Saturday, August 16, 2003

House echoes Frank Lloyd Wright

Master architect's plans followed for a hillside house in Clifton

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Bobbie Abel sits in the new Clifton home she shares with her daughter and son-in-law, Kay and John Berno.
(Gary Landers photo)
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In 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. The professor and six colleagues planned to develop a cooperative farm community near Lansing, Mich., that would include gardens, orchards and open fields.

Wright's blueprints called for a T-shaped house with large decks, a balcony and a wall of windows and glass doors that would take full advantage of the natural setting.

But the professor's construction loan never came through, and Wright's design remained mere sketches for more than six decades.

Until John and Kay Berno came along.

About three years ago, the Bernos obtained a license from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to use the professor's plans, along with another unbuilt Wright design. Working under the guidance of the Taliesin architectural firm that carries on Wright's practice today, they've built an all-new Frank Lloyd Wright house on a hillside lot on Amazon Avenue in Clifton.

The house is one of only 14 built from Wright's original designs and officially certified as authentic by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation since the architect's death in 1959.

The Bernos can understand why projects such as theirs are rare.

"The issues we had to keep hashing out were how to keep the integrity of the Frank Lloyd Wright look, but keep up with modern building codes - and stay within our budget," Kay says. "You can do anything with Frank Lloyd Wright - if you're a billionaire."

[IMAGE] The Bernos' home has a balcony, screened porch and two decks, providing access to the outdoors.
(Mike Simons photo)
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The Bernos, both Montessori teachers for Cincinnati Public Schools, are not wealthy. They chose a small floor plan and cut costs wherever possible to keep the price of their home below $500,000.

The spark

The Bernos' interest in Wright began about 15 years ago when the couple visited the Pope-Leighey house near Mount Vernon, Va. The house, named for its original owners, is one of the compact Usonian designs that Wright created for people of modest incomes.

"It was tiny, but so efficient," Kay recalls. "We kept going back every year, and we liked it so much we began to imagine ourselves living in that house."

As their interest in Wright's designs grew, the Bernos traveled to several states to visit Usonian-style houses. Many of the homes were not open to the public, but the Bernos found most owners welcomed their visits.

The more houses the couple visited, the more convinced they became that they wanted a Wright house.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation provides the Legacy Program as a service for fans of the architect's work, says CEO Jim Goulka.

"But we're not going wildly out of our way to do it," he says. "There's not a particular strategy to say we want all of these designs built."

On a limited basis, the foundation leases plans for more than 200 unbuilt Wright designs to people who want to build a house - or other project - in keeping with the Wright philosophy.

Some foundation members oppose the program on the grounds that modern standards require too many adaptations and take away from the purity of the original design.

"But most of us think the degree of genius Wright had merits actual construction," Goulka says. "To see these buildings constructed makes most of us pretty happy."

Anyone interested in learning more about the Legacy Program can contact the foundation. It operates from Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., May through October (608-588-2511) and from Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., the rest of the year (480-860-2700). Web site:

Michele Day

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home on Clifton's Rawson Woods Circle that was auctioned in June has been resold.

On June 19, Jeff Sklar of Anderson Township had the high bid - $400,000 - for the home built in 1954 for University of Cincinnati professor Cedric Boulter and his wife, Patricia. It was auctioned by its most recent owner, Miriam Gosling, widow of UC architecture professor David Gosling.

According to Hamilton County auditor's records, the home was resold July 31 for $455,000 to Chuck Lohre, president of Lohre & Associates, an East Walnut Hills advertising and marketing firm, and his wife, Janet Groeber, a freelance writer.

The couple hopes to be living in the house by the end of the month, Groeber says.

"Both of us love Frank," she says. "We're extremely appreciative of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, but did we think we'd ever live in one? No way.

"It's a complete lifestyle change. We're going from a little colonial in Pleasant Ridge."

The couple is moving little furniture from their former house - Wright built many furnishings into the house and other Wright-designed pieces were sold with the house.

"We are taking all our books," Groeber says. The house includes a 28-foot-long mahogany bookcase.

