What's Wright About Wichita

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Here's how good Frank Lloyd Wright was: His Allen-Lambe House looks spectacular, even in the dark, illuminated only by the beams of bug-splattered automobile headlights.

Here's how mellow Wichita is: Residents blissfully walk their dogs in a genteel old neighborhood, not the least bit disturbed that a Wright fanatic is clambering around the exterior of this dun-colored brick house, scaling an embankment to peer over a garden wall, shimmying through a hedge, pressing her nose against leaded-glass windows and generally behaving like a bungling burglar.

Buoyed by the beauty of Wright's exterior -- and the lack of arresting officers -- our only viable decision was to make Wichita an overnight stop on a recent cross-country drive and plead for an early-morning tour.

The road trip gods were smiling. The next morning, my husband and I had the good fortune to draw architect Howard Ellington as our guide. "Wright considered this house among his best," Ellington told us. It was built for newspaper owner Henry J. Allen and his wife, Elsie. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Allen was elected governor of Kansas in 1918, the same year the house was completed.

This is the last of Wright's "prairie houses," more proximate to an actual prairie than the others (most were built in Illinois). After driving across the Kansas plains, it's easy to see their echo in this house's strong horizontal lines. There's a visible Japanese influence in the curved roofline, too; Wright was simultaneously working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The architect "did his best design work under personal duress," Ellington explained, telling us that Wright created the Allen house in the period after his mistress and children were murdered.

Entering the L-shape home, a guest has no inkling of what's in store beyond the modest, low-slung vestibule. The floor plan is "much like a symphony," Ellington claimed, leading us in, revealing the design melody, then ending with a big crescendo. In this case, the space opens up to reveal a living room and a dining room that flow directly outdoors to embrace a sunken garden. The lines between interior and exterior are blurred by a terrace that transitions to become living room flooring, and by brick interior walls with gilding on all the horizontal mortar (one of only two Wright homes with this feature).

Views outside to the garden and decorative pool are through a bank of glass doors, framed with leaded art glass. Ellington pointed out the living room's characteristic hipped ceiling and lighting concealed behind mulberry-paper screens. Along with built-in furnishings, the house is blessed with 23 pieces of original Wright furniture.

The architect also included modern conveniences: a central vacuuming unit, an alarm system and gas fireplace logs (the house is still supplied by two different gas companies because Allen was averse to offending either advertiser).

Upstairs, the library houses a fine art-glass light, a Wright design that references the hipped roof. The master bedroom is surprisingly small and spartan, while Elsie Allen's boudoir seems to have garnered all the attention, with a bay window and fireplace that reveals the gilded brickwork in its pristine, golden glory -- ironically, protected until recently by a bit of remodeling Wright would have despised.

A light-flooded gallery runs the length of the second floor, offering vistas on the garden below. But perhaps the most astonishing elements are the home's two bathrooms, set in towering shafts that Ellington termed the "nostrils of the house." Windows high atop the walls act like chimneys, venting hot air. But even here, nearly out of sight, Wright applied leaded-glass design touches.

The tour includes a dressing room displaying the Allen daughter's fashionable (for the time) designer clothing. Her flapper-era outfits are a reminder that Wright was creating in a completely different context than we view him today. As are the surrounding homes, which seem hopelessly quaint, despite being about the same age as the Allen-Lambe House -- another detail I neglected to notice in my night-prowler adventures.

-- Gayle Keck

The Allen-Lambe House is at 255 N. Roosevelt St. in Wichita, with tours by appointment only; 10-day advance notice required. Admission is $10 per person with a group of five or more; otherwise, it's $50 total. Details and reservations: 316-687-1027, http://home.onemain.com/~allenlam/index.html.

Can't get a tour? Check out the replica of the Allen-Lambe House at "Kansas in Miniature" at Exploration Place (300 N. McLean Blvd., Wichita, 316-263- 3373).

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