The Joy of Growing Up in a Home Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright’s ghost was talking to me the other day. The old master spoke in the familiar murmur, soft and regal and unassailably true, that I’d known since I was a boy.
I was reading a news story about a skirmish over a house in Fort Wayne that Wright had designed in the ’50s. The current owner had secured a historic designation for the home, but now he wanted that classification set aside so he would have an easier time selling the place. When officials turned him down, the owner left the hearing in a fury, threatening to sue and uttering obscenities.
I didn’t need to ask what the 20th century’s greatest architect would have thought of such behavior. I could already see his brow knotting as he ran a hand through his thick white mane.
No, no. How unfortunate. So contrary to the spirit of what I built.
Wright despised ugliness. Until his death at age 91, he worshipped beauty and harmony, reinventing American life both private and public as he designed houses and churches and other buildings that aimed to offer sanctuary and solace, to open us up and inspire us toward better versions of ourselves.
I knew the man not because I studied his philosophy or pored over his blueprints, but because when I was a scrawny teenager, I lived in that same house in Fort Wayne. At a time when I had no idea who I was or what I was becoming, I felt his calming presence in every corner—in the red-brick walls, in the sun-flooded kitchen and cave-like bedrooms, in the woods behind our backyard. When nothing else in my life made sense, I lived inside his imagination. Ever since, he has lived in mine.
I was also familiar with the current owner. Several years ago, I ran across a website devoted to his restoration of the home, but when I came to a section on the property’s history, I paused. The site alluded to a dark period in the early ’70s when previous owners had desecrated the house, messing with Wright’s design and even ruining some of his furniture. These savages weren’t named, but their behavior was clearly unforgivable.
My cheeks burned. The family in question was my own. We were the infidels.
Whatever judgments would later be cast against us, we were happy inside that house, or as happy as our restless family could be.
The home at 3901 North Washington Road, on Fort Wayne’s southwest side, was no castle, with only 1,340 usable square feet, lacking luxuries or frills. It didn’t even have a garage. My mom parked her beat-up Opel station wagon under a wide overhang that stretched across the driveway. Wright, who relied on such shelters to minimize construction costs, had coined the term “carport.”
“A car is not a horse,” he said, “and it doesn’t need a barn.”
More than 60 of these affordable homes were built from Wright’s blueprints—Usonian houses, he called them—for middle-class families who appreciated elegant design. My parents were ideal candidates. My dad was a department-store executive with a lifelong interest in art, fashion, and architecture inherited from my grandmother, who studied at the Bauhaus and knew Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. My mom, raised in a family of eccentric writers, wore Marimekko dresses and big, black sunglasses that made her look like a movie star, even while balancing a toddler on her hip. They bought the house in 1970, after my dad was transferred to a new job at L.S. Ayres, and moved my three younger siblings and me from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne that summer.
My parents didn’t tell me much about Wright, other than the fact that he had died 10 years or so before. I had no idea that my sister Brooke and I were playing Chinese checkers in a living room mapped out by the visionary who had shocked traditionalists with his fervor for open floor plans. It did not occur to me that our home had almost no interior walls because Wright metaphorically knocked them all down, not just in our house but in homes across the land.
The balance of light and dark Wright created inside that house was durable enough to contain the storms inside me, our family’s ups and the downs, all the multitudes within us.
At that point in my young life, I had never heard of Wright’s masterworks—Fallingwater, the Robie House, his Wisconsin estate and studio named Taliesin. I had not yet been to New York or seen the inverted spiral of the Guggenheim Museum, a design he said he stole from the curving shell of a nautilus. I knew nothing of his obsession with the divinity of nature, his messianic tendencies, the turbulence in his personal life—the scandals; the deranged employee who set fire to Taliesin, murdering Wright’s mistress and six others while he was away on business; his decision to rebuild Taliesin from the ashes, only to see it burn again 11 years later, this time due to faulty wiring.
