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By: Richard C. Ross

 
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Dana-Thomas House - East elevation
Read about our excursion to the Dana Thomas House and Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield

 

Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Illinois

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Studebaker in Amana, IAFrom what I can tell, it seems that most people have visited the Amana Colonies, perhaps a half hour's drive north and west of Iowa City.  Apparently I was one of the few who had not, so a stop there seemed to be in order as we planned a trip to spend some quality time with close friends and check out two more Frank Lloyd Wright structures -- one in Cedar Rapids and one in Quasqueton (pronounced kwoss-kee'-ton), a very small town -- population less than 600 --  about forty-five miles east of Waterloo.

We left Batavia at about 7:00 am and took I-88 west to the point at which it joined I-80 just before crossing the Mississippi River near East Moline.  The drive was an easy one with a surprisingly small quantity of traffic for a Friday morning and we were in Iowa City in just over three hours.   A bit west and north of Iowa City, we arrived at our first destination: the Amana Colonies.  

Putting the finishing touches on some homemade trufflesThe Colonies were definitely not all they were described as being, and it seemed that every little shop was the same as the next -- all pretty much carried the same merchandise -- and much of the wares were from places other than Iowa.  A small brewery was interesting and a fudge house had some tasty chocolates, but the best destination there was the Amana Meat Shop & Smokehouse.  Great looking steaks, chops, hams and sausages, lots of local items for sale and samples for tasting made the Smokehouse my favorite stop.  The stop in Amana was saved by a convention of Studebaker owners/aficionados that had chosen the same day to bring their cars to town on a tour.  I drooled as I checked out over two dozen examples dating from 1929 and up; most looked as though they had just rolled off the production line!  Rather than risk any further disappointment, we purchased some snacks at the Smokehouse and headed for Cedar Rapids and the Douglas Grant House, location of one of nine Wright designed residences in Iowa.

Douglas Grant House in Cedar Rapids, IALocated on a dead-end street and not easy to find, the house looks to be a single-story.  Like most Wright designs though, all is not as it appears.  Built on/into a hillside in 1946 and constructed from limestone quarried on the property by the original homeowners, the house features a 127-foot-long reinforced concrete roof and is actually three stories: the entrance and four bedrooms are on the top floor, a staircase leads to  the living room and dining room and the kitchen is on the lower floor.  An example of one of Wright's Usonian homes, there is little available information about the Grant home and, being located on private property at the end of a dead-end street, we didn't think that the owners would care much for trespassers traipsing all over the yard taking pictures. We took a single photo and headed north to see our friends in Cedar Falls.
The Walter Lowell House - "Cedar Rock"Lots of laughter, ample servings of wine and a great steak dinner were followed by hours of conversation as we tried to catch up on lost time.  We finally succumbed to our desire for sleep, looking forward to another adventure tomorrow.  Saturday dawned a perfect day: partly cloudy with no wind and an early morning temperature of about 60 degrees.  After a marvelously prepared and tasty, home-cooked breakfast, we all piled in to the car and headed for Quasqueton.  First settled in 1842 at a point where several Indian trails converged to ford the Wapsipinicon River, it is also home to Cedar Rock State Park, location of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Cedar Rock, a structure Wright designed and built for Agnes and Lowell Walter. 
Wright's signature red tileLowell had amassed his fortune as owner of the Iowa Road Building company, where he had invented an asphalt topping for country roads in Iowa.  In a letter to Mr. Wright, Walter requested a modest home be designed and built on a limestone bluff overlooking the Wapsipinicon.  Perhaps one of Wright's most complete designs, Cedar Rock was begun in 1948 and completed in 1950.  It was another of Wright's Usonian homes -- originally intended to be an affordable yet stylish design for the working American family. 

