Text and photos (c) Mark Hertzberg
Karen Johnson Boyd died peacefully early Friday morning in her Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Racine, Wisconsin after a short illness. She was 91.
The house, the Keland House, was designed in 1954. She was one of Wright’s surviving clients. There are aficionados of Wright’s work who keep lists of Wright’s surviving clients. But Karen (pronounced Car-In, after her Norwegian ancestry) was a great woman, a fun person, a friend, not just a name on a dispassionate list of Wright clients still living in their Wright homes. She had a keen sense of humor, matched by the perpetual twinkle in her eyes (dare I post the photos I have of her playfully sticking her tongue out at me when I photographed her?).
She has a great legacy in the art world in Racine and in America. The Racine Art Museum in downtown Racine bears the name Karen Johnson Boyd Galleries. (I refer to her as Karen, rather than Mrs. Boyd, because I had the privilege of being friends with her and her husband, Dr. William B. Boyd.)
Her father, the late H.F. Johnson Jr., became a patron of Wright after commissioning the SC Johnson Administration Building in 1936 and the Johnson home, Wingspread, the following year. Karen and her late brother, Sam, grew up in Wingspread, and that inspired her to want Wright to design a home for her and her first husband, Willard Keland.
Karen was 12 when, unbeknownst to her, H.F, as he was known, hired Wright to design the Administration Building. “I just remember the time right after Dad first saw Mr. Wright, I was at Kemper Hall (a boarding school in nearby Kenosha), and he came down to pick me up one Sunday and he said to me, ‘Karen, you’re studying art history, now who is the greatest architect in America?’” She was sitting next to her father in the front seat of their cream-colored Lincoln convertible, and replied, “Why everybody knows it’s Frank Lloyd Wright.” He was sort of appalled that I knew that. I remember that vividly. He was flabbergasted that his kid would know it. He told me at that time that he was going to have Mr. Wright do the building.”
Just a month ago she spoke of a characteristic of her father’s relationship with the famous architect who had a reputation for not managing money well. “He was always trying to get money from my father. He would come unannounced for a visit with my father, but he always came with some of his students. He came to Wingspread and to the office building.” Did Wright pay the loans back? “Not that I know of. He would tell my father that we had to pay the room and board for his students because they were not in paying jobs to do it themselves. My father did it any number of times, because he felt they were doing good work. They were supporting Mr. Wright.”
The most memorable time that Wright sought a loan from H.F. was in the early 1940s. Wright had sent word to Racine that he was maybe dying. He wanted H.F. to bring “the girl” (Karen, whom Wright was fond of) with him. “They took me into his bedroom. There were about six or seven people watching me so I didn’t take anything as a souvenir.” Wright commanded, “Bring the girl to me.”
“I remember being really flattered that he wanted to speak to me. He made me come over next to him on the bed and he grabbed ahold of my hand He said my father was his best friend. ‘He is a wonderful man,’ he said. And he said, ‘Did you know he’s a wonderful man?’and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘I’m glad, I’m glad to hear you say that.’ He said, ‘I think I’m going to die, Hib (H.F.’s nickname), but I need to leave my apprentices in a position to stay on the job of guarding the place, keeping it safe.’ He said I haven’t got any money to leave the apprentices, but they have to guard the place otherwise they’ll come and close down the place.’ I remember my father asking what they needed the money for, and he said to keep the place from closing down. They have to pay bills for heating and electricity. Father wrote a check.”
Wright was fond of her. “He would ask my father about what kind of grades I was getting in school and whether I was dating anybody important.” She was flattered by Wright’s interest in her. Karen repaid Wright, if you will, by generously sharing her home for special benefit events hosted by Frank Lloyd Wright groups, even as recently as last fall.
