- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

WILLOUGHBY HILLS, Ohio — Fallingwater is Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest work, but a house he designed in this Cleveland suburb is one of his most livable. Owner Paul Penfield has opened the Louis Penfield House to guests after spending four years restoring it to the iconic architect’s original vision. It’s one of three Wright houses in the country that allow Wright enthusiasts to spend the night. The other two are in Wisconsin.

Mr. Penfield, 60, lived in the house during his teenage years. His friends, who thought the place was a bit odd, nicknamed it “the steamboat house” because of its long, narrow design.

Entering the house through slender double doors takes one past a floating wooden staircase, its steps suspended by rods from the ceiling. The entryway is like a bottleneck from which the home’s spacious living area spills forth.

Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and a third half-wall of windows allow for a panoramic view of the wooded lot and give the feeling of being outside while indoors. The sound of trickling water from a fountain and the glow from built-in wooden light fixtures set a soothing mood.

The living area takes up most of the main floor and illustrates Mr. Wright’s fondness for open space. The kitchen is a narrow ribbon with a long counter that works great for a buffet line.

Upstairs, corner windows in bedrooms give more sweeping views of the property’s black cherry trees, poplars and white pines. Mr. Wright’s color scheme of ochre walls and reddish-stained wood provides a soft warmth.

“Here you really felt you were living with nature. That’s what Frank Lloyd Wright wanted,” says Marguerite Vonno, one of 300 people who have stayed at Penfield House since it opened for guests in 2003.

Matt and Cheryl Banning of Willoughby booked it first, using it for their wedding weekend, including pictures and the rehearsal dinner.

They returned a year later for their anniversary. “It’s 11 o’clock at night. You’ve got a fire going. It’s your house,” Mr. Banning says.

That’s the way Mr. Penfield and his wife, Donna, intended it.

“We want to give people the chance to experience it as if they were the homeowners themselves,” Mr. Penfield says.

At other Wright landmarks, visitors are shuffled on tours from room to room.

“Just walking through, you miss that sense of what it would be like to interact with it,” Mr. Banning says.

Ron Scherubel, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which advocates the preservation of the 400 remaining Wright structures, says he likes the idea of the houses being opened to guests.

“It spreads the word about how comfortable and beautiful Wright’s houses are,” Mr. Scherubel says.

The Seth Peterson Cottage in Lake Delton, Wis., was the first Wright home to open to guests, in 1992. Located in Mirror Lake State Park on a bluff overlooking the lake, the once-boarded-up structure underwent a $350,000 renovation funded by donations.

“It’s a very good example of how Wright could make a small space seem big,” Mr. Scherubel says. It has a great room surrounded by windows that make “you feel like you’re right out in the woods.”

The roomy Bernard Schwartz House in Two Rivers, Wis., opened in June. Owners Terry Records and Jason Nordhougen teamed with Michael Ditmer, a Wright fan who does remodeling work, to renovate the four-bedroom house and share it with the public.

“It’s really living in a work of art,” Mr. Ditmer says of a stay there.

Mr. Wright (1867-1959) has been recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.” He designed buildings to fit into their settings and viewed them not just as structures but as ideas that would permeate the lives of their inhabitants.

Mr. Penfield’s father, Louis, was a painter who became acquainted with Mr. Wright and asked the architect to design a house that would fit his 6-foot-8 frame. Mr. Wright generally designed short entryways but took on the project, charging $2,500 and including plenty of clearance space for his client’s head.

Paul Penfield was a child when he accompanied his father to visit Mr. Wright at Taliesin, his home in Wisconsin. He remembers Mr. Wright as a stately man with flowing white hair whose office was located at the end of a long corridor. “He’s portrayed as a curmudgeon, but he really wasn’t,” Mr. Penfield says.

The Penfield House was built in 1955 for $25,000 and is one of the architect’s “Usonians.”

Mr. Wright is well-known for grand homes, such as Fallingwater in Western Pennsylvania, which was designed for the wealthy Kaufmann family. Its setting atop a waterfall is a supreme example of Mr. Wright’s organic architecture — an integration of nature and structure.

Mr. Wright’s Usonians were more modest homes meant to be lived in by everyday Americans.

The Penfield House fell into disrepair after the family moved out and turned it into a rental property for about five years.

Mr. Penfield put $100,000 into the restoration and did most of the work himself. He replaced its flat, leaky roof — another Wright trademark — and refinished the extensive interior and exterior wood surfaces, wearing out a number of power sanders along the way.

He even milled trees from the property to build cabinets and furniture, such as platform beds, chairs and tables, based on Mr. Wright’s angular designs.

Finishing touches included such items as a rotary phone and a typewriter that keep the feel of the decade in which the house was built.

“My favorite time is the dead of winter when the snow is falling and the fire is going. — It’s as romantic as you can possibly find for a single-family dwelling,” Mr. Penfield says. “Most of our guests report that it’s a very renewing experience.”

Marguerite Vonno and her husband drove from Washington to stay at the house and visit Cleveland, just 15 miles away. They enjoyed the place so much, they didn’t leave the entire weekend.

“I liked Fallingwater, but I was not attracted to living in the house,” Mrs. Vonno says. “We could live in the Penfield House.”

• • •

Louis Penfield House: 2203 River Road, Willoughby Hills, Ohio; visit www.penfieldhouse.com or call 440/942-9996. Rates: $275 a night, two-night minimum; sleeps five. Available for corporate or group events.

Seth Peterson Cottage: E9982 Fern Dell Road, Lake Delton, Wis.; visit www.sethpeterson.org or call 608/254-6551. Rates: $275 a night, two-night minimum; sleeps four. Available for corporate or group events.

Bernard Schwartz House: 3425 Adams St., Two Rivers, Wis.; visit www.theschwartzhouse.com or call 651/222-5322. Rates: $295 weeknights and $350 weekends with a two-night minimum; sleeps eight.

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