The roof is flat and made entirely of reinforced concrete, while the walls are brick and glass; the floors are concrete as well and utilize a gravity hot water heating system beneath them.  Outside the building is the signature red tile (the only Wright structure in Iowa to bear the coveted tile) used by Wright to indicate that everything was designed by him... and I mean
everything, from the Cherokee red brick of the outside, right down to the cups and saucers on the table!  Supposedly,
the only thing allowed on the property that was not designed by Wright was the Thompson TVT, a special boat built Lowell Walter by the Thompson Brothers Boat Manufacturing company of Peshigo, Wisconsin sometime in the mid- to late-1930's.  It was regarded as one of the best and fastest boats on the market at that time, and Walter was often seen speeding up and down the river during the summer months.

Playing the Steinway at Cedar RockThe layout to Cedar Rock is quite interesting, with the total length being about 150 feet; the bedrooms were on one end and the roughly 30-foot square garden room -- the main and most open space of the house -- on the other.  It is angled some 30-degrees to give a better view of the nearby river.  On the day we visited, our tour guide asked if anyone played the piano.  I raised my hand... and was asked to play something on the Steinway & Sons Grand that was custom-made especially for the Walters and sat prominently (at its lower-than-normal height) in front of a giant fireplace, capable of burning five-foot logs. 

I was definitely humbled to have been allowed to play a few chords, noting the incredibly fine condition of the well-tuned piano.  The remainder of the home is compact and efficient; some parts  -- especially the bedrooms and the long, narrow hallway that led to them -- seemed small, but only by today's standards.  Storage was, as it is in all Wright designs that I have visited, built in and even the closets were not designed to hold much.  Even the kitchen was quite small, with no space available to eat, as dining was intended to take place in the Garden Room.

The Garden RoomPerhaps most impressive was the lighting; almost all of the light was ambient and came from skylights and windows located near the ceiling.  The grounds and river could be seen from three floor-to-ceiling glass walls (they were really more walls than they were windows) and the views were nothing short of spectacular.  There was however, some recessed, artificial lighting that created the feel of natural light in the evenings.

The tour guide didn't accompany us, but encouraged us to walk down to the River Pavilion designed  by Wright to hold Lowell Walter's boat.  It was hard to try to picture something like this in 1950; it is nicer than a number of boat houses that I have seen today.  Complete with rails and an electric winch to haul his boat from the water, there is a great deck above and even a small office, complete with fireplace and sleeping quarters.  I can only imagine how nice this would have been back then!

The Boat HouseI have had the pleasure of having now visited more than a dozen Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures, from his original Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois, to a gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota, to a home in Atherton, California, and many more in between.  Each trip and each visit gives me more insight into the man and into his incredible designs.  Each visit to another building also gives me greater appreciation for an architectural style that is absolutely unequaled; Cedar Rock was certainly no exception.  Upon his death in 1981, Lowell Walter donated to the Iowa Conservation Commission and the people of the State of Iowa, his beloved Cedar Rock.  Originally built at a cost of about $150,000, it has been taken care of through a trust fund and managed by the Iowa DNR.  (Not being owned privately is what allows visitors to take the pictures that would not normally be allowed... or to play the Steinway as I did.)  That trust fund is now running precipitously low.  I hope that this well-preserved example of Wright's work will not succumb to the same fate as many of his other structures.  And if you have not yet been to Quasqueton, this is definitely a place well worth the visit!
Dinner at Galleria de PacoWe dined at an interesting restaurant called Galleria de Paco in Waterloo that evening, enjoying some excellent cuisine, atmosphere (the art work painted on the walls is incredible!) and conversation.  In the morning, we even snuck in nine holes of golf at Pheasant Ridge.  But like all good excursions, this one came to an end much too quickly.  The good news is that Iowa, friends and Frank Lloyd are not that far away. 

The odometer indicated less than 800 total miles,  including the sightseeing.  Our Saturn averaged over 32 mpg and gas in Iowa was less than $2.30 per gallon.  It's an excursion that is definitely worth your time!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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