Two of the Wingspread’s signature features were suggested by Karen, then 13, and her brother, Sam, 9. Wright wrote them, asking if there was anything they wanted included in the house. Karen, whose bedroom was at the north end of the house, on the second floor past the master bedrooms, requested a cantilevered balcony like the dramatic one she had seen at Taliesin. Wright told her that one day she would be wooed from below the balcony by a suitor “with a classical guitar, of course.” The bedroom’s location was dramatic, but not ideal, “I had to sneak past my father’s door if I wanted to sneak out.”
The children loved the spectacular view from the cupola of their maternal grandmother’s house in Ithaca, New York, and they asked for a lookout tower in their new home. Wright gave them the Crow’s Nest, a glass enclosure next to the chimney, which is reached by a spiral staircase from the mezzanine above the wigwam. It was a child’s delight. Karen and Sam could see the lake and watch their father, an avid pilot, fly past the house. They left each other notes in a locked cabinet. The key was lost, and Karen wondered in 2003 if there is still a forgotten note in the cabinet.
Karen said she picked Wright to design her own home on the bluff of a ravine that overlooks the Root River and Colonial Park “because I lived in Wingspread and loved it.” Her father was less sure about her choice of architect because he knew what it was like to commission a Wright building, and was afraid that it would be too expensive.
Johnson wrote Wright, asking him to recommend an architect. Karen recalls Wright’s answer: “Of course I can recommend someone, but wouldn’t it be better for the daughter to have the real thing? I would love to do a house for Karen.” He got the commission, but her father warned her to be careful.
It is almost inconceivable to think of Wright agreeing to have another architect looking over his shoulder, but Karen said he did not balk when Johnson assigned John Halama, the company architect, to supervise the job. Halama and Wright had already worked together on the Johnson Research Tower and other projects. When the Kelands also hired consultants from the University of Indiana to help design the home’s radiant heating system, something her father recommended because of problems with Wingspread’s system, she says that “Mr. Wright never said ‘boo’ about it…I think Mr. Wright was relieved he didn’t have to do it.”
Wright may have been on his best behavior when the house was being built, but he was true to form when he and Wes Peters came for lunch in 1956 after the Kelands had moved in. Karen had fixed lunch (it was a lunch she liked to fix for guests: chicken salad, with curry in the mayonnaise; buttered toast broiled with sesame seeds; and green grapes) and served Coca Colas to her guests after lunch, when Wright decided it was time to rearrange the furniture.
“I knew it was to be expected because he had already done it to Irene (Purcell Johnson) and Dad at Wingspread, famously, in the middle of the night without asking permission.” Her stepmother had also warned her. “Just remember, Karen, he’s going to come back and rearrange everything.”
The only furnishings Wright had designed for the Keland house were built-in ledges, bookcases, cabinets, and two built-in sofas. The living room furniture was in two groupings because the family did not often entertain large groups of people.
Wright said he liked the two beige Moroccan rugs, and asked where they were from. Then he turned his attention to the furniture. He had Peters move the baby grand piano into the center of the room because the Keland children were taking piano lessons and he thought the family should gather around the piano every night. Karen remembered Wright asking, “Do you mind if I show you the way I think? I like your furniture and your rugs and the drapes. You’ve done a great job, but I think you have to arrange it in a more family way.”
It was part of his persona. “He was laughing and grinning, he was getting a kick out of it,” Karen recalled, “Even Wes Peters was laughing. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he whispered, ‘This is just in fun’ as he was pushing and shoving things around.” Karen knew not to argue. “I thanked him for it and said we’ll try it out and see how it works. It stayed that way for a couple of days. It just didn’t look right.”
The Keland house is larger than most of the Usonian homes, but it has many of the characteristics of Wright’s Usonian designs. The original house was L-shaped, with a third wing for the carport. The dining area, with its two-ton Vermont marble table which took 15 men to carry into the house, is just off the entry hall, and flows into the living room. The living room dominates the main wing. It is spacious, and comfortable, filled with books and art. The built-in furnishings are also an important part of the Usonian design concept.