The Fort Wayne house barely qualified as a footnote in Wright’s career, but that didn’t matter to those fortunate enough to have lived there over the decades. The place was a testament to simplicity and economy, the rooms suffused with an almost sacred attention to the interplay of light and darkness, the elimination
of unnecessary lines, the transformative possibilities of living in a space where every detail had purpose. People did not inhabit that house. It inhabited them.
Wright designed the home for John and Dorothy Haynes and their three children, who moved there in 1952. By then, Wright had created dozens of Usonian houses, some scattered across Indiana. He started building them during the Depression, when his clients were strapped for cash, and had never stopped.
“That was the bulk of his work,” an archivist for Wright’s foundation told Fort Wayne’s News-Sentinel in 1991. “Wright believed that any architect could build a large house for a rich man. But to build a small house and make it really beautiful and functional, that was really the test of an architect’s mettle. He believed that, in a democracy, every man was entitled to a beautiful home.”
John Haynes had written to the architect, asking him to create a house for his family. When Wright agreed, John and Dorothy traveled to Taliesin to discuss the plans. By then, Wright was already in his 80s. He met the couple sporting a tam and a cape and carrying a cane.
As with so many of his projects, Wright’s radical notions tested the skill and patience of local contractors. He stipulated that the house’s red-brick walls be matched with red tidewater cypress wood, both inside and out; that the red concrete floor be heated with sunken pipes; that the cabinets be equipped with piano hinges. His specifications for the roof, which seemed to float above the house, bedeviled the builders. A cantilevered fireplace jutting from the living room wall mocked gravity. The brick mason hired to build it was so worried the whole thing would collapse that when he finished, he refused to remove the wooden props. Mr. Haynes allegedly kicked out the supports himself.
As with virtually all of Wright’s Usonian homes, the house sustained the illusion that it was much bigger than its square footage. Wright’s open floor plan, the built-in furniture he designed to disappear into the walls, the towering windows in the living room—all of it made the house feel open and alive. Employing one of his favorite stratagems, Wright had lowered the ceiling in the entryway, then raised it dramatically in the living room, which vaulted into a cathedral ceiling. Walls of windows flooded the entire room with light. Wright’s technique was called “compress and release.” He intended for people to feel cramped, then freed from that discomfort as they stepped into the glowing space beyond. Every time you walked into the house was like being born anew.
When the Haynes family grew to six children, the couple sold the home and moved to a bigger place next door—a house shaped like a circle. The banker who bought the Wright design then sold it to my family. My brother Bill and I shared a bunk bed in one room, and on the other side of a folding divider, my sisters, Brooke and Susi, shared another. I was just a kid and knew nothing about architecture, but as best I could tell, the curving exterior of the neighboring circle house didn’t serve any purpose other than catching the eye—all form, little function. Whenever the Haynes kids came over to see us, I glimpsed something in their faces. Not envy exactly, but a certain wistfulness. Who could blame them? Our house was eye-catching, too. But the longer you spent inside it, the more that initial impression deepened into something more solid. Wright called it integrity.
“Buildings, like people, must first be sincere, must be true,” he’d once said. “Beautiful buildings are more than scientific. They are true organisms, spiritually conceived.”
As much as we revered the house, our family hardly treated it like a temple. With four kids running wild, the kitchen counters were perpetually smudged with handprints, water pooled on the floor after our evening baths, and one child or another was perpetually crying or throwing a tantrum or staggering in with an injury and leaving a blood trail. Every day was an exercise in improvisation. Getting us out the door for school required a creativity and will from my mother, Tad, that rivaled Wright’s. He had been a visionary, but she was a traffic cop, a warrior, a nurse, a fashion plate, a psychologist, a cook, a hostess at countless cocktail parties, and a drill sergeant whose bark snapped Brooke and me out of our daily torpor and sent us scurrying to clean the kitchen.
