Located near the western edge of the city of Oberlin in a suburban, residential neighborhood, the Weltzheimer-Johnson House is Ohio’s first example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian architecture. The site is not far from the Oberlin College campus, located on the northern edge of an open-space protected zone, with a broad lawn and woodland edging the site. The house is approached from Morgan Street with an entrance drive curving through trees planted close to the street.
Charles and Margaret Weltzheimer commissioned Wright to design the house in 1947 with the expectation that it would cost approximately $15,000. They had apparently learned of the architect’s Usonian houses from various publications of the time that highlighted the design and affordability of these middle-class residences. Construction began in May 1948 and the Weltzheimers moved into the House in April 1949. Wright never visited the site; all of the construction work was overseen by Ted Bower, a Taliesin apprentice. The final cost of the house is estimated to have been $30,000 to $50,000. Detailed records apparently were not kept or have since been lost.
The Weltzheimer-Johnson House is a one-story Usonian structure set far back on its deep lot. Its L-shaped plan, set at a forty-five-degree angle, frames expansive views of the lawn and surrounding landscape, especially through floor-to-ceiling windows. The living/dining/kitchen wing projects to the southwest, the bedroom wing (containing 4 bedrooms) to the northwest, with the main entrance located at the northeast corner, where the two wings meet. The house has redwood and red brick siding and ribbons of glass walls and French doors. It is set on a reddish-brown, scored, slab-on-grade concrete floor with radiant heating coils below in the crushed stone and cinder foundation layer. A distinctive feature of the exterior is the fringe of wood balls (apparently stained croquet balls) that extends around the entire roof perimeter at the edge of the flat roof’s projecting eaves. Like most of Wright’s Usonians, it has a carport rather than a garage.
Wright’s early work was a product of the late-nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement that advocated the integration of architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture into a comprehensive and unifying whole. All aspects of design—from the building to furnishings, decorative finishes, flatware, fabrics, terraces, walls, and plantings—were part of Wright’s over-arching concept of an “American” architecture. His residential work began with the distinctive Prairie Style houses that spread through affluent communities throughout the Midwest during the early twentieth century up to World War I, including the 1906–1908 Burton and Orpha Westcott House in Springfield. It was during the early 1930s that Wright started the Taliesin Fellowship and began to explore how to achieve high-quality formal, spatial, and decorative design within relatively small living spaces. The Usonian design model resulted in approximately sixty individual houses or housing clusters built between the mid-1930s and the late 1950s.
In Wright’s 1955 American Architecture he titles the chapter on the Usonian house concept “The Small House,” in which he advocates for architecture that embodies what he saw to be inherent American values of optimism, freshness, independence, and creativity as sung in the poems of Walt Whitman. Vincent Scully, Jr. asserts in Frank Lloyd Wright (1960) that the Usonian house was an agrarian answer to Le Corbusier’s Citrohan house, with its stark modernist machine aesthetic.
The first Usonian house was designed for the Herbert Jacobs family of Madison, Wisconsin, in 1937 at a cost of $5,500. The Weltzheimer-Johnson House was completed in 1949, twelve years later, and is the first of nine Usonian houses built in Ohio. It stands out as the only Usonian house built of redwood outside of California, and for its atypical curvilinear clerestory wood panels, their design attributed to Bower’s influence on the site. Wright’s other Usonian houses in Ohio are Rubin (1951), Dobkins (1954), and Feiman (1954–1956) in Canton; Tonkens (1954), Boulter (1955–1958), and an unknown location (1957) all in suburban Cincinnati; and Staley (1951–1954) and Penfield (1955) in Lake County.
From 1962 to 1968, the exterior and interior of the Weltzheimer-Johnson house suffered major exterior and interior changes, including painting the redwood white, altering the kitchen, bathrooms, and other interior spaces, and changing the landscape design during the occupancy of two unsympathetic owners. The next owner, Oberlin College Professor of Modern Art Ellen H. Johnson, conducted a lengthy and faithful restoration over the next 25 years. In the 1970s, Johnson arranged for the transfer of ownership to Oberlin College, with an endowment to maintain the property, following her death in 1992.
Oberlin College maintains and operates the Weltzheimer-Johnson House through its Allen Memorial Art Museum. It is open for public tours at scheduled times from March through November each year.
Allen Memorial Art Museum. Teacher Resource Packet - Frank Lloyd Wright House, 1949. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://oberlin.edu/amam/documents/AMAMFLWHouse_CRS_Fall2010Version.pdf.
“Frank Lloyd Wright at Oberlin: The Story of the Weltzheimer/Johnson House.” Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin49 (1995).
Scully, Vincent Jr. Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1960.
Twombley, Robert C. Frank Lloyd Wright: An Interpretive Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. An American Architecture. New York: Horizon Press, 1955.