The kitchen is at the “hinge” between the living room/dining room wing and the bedroom wing, following the Usonian model. Wright, who normally didn’t seem to worry about what other people thought, suggested a wood screen to hide a small wet bar that adjoins the kitchen, “What are you going to do when the minister comes?”
The bedrooms are in the south wing. The hallway is narrower than Wright had wanted, because Karen requested built-in storage cabinets along the outside wall. She also insisted on a basement, a feature that Wright termed “unwelcome” in his definition of organic architecture in his autobiography. The guest room is on the second floor of the main wing, adjoining a sitting room, which overlooks the living room and the ravine below.
Wright wanted to include a cantilevered terrace in the design, jutting out from the guest room, like the one he designed for Karen’s bedroom at Wingspread. It was eliminated from the final house plans, for budget reasons, to Karen’s regret years later, “It would have been a very distinctive part of the house.”
Karen loved the Wright home she grew up in, and loved the one she commissioned. “Depending on your mood it expands with you or contracts. You can go in a little cozy eating area in the kitchen or if you feel expansive you come out here (the living room) and have a great big party if you want.”
Her son, Bill Keland, was just one when the family moved into the house, but it had a great influence on him. The land itself was a child’s delight, “We used to live down on that river, and play on that river…that whole valley was our playground. We had our bikes, We caught fish. That was where we lived most of the year. It was a great place to grow up.” His classmates knew there was something different about the house, “(They would) look around (and) wonder, what is this place…with its long hallways, and low ceilings opening up into a big room…”
Wright’s design moved Bill even years later, and influenced the design of his own home in California, “It always felt like it was a sacred space, thought out space. It made me feel like a human being.”
Dr. Boyd, moved to Racine when he became president of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, in 1980. He was invited to dinner at Karen’s house after starting his new job, “Then I married into the house. I often think she must think I married her for the house, I love it so much.”
Frank Lloyd Wright brought nature and the house together in their spacious, two-story home designed five years before he died. The Boyds enjoyed watching the river and the birds that flock to the courtyard garden.
The house is filled with art. To Karen, it was art. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a piece of sculpture,” she said in an interview in 2001.
Karen was a member of Racine’s most prominent family, but she was self-effacing. She and I were sitting in the courtyard of the house one day as she described how architect John (Jack) Howe added on to, and remodeled, part of the house in 1961. She had four children, so a garage was added when the carport was enclosed to make another bedroom. Pointing to the small door next to us, near the kitchen, she said, “And this is where the little woman brought her groceries into the house” after pulling them from the car on a wagon.
We were talking about the movie “Animal House” after Dr. Boyd told me that he gave permission for it to be filmed at the University of Oregon when he was president of the university as long as the college was not identified by name (the scene with the horse in an office was shot in his office). She smiled and let on that her favorite movie scene was one from the movie.
As much as she loved the “piece of sculpture” that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for her, she also loved spending time on Lake Owen in Cable, Wisconsin. That was a family vacation destination since the teens, and she spent every summer of her life but one there. Karen was a world traveler, but she and Dr. Boyd honeymooned in a bare-bones fishing cottage by a stream on the property after they married in 1982. Karen could have described it to us when we visited them there a decade ago, but instead she insisted we climb into a four-wheel drive Suburban which she piloted over rough terrain with careless abandon to take us to that magic spot in their lives for a picnic lunch. The Boyds put their arms around each other as they looked out from the porch.
I visited the Boyds a month ago and was touched when Bill gently kissed Karen’s hand after she stopped to see us in his office. The love, the magic was still there as it must have been at Lake Owen in 1982. I ache for Bill as I write this remembrance.
Karen could have lived the life that many people who know nothing about the Johnsons assume “a Johnson” would live, but she did not. She used to take advantage of the Metra weekend roundtrip fares to take the train to Chicago when she could have simply had a driver take her into the city. She gave of herself unselfishly. Bill lost his soulmate this morning. Racine, the art world, and the world of Frank Lloyd Wright lost a great friend and a great person.