Tad’s burdens were complicated by the challenge of keeping up with her husband. My father, Hans, had been raised by a demanding German mother, the one who’d studied at the Bauhaus, and his childhood had imbued him with a certain unpredictability, a persistent need to defy expectations and shake up our routine. He had a wanderlust that kept our entire family off balance—he liked to uproot us from one house to another. By the time we arrived in Fort Wayne, Tad had helped him move at least seven times, dragging their belongings and the latest configuration of offspring to a string of apartments and houses in Georgia, Ohio, and Indiana.
As we settled into the house on Washington Street, I prayed that my father would let us stay. The neighborhood was filled with kids my age, and I was desperate to make friends. These kids were different from my old crowd back in Indianapolis—more insular, aggressively indifferent to my attempts at fitting in. More than anyone I’d ever met, they had an unwavering belief in their inherent coolness. I was an interloper, and they kept me on probation until I proved myself.
My quest to join their tribe suffered a setback one evening early that first summer, when we were running in a backyard and I fell and broke my left collarbone. As I writhed on the ground, one of the girls thought I was faking the injury and kicked me in the shoulder to prove it. At the emergency room, a nurse pulled down my shorts to inject me with morphine. The dose felt like liquid sugar flowing through my veins.
That night, I tried and failed to climb up to my top bunk, so my mom stashed me in a daybed in a corner of the library. I was holding still in that darkness when I realized how grateful I was that Wright had designed the nook, as though it had been made just for me and my broken shoulder. Like he’d known, even before I was born, that I would need him to help me make it through that one long night.
The calm of the house did not always suit my father. He loved living there, as all of us did, but he showed no compunction about messing with Wright’s original plans. Not long after we moved in, Hans ditched the bed frame that Wright had designed for the master bedroom, dragging it outside into the yard and repurposing it as a sandbox for my younger siblings. He also pulled out the dining room table that Wright had built into one of the brick walls, replacing it with a bigger table that fit all of us more easily.
The motives behind our father’s decrees were sometimes difficult to fathom. None of us knew what to make of it when he decided to bury the house’s distinctive red floors under wall-to-wall carpet. The change made no sense, because the carpet added another layer between us and the heating system sunk beneath those floors. Maybe he just liked how the carpet felt under his feet, even if it left us shivering.
Most of the house my father left untouched. Wright had put only small windows in our bedrooms, preferring to rely on hidden bulbs that cast an orange shimmer on the ceilings. The effect was to keep the rooms dark but safe, turning them into dens perfect not just for sleeping but for an adolescent boy’s sulking. On weekends, I wandered the woods out back, arguing with myself for hours into the wind, then retreated to my room to forget my troubles with another chapter of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I had already decided to become a writer and had recently finished my first book, a clumsy hybrid of Bond and Jonny Quest, where my boy hero hurtled down ski slopes, escaping machine gun–toting villains, and glided across the sky in hovercraft and jet packs. Now I was plowing through my next work, a series of ghost stories that I wrote to terrify my siblings.
Wright’s design already was shaping me in ways I did not yet recognize. Small as it was, the house had enough room for my many moods, all the versions of myself that were emerging. Sometimes I could not bear the sight of my parents—not because they’d done anything wrong, but because I was 13. Other times I would happily join my mother in the kitchen, helping her bake oatmeal cookies, both of us bathed in sunshine from the skylight above. Before we moved to that house, I had never heard of anyone putting a window in a roof. Now I couldn’t imagine living without one.
On stormy summer nights, Brooke and I would turn off the lights in the living room and watch the dark clouds explode with lightning strikes that illuminated the yard and the woods and our faces. Together, we counted out the seconds until the ensuing thunder shook the room’s giant windows.
The house was tactile and primal, a wonderland of the senses and a trove of Jungian archetypes. In our bedrooms we hibernated like bears, dreaming on and on. When we woke, we shuffled through the long, low tunnel of the hallway until we were freed into the open space of the living room, endlessly repeating the sequence of compression and release. All of it seeped inside me slowly, almost without my noticing. Walking from room to room, I absentmindedly ran my fingertips along the red-brick walls, tracing the stubble of gray mortar. The air carried a faint scent of cypress that was strongest in the library. The clerestory windows across the top of the walls in the hallway were carved into vaguely geometric shapes. I got it into my head that these shapes formed a code and that the master was speaking from beyond the grave, waiting for someone to decipher his message. I never cracked the puzzle, but the windows gave the entire house a sense of mystery that I found satisfying.
