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Rosenbaum letter

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 3:23 pm
by JChoate
After a pilgrimage last year to see the Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama, I poked around on the internet looking for more history.

I found an interesting letter from Stanley Rosenbaum to an inquiring professor in Indiana who in the early 40's was researching several owners' thoughts regarding their newly commissioned Usonian Houses by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Stanley Rosenbaum was an English professor and he used that language skill in responding with a lengthy letter which described a long nightmare in the construction of his Usonian house, as well as disastrous results in function and cost. He makes a convincing case that Wright should be avoided at all costs, except...

At the end of the letter he concludes by lauding the life-changing aesthetic experience. Obviously, form overruled function because in 1949 he hired Wright to return and double the size of the house with an addition.

Here's a link to this "must read" letter: ... letter.pdf

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 3:43 pm
by JChoate
Two other comments that pertain to the letter:

SDR, on page 7 of the letter Rosenbaum writes: "The architectural photographer Kidder Smith came down and took a few photos shortly after we moved in." That's the answer to the question of who took the iconic photo we love.

Also in the letter is the story of the wonderfully cantilevered roof which apparently kept collapsing and how the contractors wanted to insert steel but the apprentice wouldn't let them. In Edgar Tafel's book "Apprentice to Genius" he tells the story that he & Wes Peters snuck some steel beams into the cantilevered roof on the Schwartz house. Tafel's story goes that FLW & Olga & Tafel were together in a drive-by of the site where FLW discovered the added steel and fired Tafel on the spot for betrayal (the story holds that Olga calmed FLW to reconsider). Tafel writes that he told Wright he was trying to save him from another embarrassment like the problem that "happened in the South". If I was a betting man I'd wager he was referring to the Rosenbaum house.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 4:17 pm
by Rood
At some point in the 1970's, the cantilevered carport roof was seriously sagging out of the horizontal plane, prompting the Rosenbaums to make an urgent call to Taliesin. Arnold Roy eventually went down, looked over the situation, and ordered the removal of what turned out to be many, many layers of tar and gravel. As soon as that was accomplished ... the roof sprang back up to its intended horizontal plane, and everyone went home happy.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 4:36 pm
by SDR
[Written before seeing the above posts. What is the "Thorndike book," do you suppose ?]

I am floored -- in more ways than one. What a find ! Do you know when this letter first appeared in public ?

It is dated either 1943 or 1945, so the house was still very young. I find so many points of interest that it will take a while to address them all. Some of Mr Rosenbaum's statements -- one can't call them reminiscences, given the date of the letter -- seem difficult to square with known facts. As for the rest, questions are answered, some of which I have been asking for years.

No mention is made of Aaron Green's role in the inception of the commission. Storrer tells us that Burton Goodrich was the (apparently) hapless apprentice assigned to the house. It is interesting to hear that the idea of having an apprentice on-site as construction co-ordinator was, in this case, the client's idea, sold to Taliesin only after considerable prodding, as this practice was already established as the norm for Usonian construction -- wasn't it ?

Rosenbaum does not mention (did not know ?) that Goodrich had prepared the drawings for the house; this is established by Curtis Besinger (Apprentice to Genius, p 31, "Fall 1939"). We learn from Besinger that, after arriving in Florence in the fall of 1940 to begin construction on the house, Goodrich returned to Taliesin West "during the winter" to consult with Wright (p 74). (Goodrich departed from Taliesin in 1941, though he is shown in a picnic photo taken in the summer of 1942.)

We come to the first real surprise: Wright specified fir for the house, and was "delighted" when cypress was substituted for reasons of cost (?). Next comes the statement that the house was "situated on the lowest portion of the lot" -- which is surprising when one looks at photos, with the house just down from the road and the rest of the site apparently sloping away to the distant view. Perhaps the house sits in a dip ?

The news that steel had been intended all along for the living-room ceiling is amusing; one wonders if, like the statement from someone at Taliesin that no other Usonians had experienced difficulties in construction, a certain amount of judicious PR BS wasn't involved there. No mention is made of the carport roof, a likely candidate for structural issues. One is reminded of the difficulty Edgar Tafel avoided at Schwartz by the surreptitious addition of steel, and the advice he and Wes gave to an unnamed apprentice who "went south -- soon after this -- to supervise a similar house" (Apprentice to Genius, p 191). "The apprentice was chicken; he followed the original plans. When the props came down, so did the roof. The client called Mr Wright, whose response was 'Send the boy back to Taliesin.'"

More in the next post.


Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 6:12 pm
by SDR
First, the wonder (noted by the writer himself) that the house immediately became an irreplaceable boon and benefit, that it's unique qualities seem to have assuaged any and all of his misgivings and miseries, is a miracle in testament to all that is Wright (pun or no pun).

Another surprise: the house is heated (still ?) with electricity, rather than the (unavailable) oil or the locally-common coal. Was there an electrically heated boiler, or were there wires in the floor (surely not) ?

Another headline is that the house was constructed as Wright had predicted, with masonry in place and roof constructed, propped while the walls were built. I've always predicted inconvenience if not disaster for that folly; it's interesting that Burt Goodrich was given his head to do it that way.

"Walls gave for six inches or so when you leaned on them and inconspicuous props had to be devised." Poor young Burt; you have to feel for him, with one Wrightian illusion after another giving way to reality. (Easy for us today to speak knowingly of Wright's Principles; it's on the ground that principles come to terms with themselves ?) Where and when were walls found wanting in stiffness ? Surely not ones supporting (finally) the roof ?

