Hampshire family's farmhouse is modern reminder of architect's talent

Bed, breakfast and Frank Lloyd Wright

  • Elizabeth Muirhead knew that Wright was notorious for designing small kitchens so she requested and got a large kitchen for her farmhouse, which needed to feed a family of seven, plus farmhands.

      Elizabeth Muirhead knew that Wright was notorious for designing small kitchens so she requested and got a large kitchen for her farmhouse, which needed to feed a family of seven, plus farmhands. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted7/31/2010 12:01 AM

Each year thousands of people tour Frank Lloyd Wright homes around the world because they are so fascinating to behold.

Heck, even Wright (who was never known for his modesty) reportedly referred to himself as "the greatest architect in the world." So it is only logical that architecture lovers would flock to see his creations.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But while many have toured the houses, very few can say that they have actually slept in a Frank Lloyd Wright home. Those opportunities are few and far between unless you own one of the homes or know someone who does.

However, Wright lovers should know that the owners of the Robert Muirhead House in Hampshire, just west of Elgin, have transformed their Wright home into a bed and breakfast in order to share the experience of sleeping in a Wright-designed bedroom with Wright aficionados.

Only three others around the country offer this opportunity - the Edwin H. Cheney House in Oak Park, the Louis Penfield House in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, and the Donald C. Duncan House in Acme, Pa. (which was relocated from West suburban Lisle).

In Hampshire, guests may tour the Robert Muirhead House and grounds, spend the night in the master suite and enjoy reading and relaxing in the living room or on the outdoor patio. In the morning they can devour a hearty country breakfast, served in the dining room, before checking out - all for $155 per night (plus tax).

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Guests may also peruse the extensive and enlightening collection of correspondence between Elizabeth Muirhead and Wright, exchanged while the house plans were being drawn, as well as many photos of the home's restoration between 2003 and 2005 and some of its original construction in 1951.

The Muirhead house is a beautiful example of Wright's "Usonian" style of architecture. These homes were left as unadorned as possible and were made of easy-to-find materials like common brick and wood. Each design was unique and specially designed for its site and the client who commissioned it. The typical Usonian house featured small entryways, narrow passages, large central fireplaces, floor-to-ceiling windows and concrete floors with radiant heat.

Incidentally, Wright scholars say that the Robert Muirhead house was special because it was the only farmhouse Wright ever designed.

The Muirhead family has a long history in Kane County, farming the same 550 acres of land near what was then known as Plato Center since the 1850s, according to Michael Petersdorf, manager of the bed and breakfast and husband of Sarah Muirhead, Robert and Elizabeth's granddaughter.

The original white frame farmhouse on the Muirhead land had grown outdated and cramped when Robert began reading about Wright and seeing photos of his groundbreaking home designs in magazines like "Architectural Forum" in the late 1940s. he and his wife loved the modern look of Wright's homes and wanted one for themselves.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So Robert and Elizabeth drove to see and meet with the owners of several of Wright's nearby homes like the Kenneth Laurent House in Rockford, the Herbert Jacobs House in Madison, Wis., and the Lloyd Lewis House in Libertyville, before they piled their five children in the car one weekend in the fall of 1948 and drove to Taliesin, Wright's compound in Spring Green, Wis.

There they met Wright himself and he agreed to design a house for them if they would write him a letter telling him what they wanted, details about their lifestyle and the size of their family, Petersdorf related.

Thanks to the excellence of her penmanship, Elizabeth was chosen to be the correspondent, but she and Robert collaborated on the resulting six-page letter, dated Oct. 14, 1948, which included charming passages like:

"We live on a farm and have unlimited space for any kind of house but there is no site which is especially interesting.

"We have always wanted a stone house but suppose transportation on the stone would be too high. Our next choice would be common brick and wood (cypress or redwood).

"I do not care for space to eat in the kitchen nor for a breakfast nook but a porch or screened terrace for summer meals is always nice."

