Gateway Heritage Magazine
The Quarterly Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society
Fall 2001 Vol. 22. No. 2
Building the Kraus House
Ruth and Russell Kraus and the Challenge of Frank Lloyd Wright
By Esley Hamilton
Esley Hamilton is preservation historian for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation, and teaches at Washington University School of Architecture. He nominated the Kraus House to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
The house built on Ballas Road in Kirkwood by Russell Kraus and his wife, Ruth Goetz Kraus, is one of only five buildings in Missouri designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, widely recognized as the greatest architect the United States has produced so far. Although the house is small, it is masterful in its siting, use of materials and handling of interior space. It differs in almost every detail from a conventional house, and its construction was a triumph of persistence against adversity. From conception to completion, the Kraus House took nearly a decade and a half, and at times the difficulties seemed endless. At one point, Russell Kraus wrote, For five years I have devoted my entire life to this house and Im very weary. Everything, just everything concerning it has been a great problem. Fortunately for posterity, Kraus kept every letter concerning the construction of the building and even took notes of telephone conversations. His 10 volumes of correspondence permit unusual insights into the process of building a Wright house.
Trained at Washington University and the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, Russell William Morland Kraus had worked in a supervisory capacity for WPA art projects in the 1930s and served with the Army Engineers Map Office during World War II. After the war, he began to search for a large suburban site where he could build a new house and enjoy the life of a gentleman farmer. With the assistance of realtor Horatio Potter, he looked at properties all over St. Louis County and into Franklin and Jefferson Counties. Before finding the actual site, he came close to buying the Johnson farm on Woodlawn Avenue north of Manchester Road, where Josephine Johnson had written the 1935 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Now in November. The site finally selected was part of an old farm owned by members of the Frederick Clamors family. At their first meeting, John Clamors offered Kraus a green persimmon from the grove on the hill, a test of country knowledge that Kraus safely passed. Kraus bought 3.6 acres from one part of the family and about half an acre more from another branch. The site was in some ways rural, in some urban. About 45 minutes from downtown St. Louis at that time, it was just inside the limits of the old railroad suburb of Kirkwood but beyond water and sewer lines. The old farmhouse at the northeast corner of the property was abandoned, but peaches still were being harvested. Neighbors included both farmers and the prominent sculptor Clark Fitzgerald.
To design his house, Kraus considered St. Louis architect Walter P. Manske and Chicagoan Paul Schweikher. His search narrowed, however, after he read an article in the August 1948 issue of House Beautiful, The Love Affair of a Man and his House, in which Loren Pope described in evangelical terms the Usonian house Wright had designed for him outside Washington, D.C.: It is the only kind of habitation fit for man because it has a presence and a soul. Kraus was impressed not only by the spiritual qualities of the house but by its price. Pope had built it on the slim income of a newspaperman, on the shady side of $3,000 a year. This contradicted the popular impression of Wright as solely a rich mans architect. Kraus immediately contacted Wright at Taliesin, Wrights home and school at Spring Green, Wis., writing, I now feel like a man who suddenly holds in his embrace the woman who for years he could worship only from afar. Wright responded five days later: You should have the nice little house. Condense your needs, comply with the enclosed sheet and we will make you a plan.
The following April, Kraus produced a three-page List of Personal Likes and Dislikes of Russell W. Kraus. Among the dislikes were glass block, Masonite, and weatherboard. The list of likes included many features that appeared in the final design: master light switches at the entry and within reach of the master bed, a utility room, large closets and cabinets, and angular rather than curvilinear forms. Some of the opinions included in the document were those of Miss Goetz, Krauss fiancée Ruth Goetz, an attorney he married later that year. She was particularly averse to basements. A topographical map and many photos of the site were sent to Wisconsin, but in July the Krauses themselves suggested the eventual site for the house: We are partial to the clearing east of the woods, towards the northeast. We like the open feeling there, the prevailing breeze, the sunrise and sunset.