In Wright's world, Paradise is achieved one painful step at a time, over rocky ground and with risks we continue, even today, to learn of. The accomplishment only becomes more miraculous . . .


Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 6:56 pm
by SDR
Tippy furniture ? And carpeting, in these early photos republished late in Wright's life:



Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 7:09 pm
by SDR
The kicker is that Mr Wright, according to Rosenbaum, made only $600 for his design. One smiles when hearing that the architect hoped to convince his client that the fee should be ten percent not of the estimated but of the actual cost of the building !


Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 7:56 pm
by Paul Ringstrom
I have always been told that those living room bookcases in the Usonians were there to stiffen the wall.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 8:18 pm
by JChoate
I think there's something inaccurate about Rosenbaum's statement that the roof structure at the living room had the deflection problem. If that were to be the case, it would presumably concern the spans across the glass doors and/or clerestories which shouldn't deflect with support at 4' intervals, which is typical of other Usonians. I think it must've been the front carport (which is a wild and wonderful cantilever.)

I had a conversation with the house's restoration architect Don Lambert who told me this story: in the 1949 addition, on the east side of the house, Wright had added a second cantilevered carport. Just inside he'd added a room they called the dormitory to accommodate the four sons. Along the exterior wall were built-in bunk beds. (I think I'm remembering this correctly) in the renovation they disassembled the bunk bed structure and the carport roof fell down. They figured out that "hold downs" counterbalancing the roof cantilever had been incorporated into the face of bunk bed frames.

The site is a consistent slope from the high point at the street in front down toward the river behind. Stanley's wrong that the house was placed at the low point. To create a flat spot for the floor slab, however, they cut into the slope in such a way that caused the upslope to direct water toward the front of the house without enough counter slope away from the house.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 9:09 pm
by JChoate
I think my favorite part of the letter is the stories about the community's reaction to the house as it was taking shape. I love the image of a dozen 1930's model cars parked out front along the dirt road while the crowd inside tries to decipher the thing being built.

I imagine something like this:
A local farmer, on his way into town, drives up in a dusty pickup truck. "What is that thing?", he asks a man getting into a car.
"They say it's a house," the man replies with a hint of disbelief in his voice.
"The hell you say," the farmer says to no one in particular.
He spits out the window into the dirt road and slowly drives away.

Remembering that Harper Lee set To Kill a Mockingbird nearby sometime in the 30's, I wonder what Atticus Finch would've thought of this radically eccentric house.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 9:27 pm
by SDR
Heh. Nice dialog. I like the one where they think the front wall is a temporary screen or fence.

In Storrer, the plan-as-modified shows a large "dormitory" space, south (i.e., inboard) of the "new workspace"; that would be a nice point for some hold-downs -- even if they were on the north wall -- wouldn't it . . .

So, what do we think is the heating system ? If it was said to be one of only two such systems in the world (who knows what to believe), would that be an in-floor wire or an electric boiler ?


Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 10:13 pm
by Tom
Well written letter and painful. The biggest disappointment for me was what he had to say about the fireplaces.
Thanks for posting this.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 10:26 pm
by JChoate
Looking at the floor plan, now I'm thinking that perhaps the needed steel in the living room could've been where the high ceiling transitions to the lower ceiling. (I have a similar configuration in my house). They'd need a beam to span about 28' which would need to be steel.

The bunk beds are on the east wall backing up to the carport storage closet. I just looked at some photos and I think I remembered & recounted that story wrongly.
Now I'm thinking it was more like this: the original bunk bed design contained the concealed tensile bracing. After the sons grew up the Rosenbaums decided to remodel the room, removing the bunks to replace with bookshelves. that's when the roof fell. Rebuilding it, they modified the structure to omit those original components. In the recent restoration, they went back and recreated the bunks. I think that's more like it.

Incidentally, there was a great closet beside the bunks for the 4 sons. Contrary to Storrer's plan, instead of 4 swinging doors there are sliding doors with lots of built-in drawers and other compartments. Good places for Boo Radley to stash his stuff.

Posted: Thu Mar 10, 2016 10:44 pm
by SDR
If we X-rayed all of Wright's houses, I wonder how many hidden tension rods we'd find.

Yup, that full-length clerestory "lantern" completely changes the structural strategy, doesn't it. Another architect might have made trusses out of that pair of upper window bands -- complete with open-web decorative perfs -- but Mr Wright never mixed his structure with his decoration, did he. Structure is something you hide, like the scullery maid in the cellar. (And if you can scrimp on her wages, so much the better !)

I'm not sure he ever repeated the design of the Rosenbaum roof, either. Once burned, twice shy ?


Posted: Fri Mar 11, 2016 8:58 am
by JChoate
It is a painful letter. That's a good description.
If the story ended there it would remain a bit of a tragedy.

A decade after building Fallingwater, Edgar Kauffman elected not to call Wright back to design his new house in Palm Springs (even though FLW was hip deep in desert architecture by then). In contrast, the Rosenbaums went back to Taliesin for more when they expanded in 1949, nearly doubling the size of the original house - a testament to how much they valued FLW design.
By the time Mimi Rosenbaum sold the house to the city of Florence it was in bad shape again. The restoration architect reported that stacks of books that lined the walls (having overfilled the shelves) had had their pages eaten away by termites. But the city invested in a good restoration and now everybody there seems proud of their landmark.

Since all's well that ends well (easy for us to say), I think the checkered story told in Stanley's letter makes the history much richer. It also paints a realistic picture that radically inventive design often requires a lot of trial & error in the process of trying to get it right.