byline has remained largely unknown. Among photographers of Wright, it has less name recognition than the work of Pedro Guerrero, Balthazar Korab, and Ed Obma.

Krescanko photographed Wright during the course of his work as a photographer for SC Johnson in Racine, Wisconsin. He also extensively photographed the construction of the Wright-designed Keland House (1954) for Willard and Karen Johnson Keland (later Karen Johnson Boyd), and took pictures for Willard Keland’s unrealized Wisconsin River Development Corporation in Spring Green.

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Krescanko died in 2005, at age 78. A few of his photos of Wright have previously been published, but the Keland House photos were unknown until recently, when the Organic Architecture + Design Archives were lent Krescanko’s photos to digitize by Mary Jo Armstrong, his daughter, for a magazine article. The Keland House photos include the only known view of the original carport which became the master bedroom after a garage was built and the house modified by John (Jack) Howe in 1961.

I would be delighted to tell you more and share more photos, but I will instead direct you to OA + D’s website where you can buy Vol. 9 No. 2 of their excellent thrice-yearly journal. Each issue is devoted to a single topic. Eric O’Malley at OA + D has long been intrigued by Krescanko’s story and photos. Armstrong readily agreed to share her father’s photos with him when he proposed devoting an issue of the Journal to him.

The full story of Krescanko’s career and 41 of his photographs of Wright at Taliesin and at SC Johnson, and of the Keland House construction are in this 40 page issue. Bill Keland, Willard and Karen’s son, helped write the captions for the construction photos as he viewed them for the first time. (I am the “Guest Editor” of this issue of the Journal and wrote the profile. It is a much more extensive profile of Krescanko than the one I wrote in 2002 when I worked for the Racine newspaper. The profile includes interviews with his brother and his two surviving children).

If we have whet your appetite to see and read more about quiet, unassuming Al Krescanko and his not-unassuming subject, follow the link below. As they (whoever ‘they’ are!) say on late night television, “Operators are standing by to take your call!”

https://www.oadarchives.com/product/journal-oa-d-9-2