By September, Wrights secretary Eugene Masselink was writing: We appreciate your anxiety and hope your patience will continue to endure. You are near the top of the stack and it shouldnt be long now. Wright didnt complete his preliminary sketches, however, until nearly a year later. During the interval, Russell wrote, We sat champing at the bit, impatiently waiting, enduring no end of wise-cracks and gibes from family, friends and associates. At the same time, Kraus took the opportunity to suggest that the studio, instead of being part of the living-dining space, should be divorced from the rest of the house. After receiving Wrights design in August 1950, Kraus sent him a check for $1,750, which, in a scenario not unfamiliar to other Wright clients, was lost, canceled, replaced and later recovered. The preliminaries as revised that fall proved disappointing: The fresh appeal, the punch and the rhythmic charm of the original drawings just somehow seem to be lacking in the revisions. Further revisions made over the winter were more pleasing, but some problems remained. Wright sent a telegram on March 29, 1951: Hope to resolve this unusual situation. Better come here.
That May, the Krauses drove to Wisconsin in their new station wagon, stopping along the way at other Wright houses. On the return trip, they met Howard Anthony at Benton Harbor, Mich., and his experience building a Wright design there encouraged them. By the end of the month, they were able to authorize working drawings, and on July 20, Masselink sent a notice that construction plans had been mailed.
While all of Frank Lloyd Wrights houses from early to late share significant concepts and details, many of those built after his long-enforced idleness in the 1920s and early 30s reflect the opportunity he had during that time to rethink the middle-class American house. His interest in well-designed housing for people of modest means went back to the beginning of his career. The Ladies Home Journal published two house designs in 1901. These ideas and those of his 1932 Broadacre City plan first were worked out for an actual client in 1935 for Louise and Charles Hoult of Wichita, Kan. That design was not built, but the first Herbert Jacobs House designed the following year was realized in Madison, Wis. Wright used the term Usonian to describe these houses, a word supposedly coined by Samuel Butler and derived from the first letters of the words United States of North America. Usonian houses constituted the bulk of Wrights practice in the latter part of his career.
Many of the major features of the Usonian house, as described by William Allin Storrer in The Frank Lloyd Wright Campanion, are found in the Kraus House. The workspace kitchen, laundry, utilities places the housewife at the heart of domestic activities. Dining space is immediately adjacent for convenience. The principal space is the living room, constituting perhaps half the area of the floor plan. One side of it is fully glazed, floor to ceiling. A gallery lined on one side with storage spaces leads to the bedrooms. The house is equipped with a carport rather than a garage. The concrete slab floor is imbedded with gravity heating, more familiarly called radiant heating. Masonry walls, often with the aid of steel, support the roof and its cantilevered overhangs. Wooden walls, used internally in the Kraus House, are assembled as a sandwich of three layers of boards screwed together to produce a modified board-and-battan effect, thus eliminating the need for studs.
Most Usonian houses were based on square modules and typically were L-shaped. At the time Wright created these rectilinear designs, however, he was designing houses based on other primary geometric forms, including hexagons, equilateral triangles, parallelograms and circles or circular segments. Storrer and John Sergeant, who wrote the first detailed analysis of the Usonian houses, saw them as simply variants of the Usonian concept, but Edgar Kaufmann, an apprentice at Taliesin at the time of their conception, saw these geometrical exercises springing from a different source, the Hanna House, a contemporary of the first Jacobs House. Built in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1937, it was called Honeycomb House after its hexagonal grid. Wright experimented further with the hexagonal grid the next year in the main house for Auldbrass Plantation in South Carolina.
The attraction of the hexagon was the wide and embracing spaces produced by its 120-degree angles, but the return 60-degree angles also created a number of narrow, pointed spaces. Another logical step in this geometrical progression was the equilateral triangle, and Wright designed a house in this mode for Roy Peterson in 1941, still projected against the hexagonal grid. Modified against a triangular grid, this design was realized in 1950 for William Palmer in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Palmer House seems the only Wright house prior to the Kraus House in which the angles of the module are followed even in the construction of the beds. Elsewhere Wright found places within the overall grid for conventional rectangular beds.
The equilateral parallelogram, the module used in the Kraus House, was a third variation using 60-degree and 120-degree angles. It sometimes is called a diamond module, and seen from the outside, the houses built using it easily could be mistaken for those using the triangle or the hexagon. It was first seen in 1941 in the house for Carlton Wall, Snowflake, which was built in Plymouth, Mich. The Wall House also set a precedent for the Kraus House with its sharply angled bricks, the piano hinges used in its cabinetry and the massive brick retaining walls supporting its terrace.