Groeber says she and her husband are committed to preserving - and sharing - the house.

In 1994, the Bernos hired Ben Dombar, a Taliesin-trained architect who lives in Cincinnati, to design a Usonian-style house with a layout similar to the Pope-Leighey house in Virginia. They lived in that house, in Morrow, for five years.

But when their daughter left home, and Kay's mother, Bobbie Abel, moved in, they decided they needed a house closer to the city.

In 2000, they found a lot in Clifton, but Dombar had retired and they didn't know of another architect with strong Wright connections.

That's when they heard about the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation's Legacy Program. The foundation owns more than 300 unbuilt Wright designs. Through the Legacy Program, the foundation will license its plans to people who want to build a house - or other project - that remains as close as possible to the original design.

"We do this on a very special basis," says Jim Goulka, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. "We retain control of the design. We're really careful about not trying to do anything that's fake."

Because the foundation considers Wright homes works of art, it will only sell a design once. The foundation also requires that builders work with a Taliesin architect and prohibits changes that might compromise the integrity of Wright's design.

"That's like changing the hairstyle on the Mona Lisa and saying you're improving it," Goulka says.

But Goulka recognizes some changes are necessary.

"Buildings are different from most works of art because you use them, you live in them," he says. "They have to be adapted to the way people live."

Changes in building codes and differences in sites also force adaptations, he says. "If you tried to strictly follow the plans and build them exactly the way they would have been done when Wright was alive, they would probably be unbuildable," Goulka says.

Bill Mims, the architect who oversaw the Berno project, believes the Clifton house successfully balances the competing needs of architectural integrity and modern standards.

"This house is clearly based on the principles of design of Frank Lloyd Wright - the appropriate use of materials and the way the space flows through the building," says Mims, a former president and CEO of Taliesin Architects who owns an architecture firm in Nashville.

But Mims and builder Jack Brand, owner of Arthur Brand Construction in Cincinnati, did make many adjustments, including adding central air conditioning and digging a deeper foundation to ensure stability on the hillside site.

Brand, an enthusiastic Wright admirer, has visited the three existing Wright houses in the city. He believes his house compares well.

"Obviously, when it came to design, Wright was unique," Brand says. "His houses just have a certain feel and flow to them that's his. This house is the real thing. You know it as soon as you see it."

Their favorite things

The Bernos, too, are pleased with the results. They listed some of their favorite features:

• The play of light, including the shadows that come through the perforated board designs on the windows. "The moon sets over this window," Kay says pointing out the back of the family room, "and, yes, we're up at 4:30 a.m. in the winter to see it happen."

• The built-in furniture, including sofas, book cases, coffee table, end table, dining room table and desk. Brand's carpenters built the pieces following Wright's designs. John crafted several wooden lights and floor lamps, copying the geometric styles and shapes that Wright used.

• The access to the outdoors from the home's balcony, screened porch and two decks.

• The home's radiant heat and Cherokee red concrete floor. The house stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

• The family room fireplace. Its hearth is recessed 8 inches into the concrete, allowing it to double as a fish pond in the summer.

"Wright believed fire and water can co-exist," John says.

• The efficiency of the design. John points out the washer, dryer and sink built into a hallway closet. "Every space is accounted for," he says.

They even like the home's small bedrooms and bathrooms.

"I look at other people's huge bathrooms, and say, 'Who cleans those bathrooms?' " Kay says, shaking her head.

Wright's minimalist approach to living is probably what attracted the Bernos most, Kay says.

"There comes a time in life when you don't want to be around all this stuff. It's very refreshing not to have a lot of furniture."

And they never tire of seeing Wright's genius in their surroundings, she says.

"Just the lines of the house - we like to sit in a room and just enjoy them," Kay says. "There's kind of a feeling that you don't have to leave your house. We're very happy just staying here."

Do you have a favorite Greater Cincinnati house? The house that makes you look twice, the one that makes you want to see inside. Send suggestions to Joy Kraft, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; e-mail

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