The house and its creator were teaching me to hold still long enough to see patterns all around me—in the movement of sunlight across the kitchen, in the shadows of the trees at the edge of the woods, in the way our family broke into a symphony of cries and complaints in the mornings before we left for school and work, which crescendoed again in the evenings as we got ready for bed. Wright had sketched it out for us, this fabric of connection and meaning, and now I was paying attention.
One summer evening at the end of seventh grade, I had a party in the backyard and realized that somehow I was no longer on probation with the cool kids. I invited a girl named Beth to gather raspberries with me in the woods. She knew it was a ruse, and I knew she knew, but we didn’t care. When we returned to the party, we had only a few raspberries, and I was flushed with the knowledge that I had finally managed a first kiss.
Beth and I were together through most of that summer. One night when I camped in a pup tent in my backyard, she snuck inside and we made out. Making a joke about my last name, Beth wanted to French kiss. But I pulled away, telling her I wasn’t ready. A week or so later, she broke up with me for a mutual friend, an older boy from Texas whom I’d looked up to. In my room, I cried until I didn’t need to cry anymore and then got over it. I was on my way to eighth grade and approaching high school. Soon enough, I would be driving, and then everything would change.
Frank Lloyd Wright helped me navigate the rapids. When he designed our house, he had been an old man who knew a great deal about life and death, creativity and loss. He was an artist, fully formed and fully aware, on the edge of his final journey, and he had bestowed upon us his maturity, his wisdom, his abiding calm and limitless passion. The balance of light and dark he created inside that house was durable enough to contain the storms inside me, our family’s ups and the downs, all the multitudes within us. When I struggled, the walls cloaked me in quiet. When I felt strong, I sat in the living room and gazed out those big windows toward the horizon, imagining the blank pages of my life waiting to be written.
Halfway through my eighth grade year, my father told us we were moving back to Indianapolis. L.S. Ayres had offered him a new position in the executive suite. A Realtor was already preparing to place our house on the market.
When the For Sale sign went up, I cried again, this time much longer than when Beth had dumped me for the Texan. She could be replaced, and the friend as well. But the house? Never.
High school flew by. At the start of my senior year, my parents had yet another child, my little brother Ben. Even with five kids, Hans kept moving the family, putting up another For Sale sign, then another. Whatever was churning inside the man, it would not go away.
I made my getaway as best I could. I studied journalism at Indiana University; took a job in Florida as a reporter; got married; had two sons, Nat and Sam; got divorced; and then eventually remarried. Kelley, my second wife, often heard me waxing on about my time in the Frank Lloyd Wright house and how it had worked its way inside of me. Surfing online, she came across a site devoted to the Haynes House, as it was still called, and learned that it was now being offered as a vacation rental.
The site detailed how the current owner, Richard Herber, had faithfully restored the house according to Wright’s blueprints. Over the decades, some of the original furniture Wright had designed had disappeared, thrown out or carted away by previous owners, and Herber had worked with his father, a carpenter, to replicate the pieces. I read repeatedly through the description of the shameful period in the house’s history, when the unnamed owners had dragged the bed frame outside to abandon it to the elements. Once I got past my surprise, and the initial waves of mortification, I realized that the finger-pointing was justified. In my mind, I saw the wooden frame out in the sun, little Susi playing in the sand. At the time, it had not struck me as a sacrilege.
“We should go,” Kelley said.
“To the house. We should rent it for a couple nights with Nat and Sam so we can all see it for ourselves.”
We stayed for two nights that August. Nat and Sam made fun of me for growing up in a place as boring as Indiana. “Now we know why you’re so lame, Dad.”
Driving around Fort Wayne, I had to admit that the city seemed unusually quiet. At dinner one night, we asked the young server if she could suggest anything fun. She paused, then recommended an Amish flea market.