Some observers saw these geometrically based houses and the many others designed in the next two decades as subordinating Wrights humanistic ideals to form for forms sake. To Kaufmann, however, Wrights achievement in this area was that he transcended the expected limitations of these geometric forms: Wright invaded or modulated the ideal mathematical figure, indicating that he wanted the strength and impact of a clear, regular shape, but he insisted on making it subservient to human uses and feelings. Wright welcomed this challenge to achieve vitality over abstraction.
The Kraus Houses plan exhibits another, and perhaps even more challenging design characteristic seldom found in Wrights later work: the overlapping or superimposing of geometrical forms, which allow a feature seen on one side of the house to have its reciprocal form on the other side of the house. The idea itself is related to the cruciform plan often seen in Wrights early years, as, for example, in the 1904 Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, but in those earlier cases, the plans were intended to be seen and appreciated in symmetrical elevations. In the later designs, the corresponding design elements cannot be seen as part of a single elevation. The earliest nonrectilinear example of this design strategy is Deertrack, another house from the breakthrough year of 1936, built in Marquette, Mich., for Abbey Roberts. There, the living room angling out of one corner of the house is matched on the opposite corner by a terrace. In the Kraus House, the angle and placement of the terrace are reflected in the carport and adjacent planting area. Wright was seldom again as rigorous in the logic of his geometry.
With their plans finally in hand, the Krauses began a protracted search for a contractor. One after another, reputable local builders looked at the plans and decided not to bid. One contractor accompanied the Krauses on a second visit to Taliesin in September. For Russell and Ruth, this was an inspiring experience: We shall never cease to be grateful that our lives have been touched by [Wrights] genius, Russell wrote. The contractor, however, withdrew a short time later. Another contractor said that there were not six carpenters in St. Louis who could possibly handle the carpentry and pronounced the design of the roof hopeless he recommended a rectangular roof. Eventually Kraus found Lee Patterson, a young Seabee just back from the Korean War who had hopes of expanding his fathers kitchen-remodeling business.
Suppliers balked at the 60-degree and 120-degree angles the design required. It seems hereabouts everyone connected with the building trades lives and breathes by manuals, Russell wrote. Unless things prove out by the manual, its no go as far as they are concerned. William Wesley Peters, Wrights assistant and son-in-law, responded in regard to the protest of one steel man, He must be reading his steel manual upside down.
Nobody could supply the special angled bricks needed for the corners of the walls except by sawing off the corners of standard bricks. After Ruth Kraus found an older building in south St. Louis that had ornamental bricks similar to the ones she needed, E. H. Moellenkamp of Alton Brick agreed to make a special mold for them at an extra cost of only $5 per hundred. The same brick shape could be turned for use in three different situations.
For a time it appeared that the needed steel and copper would be restricted by the regulations that went into effect on October 1, 1951, because of the Korean War. The shingles for the roof would be approved by the city of Kirkwood only if treated with fire retardant. When red firebricks for the back of the fireplace could not be found, Wyandotte brick was suggested, the same softly colored brick used for St. Anns Catholic Church in Normandy, a landmark design by Joseph Murphy. Moellenkamp was skeptical: It takes heat pretty well but is not really firebrick. Eventually, yellow brick was used, and after a few fires were built against it, its original color was forgotten.
The biggest problem was the wood. In those years, Wright often used one particular wood throughout a design, and for the Krauses he had specified tidewater red cypress. It was a wood with many admirable qualities, but it was found in harvestable quantities only in a few southern states. Every lumber and mill man we have consulted locally has tried to sell us some other lumber, insisting tidewater red cypress is no longer available, Russell wrote. A less determined person, no doubt, would take their advice. Ruth Kraus sent inquiries to suppliers all over the country. Enough lumber eventually was found to begin construction.
From the founding of the Taliesin Fellowship, Wrights training program for young architects, Wrights practice had been to send an apprentice to supervise the construction of his designs. No apprentice was available to the Krauses, but with so many problems arising from local contractors and suppliers, Wright engaged Benjamin Dombar, a former apprentice then practicing in Cincinnati, to visit St. Louis that November. Kraus, who had an unusual grasp of construction detailing, was armed with a host of questions, most of which Dombar could answer. Lee Patterson questioned Wrights specification of crushed stone for the footings instead of the more usual concrete. Dombar suggested broken stone in a trench with concrete over that. Wright wanted white mortar for horizontal joints and red for vertical, but Dombar agreed to red throughout, provided the horizontal joints would be raked to emphasize their line. The utility room proved too small for all the equipment the Krauses wanted to put in it, so Dombar and Russell devised a pit under it to accommodate the furnace and hot water tank. Dombar returned on several other occasions, at Kraus expense.