They also asked for a workshop space with a garage door where Muirhead could service farm machinery during the winter, a bedroom for each of their five children, a dining room that could feed between 7 and 12 people (since they often fed the farmhands), a large pantry for the storage of lots of food since the family didn't travel to town to shop very often, and a permanent movie screen in their living room where they could show movies, Petersdorf said.

They also told Wright that Robert planned to do much of the work on the house himself since they could only budget $24,000 plus architect fees for the construction. As it turned out, Muirhead built the home's many cabinets, installed all of the electrical work and many of the windows and poured much of the concrete floor.

And the house still ended up costing the family approximately $55,000 to build at a time when you could buy a perfectly nice, brand new home for about $15,000, Petersdorf said.

Invoices in their possession show bricklayers being paid $4.10 per hour, carpenters getting $3.70 an hour and common laborers earning $2.60 an hour.

Wright wasn't about to be rushed, either. The Muirheads wrote the initial letter in October, 1948. They finally got their plans in February, 1951, but during the intervening months, there were lots of letters exchanged in which Elizabeth Muirhead practically begged Wright to finish and deliver their plans and Wright and his secretary, Eugene Masselink, repeatedly stalled.

For instance in April, 1949, Masselink wrote: "You will be hearing from us soon - but remember that all the time taken at this end is to your eventual advantage."

And almost a year later Wright wrote: "Your patience will be rewarded soon."

The delay is not surprising when one considers that the catalog of Wright's work shows 20 homes and other buildings designed in 1950 and those were only the ones that were actually built. Compare that to the six-year period from 1940 to 1946 when Wright only designed 17 structures that were actually built.

So when Wright was designing the Muirhead house, he was at the pinnacle of his career.

Despite his workload, Wright did show up at the farm, unannounced, one day, driving his red Lincoln Zephyr, Petersdorf related. Elizabeth and Robert were not home. The only one who saw him was their son, Robert Jr., who got off a tractor to greet him. Wright was there to site the house, which he did in the middle of the family's orchard, driving stakes into the ground. Then he got back in his car and drove away and never visited the farm again, as far as anyone knows.

Lamp Construction of Elgin was hired to construct the house, which they did during 1951. The family moved into their unique new home in early 1952 and Elizabeth and Robert continued to live there until she died in 1981 and he died in 1984, Petersdorf said.

At that point, the farming duties and the house were turned over to Robert's grandson, Charlie, since the Muirheads' four daughters had all moved out of state and their son, Robert Jr., was farming across the street.

When Charlie died in 2001, the family was faced with a decision about what to do with the house and farm. They felt an obligation to Robert and Elizabeth to keep the house in the family, but it had deteriorated badly, thanks to a leaky roof and sinking concrete in the bedroom wing. The house needed to be restored and the family needed to figure out how to keep the 3,200-square-foot house.

The farm was a different story. There was no one left to work it. So Robert Jr. sold 532 acres to the Kane County Forest Preserve in 2003, Petersdorf said, and it is being redeveloped with native prairie wildflowers and grasses and a seven-mile trail loop for walkers, bicyclists and horseback riders.

The family decided, however, to keep the house, bring it back to its former glory and make it into a bed and breakfast to help pay the bills. Sarah and Michael Petersdorf moved back from Minnesota in 2004 to oversee the restoration and act as caretakers for the bed and breakfast. They opened for business in December, 2005.

"We have many more interested guests than we have slots for since we only rent out the master bedroom each night," Petersdorf said.

They also allow rentals for special events, weddings, meetings and even book club meetings. Several area book clubs rented the living room for their discussion of "Loving Frank," the book about Wright and his paramour, Mamah Cheney.

"Most of our overnight guests are Wright lovers who revere the house. We don't usually get the typical bed and breakfast audience here," Petersdorf said.

For more information about the Muirhead House, call (847) 464-5224 or visit muirheadfarmhouse.com.