© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
88.5 FM KMST Rolla is currently experiencing technical difficulties.

Book It: Kraus House gets new literary blessing for it and Frank Lloyd Wright

Book cover

Until now, all the rescued and restored Kraus House at 120 North Ballas Rd. in Ebsworth Park needed was a good book – a book about its place in the Frank Lloyd Wright catalog, a literary acclamation of its place in the history of American architecture, a hard-cover book with a sturdy sewn spine. Now, it has it.

Plenty of material for a book has floated around about this house. From the very moment the idea of it was born, letters, newspaper articles, lectures and so forth were written and spoken. And trust me: Its story is fascinating and serious, although somewhat cuckoo.

"The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park" by Jane King Hession gives the house its very own literary crown of laurels, an illustrated volume describing the effort and acts of will and determination on the part of the clients who saw to the house’s being built, and on the part of its rescuers, who assured the house would be saved -- for, several decades after its conception in 1948, the Kraus House came close to having an unforgiving appointment with demolition.

But when it was completed, or what passes for completion, it served Ruth and Russell Kraus well. However, as these stalwart, devout owners grew older, questions and worries arose about what would happen to it. Without being too far off the mark, one could imagine contract-toting real estate developers lurking in the persimmon grove in front of the house, having ridden in on bulldozers.

The Kraus House is not some architectural weakling. Supporters of the save-the-Kraus-House movement were well known and had solid community connections, architectural, civic and institutional, along with money or access to it. But it was the lineage of the house that provided an invisible protective shield.

The house was one of a genre called Usonian, an acronym for United States of North America and designed for middle-class homebuyers. The designs for them came from the Taliesin studios, where the work was overseen by the cantankerous architectural deity Frank Lloyd Wright. Fewer than 60 Usonian houses were constructed.

The Kraus House, more than most Usonians, received attention of the master himself. This added an undeniable cachet to the project, but caused endless trouble for the Krauses and produced budgets that spiraled out of control like cyclones. Several contractors refused the job of building the house because of what they saw as impossible design demands. But in the end, the individual touches the Krauses requested and Wright supplied increased the significance of their house and its curiosity value.

A parallelogram

For those clients who wisely went with the orthogonal, or more conventional, Usonian houses, one suspects, they got comfortable living spaces and the prestige involved in being able to say to friends and colleagues, “Yes indeed! It is indeed a Wright house.”

The Krauses, however, went with the decidedly unconventional Usonian scheme. The parallelogram is the geometry of the building – parallelograms that overlap in fact. This shape, this geometric requisite, is expressed in the plan of the building and its furnishings. And the form challenges the human shape rather than accommodates it.

Exhibit A: The bed in the master bedroom is a parallelogram.The concern was to "conform to the geometry of the plan," the book says. Bedclothes were a problem Russell Kraus said, as they were absent in the stockroom of the linen department of Famous-Barr.

Construction finally began in 1952 and was filled with problems. The book quotes Russell Kraus after they had moved in: "For five years I have devoted my entire life to this house and I'm very weary. Everything, just everything, concerning it has been a great problem." Nevertheless, despite complications and challenges, such as the fact the specified materials seemed impossible to find, and even though the kitchen (Wright insisted it be called “workspace”) was not big enough to swing a cat o’ nine tails in, the Krauses remained fundamentally in a state of ecstasy.

A visit to the house when Russell Kraus and his beloved cat, Angel, were still in residence, was thoroughgoing pleasure. The visitor was conducted through the house on tour rich in details and hilarious stories, as well as towering ironies, of which the owner seemed blissfully oblivious. The book concludes with Mrs. Kraus' commenting to Wright: "Our house does something to us. Something big, something important, something wonderful. We know or house is divinely inspired. It has to has to have been, to stir us and everyone else the way it does."

The impact and influences of Wright and the durability of his reputation as a redoubtable genius endure, and for those who come to praise him, the Kraus House adds substance to the Wright mystique. Programmatic aspects of work by Wright in such buildings as the Kraus House -- open floor plans and fluid spaces, tiny kitchens, the absence of basements and attics, keen awareness of the interplay of light and dark, ample connections with the out of doors – were widely adopted by mid-century designers and continue, to greater or lesser degrees, to inform the arrangements of interior spaces today. So to some degree the Kraus House endures, and this new book chronicles its durability.

Demolition looms

When it looked as if the Kraus House would be sold, perhaps to a developer, a group of men and women in St. Louis, including Joanne Kohn, Judith Bettendorf and Peter Shank, understood the building's importance sympathetically and aesthetically. With preservationist resolve as steely as Wright’s personal artistic orthodoxy, their committee raised the money to buy the house, its original Wright-designed furnishings and the 10-plus acres of land from Russell Kraus and set up a not-for-profit organization. (By this time, Mrs. Kraus was dead.)

The land became Ebsworth St. Louis County Park, named in in honor of the parents of travel executive and art collector Barney Ebsworth, who gave the money to buy it. The house thus would be protected and available for viewing by the public, by appointment, and operated by a caring and devoted not-for-profit organization.

Except for the everlasting need to raise money to support the house and its programs, all is well in this part of the Sugar Creek Valley, and the good health includes lagniappe: The house now has its book.

The small, handsomely proportioned book -- “The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park” (the residence’s official name), subtitled "The Kraus House"-- was commissioned by the Kraus House organization itself. Jane King Hession, the author, and William Olexy, the photographer, are founding partners of Modern House Productions, an Edina, Minn.-based company that produces books, photographs, articles, videos and exhibitions with modern architecture as their subject.

It’s appropriate that the Gertrude and William A. Bernoudy Foundation of St. Louis helped out with a financial grant. William Adair Bernoudy was a student of Wright, and Bernoudy’s work, most of it in St. Louis, reflects Wrightian influences.

The house provides ample cause for documentation in words and pictures as an example of an effusive realization of the Usonian aesthetic, Residences designed by Wright – the Robie House, the Dana House, the Charnley House and on and on, up to and including his residential chef d’oeuvre, Fallingwater – were quite expensive and entirely out of the reach of the average home builder. Usonian houses, however, were meant to be for “the people.”

The book will be available at the gift shop adjacent to the house on Sunday, Dec. 13, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The house itself will not be open then. The $25 book is also available online and at the AIA St. Louis Chapter's Book Store in the Lammert Building downtown; at the Webster Groves Book Shop and The Novel Neighbor in Webster Groves; The Sheldon Art Galleries Gift Shop in Grand Center; and in the Delmar Loop at Subterranean Books.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.