With all these worries, Russell Kraus came down with a duodenal ulcer and had to be hospitalized for about a week. He drank goats milk for a year and a half after that. Nonetheless, many problems seemed to have been resolved. The drawing Wright sent in March 1952 for the studio fireplace made Ruth ecstatically jubilant, she wired. They broke ground in April. By the end of October, the brickwork was finished, the roof was on, and the floor was being poured. Ruth wrote to Wright that visitors flooded the construction site: Camera-toting architectural students are a dime a dozen all through the week. She was even more gratified by other reactions: All the workmen think our house is great. They all say the same thing: Didnt think much of your house in the beginning. But its a different story now. Ruth shared this enthusiasm: Our house does something to us. Something big, something important, something wonderful. We know we are better because of it.
The Krauses worries were far from over, however, and soon they could agree with Curtis Meyer who had built a Wright house in Galesburg, Michigan when he wrote to them that No man is in a fittin humor to have anyone laugh while he is building one of those damn things.
Where the cypress was exposed outside, Wright had specified durable woods exterior finish. Penta, a product from Monsanto, was used to treat both inside and outside woodwork. One carpenter walked off the job because the chemical was burning his hands.
At the end of 1952, John de Koven Hill, a senior member of the Fellowship, visited the Krauses and tackled some of the remaining problems. Due to an error in the brickwork, a sizable amount of the millwork already fabricated did not fit. Hill revised the designs for the workspace and utility room. The kitchen sink and countertop were designed as one continuous piece. Murphy Bed and Kitchen Co. was commissioned to fabricate it, but other problems delayed its installation. The company went out of business in the meantime. Russell found his counter in a warehouse about a year later and retrieved it for storage costs. Because the kitchen was so compact, Wright wanted the refrigerator to fit under the counter. The Bensinger Co. offered to make a three-door model, but the cost was so high it was never ordered. Eventually, a conventional upright refrigerator was put in the utility room. All the cabinet doors were supposed to be attached with 3-inch piano hinges. The 2.5-inch hinges were much less expensive. The wooden partitions had been designed with 10-inch and 12-inch face boards, but the widest boards that could be found were only 9 inches.
Wright agreed to these substitutions in a telegram that also served as a holiday greeting. Hill adjusted all these designs and sent back new plans in January. Later in 1953, he advised on the furnishings, arranging for the Kapp Cabinet Co. in Phoenix, near Wrights winter home, Taliesin West, to make the chairs. He also worked on the landscaping, detailing Wrights design for an entrance gate and system for laying out the garden in terraced bands with grass in between. The wooded part of the grounds would have had a series of pools descending to a lake, from which water would have been pumped back up to the top. Unfortunately for the Krauses, Hill left Taliesin that summer.
Early in 1953, the supply of cypress ran out. After several months delay, the Krauses contacted Marshall Erdman, the young Madison, Wis., contractor who had introduced Wrights prefab house designs. Erdman supplied the lumber from his own company, Erdman-Peiss Lumber, and he visited St. Louis himself at the beginning of 1954. Industrial Cypress Lumber Co. in St. Louis did the milling of the lumber, cutting some too thin. The truck that finally delivered the wood that July snapped the temporary power wires as it left the house. Later, Russell acquired cypress plywood from a woman in nearby Belleville, Ill., who had stopped construction of her house. This purchase produced a surplus ultimately given to Frank Lloyd Wrights Dana House in Springfield, Ill., for use in its restoration.
By the time the lumber arrived, however, another crisis delayed construction. Ruth wrote Wright, To prevent a speculative builder from buying the beautifully rolling, partly wooded 27.5-acre tract that adjoins us immediately on the north and east, cutting down the magnificent trees, leveling it off and putting up 28, 850-square-foot wooden boxes (and probably that many detached garages), we were forced to buy it. And at the same time, the Krauses had to put a deposit on another threatened five acres across the street. To do it took every red cent we had and could talk people out of. Ruth asked Wright to produce a plan for subdividing the land in an appropriate manner, and Wright complied.