“Well,” she said, amending herself, “it’s not a real Amish flea market. It’s an imitation Amish flea market, but real nice.”
To this day, the house remains a testament to one artist’s beguiling vision of a country where all of us, not just the rich, can lead lives of beauty and grace and possibility.
And so we spent almost every moment inside the house on Washington Road, throwing a football in the yard, playing Scrabble at night. The boys howled when I told them about Beth and the raspberries. The woods out back where Beth and I had kissed were long gone, bulldozed into oblivion. But much of the neighborhood had not changed. The circle house still stood next door. And, thanks largely to Herber, the Haynes House had been returned to its intended glory.
When I walked through the front door, moving from the dark entryway into the bright living room, I felt the familiar sense that I was tunneling from restriction to freedom. Being in that house opened something in me once more. Again I heard Frank Lloyd Wright’s voice in every room. I walked down the hallway, brushing my fingertips along the brick and mortar, summoning the texture of both the past and present. In my old room, I stretched out on the guest bed and closed my eyes and remembered the confusion I’d felt at 13, slowly giving way to the undaunted, inarguable logic of the house. In the kitchen, I saw my mother standing again in the sun from the skylight, singing to herself as she made lunch. Tad had died many years before, but in that place I could feel her beside me. Until that moment, I had forgotten how much she sang. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her. About my father. About her. All of us trying to hold on inside those walls.
On our last evening in the house, a summer storm swept over the city. Kelley and the boys and I turned off the lights and gathered in the living room to watch the black clouds rolling toward us. The sight was so overwhelming that we could not speak. A bolt of lightning would flash, and for a moment I saw Nat’s and Sam’s faces so clearly—not just their teenage selves, but the young men they were becoming. Another flash, and suddenly I was sitting with my sister Brooke again in the dark. The master stood beside us, nodding.
All of us counted together out loud as we waited for the windows to rattle.
To those of us who revere the Haynes House, the recent controversy over its historic status has been unsettling.
John Shoaff—an architect who bought the property after my family moved away and before Herber bought the place, who has fought against his requested changes—still feels the same mystical connection to the home that I do. “The house is magic,” Shoaff told me recently. He has devoted decades to studying the mechanics of how Wright created such memorable effects. All of Wright’s designs, he said, were built on “a hidden geometry” that slowly cast a spell over their occupants. His insight reminded me of the secret codes I once thought Wright was sending me. “These buildings always seem alive and moving, and yet they are serene and still.”
Shoaff was among many witnesses who urged the Fort Wayne preservation commissioners not to grant Herber’s request to set aside the historic designation last February. The panel unanimously turned down Herber, who appealed unsuccessfully to the city council, grousing that the preservationists were meddling. He said he should be allowed to make whatever changes to the house he wanted.
“This is America,” he said. “I bought and paid for that property, and I want to be left alone. Everybody has their nose in my business.”
I could easily imagine Hans uttering those same words. After all these years, I decided to fess up to Herber that I was a part of the family who had desecrated the house—a fact I had been reluctant to reveal when we rented it. Plus, I couldn’t quite square his devotion to the preservation of the home with his desire to lift a designation set to protect it. Herber didn’t want to talk about the issue, though. In an email, he asked me to stop asking questions “regarding my house.”
Those final two words finally helped something click. Yes, the house on Washington Road is undeniably Herber’s. He pays the mortgage and the property taxes. By all reports, he lives there now. The website that once described his restoration has disappeared. My dad had also thought the place belonged to him, to do with as he pleased.
But the house on Washington Road was never just a property listed down at the county assessor’s office. It never really belonged to the Hayneses, or to my parents, or to anyone else who lived there. To this day, it remains a testament to one artist’s beguiling vision of a country where all of us, not just the rich, can lead lives of beauty and grace and possibility. If the house truly belongs to anyone, it is Frank Lloyd Wright. Long may his ghost speak inside those red-brick walls.