Showing Official Kirkwood your subdivision was an exhilarating experience, Russell wrote that November. Admiring employees and visitors in the building commissioners office and the city engineers office gathered round your drawing goggle-eyed. Realtor Horatio Potter, however, warned that 3-acre lots would not sell in Kirkwood. Your experts are as usual the death of any enlightened use of real estate, Wright responded when asked to do a plan with 1-acre lots. As things turned out, the Krauses managed to hold onto the property without developing it. In 1973 and 1974, developer Richard T. Daly laid out the High Meadow subdivision at the east and north edges of the tract, buffering the 10.46 acres remaining to the Krauses with an additional 6.7-acre common area.
In September 1954, Russell wrote to Jack Howe at Taliesin that they were ready to start building again. A year later, as construction proceeded, Ruth wrote that every visitor comments on our outstanding brickwork and carpentry. Russell, however, was dissatisfied with some of the cabinet work in the kitchen and redid it himself. We hope to be in by (blank) has come to be old stuff to everybody who know us, Ruth wrote, but the Krauses finally moved into the house on New Years Day 1956.
In anticipation of their country life, the Krauses had acquired two registered mares and a Shetland pony. They improvised a lean-to shelter using materials from the older farm buildings and doors from the old St. Josephs Academy in Kirkwood, some with their original nameplates still on them. In August 1955, Ruth asked Wright to design a stable to include a bunk room and kitchen. Less than six weeks later, Wright supplied a design, prompting a grateful response, lucky horses. The building never was erected though.
Two further threats to rural bliss occurred shortly after the Krauses arrived on Ballas Road. Union Electric, the local electrical utility, condemned the highest part of the 5-acre tract across the road and erected a 26-foot-high, many-gadgeted, constantly humming superstructure substation on it. To mask the noise from this intrusion, Wright designed at the end of 1958 a fountain and pool to be placed outside below the master bedroom. Lee Patterson bid $1,200 to build this, but it was never done. At about the same time, the state highway department began planning for the 300-foot-wide duo-lane highway that ultimately became Interstate 270. One proposed right-of-way would have gone right through the house, while another would have been at the foot of our living room terrace. The route chosen, a little farther west, was at least out of sight, if not out of hearing.
Another unpleasant surprise awaited the Krauses that first summer of 1956. By 11 in the morning, the entire living room terrace was in the sun, and in spite of the broad overhangs Wright had designed for the house, it came into the living room and bedroom doors all afternoon. On August 7, when the official high was only 85 degrees, the temperature on the terrace rose to over 120 and broke the thermometer. Can you protect us in some way from Old Sol? Russell appealed. About Labor Day, Wright sent a drawing for a canvas sunshade. This inspired in the Krauses visions of a pergola in the image of the one Wright had built for the Coonley House half a century earlier. Wright then produced a trellislike sunshade to extend about 12 feet from the house, but in this case it proved too expensive. The Krauses settled for matchstick Venetian blinds and later drapes. Finally, Taliesin Associates designed an air-conditioning system.
Several months after the Krauses moved in, Ruth wrote to Wright that inside our house ... looks like a bomb-out. Designs for the studio drawing board and other furniture had arrived in 1954, but most of it remained unbuilt until after Wrights death in 1959. In 1960, Russell built the 10 hassocks himself and increased the order of chairs with Kapp, the cabinet company. The following year, at the recommendation of William Wesley Peters, Taliesins decorator, Cornelia Brierly, visited. She was wonderfully full of ideas, Ruth wrote, generous with her time, sympathetic to our problems and tireless in her efforts to effect the right Wright solution. Brierly asked Olgivanna Wright to select some of the fabric samples for the upholstered furniture. Because of the odd angles of the cushions no two were alike the shapes had to be blocked out in cardboard before the polyurethane could be cut.
David Wheatley, another Taliesin associate, visited in 1960 and two years later prepared a design for the carport landscaping and paving. Up until this time, the area had been covered with pecan shells. The Krauses carried out the paving with the help of Russells parents and his friend William Bodley Lane.
No final victory ever was declared in the battle to complete the house, but the inspiration and delight that it had engendered in the Krauses from the start continued unabated for nearly four decades. Ruth Kraus died in 1992, and Russell Kraus spent several years searching for a long-term future for the masterwork he and his wife had brought into being. In 2001 he sold the house to a non-profit organization set up for the purpose of saving the house. The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park, as the group is known, has turned over the title of the property to the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation but will continue to preserve the house and open it to the public.
The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park
120 North Ballas Road St. Louis, Missouri 63122