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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pioneering Example of Accessible Design, The Laurent House

Designed for a client who used a wheelchair, the home made its owner "realize his capabilities, not his disabilities"

Frank Lloyd Wright called the home "his little gem," and would tell potential clients making the trip from Chicago to Taliesin to stop by and visit to get a sense of his style. A one-story home built in the architect’s more practical and approachable Usonian style, the Laurent House, a one-story home constructed in Rockford, Illinois, in 1952, was far from Wright’s most grandiose or famous project. But this outlier showcases a side of Wright’s work that often gets overshadowed by stories of his egotistical genius: human-centered, client-focused design. Created as a home for a mobility impaired WWII veteran, Kenneth Laurent, and his wife, Phyllis, it’s an accessible dwelling fashioned decades ahead of today’s building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

"Kenneth said toward the end of his life that the home helped him focus on his capabilities, not his disabilities," says John Groh, a founding board member of the foundation that restored the home and opened it as a museum, who now serves as the President of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent met in Rockford while working at the National Lock Company and were married in 1941, a year before Kenneth was drafted by the Navy. When he returned home from a tour of duty overseas, his back began bothering him, and doctors soon discovered a spinal tumor. While an operation successfully removed the tumor, Laurent was left paralyzed, and required a wheelchair. He wanted to build a home that would be empowering, as opposed to the standard issue suburban homes of the era, designed without regard for accessibility issues. A government-funded Specially Adapted Housing program provided the veteran with extra funding for a new home, so he and Phyllis began looking for an architect.

After spotting an article about Wright in House Beautiful, the Laurents reached out to the architect in 1948 and began a lengthy correspondence that would eventually lead to their singular home. According to Laura Dodd, director of operations at the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, it was important to Wright that a man who served his country was "taken care of," especially in his own home.

A trail of letters, part of the collection of the home-turned-museum, shows Wright and the Laurents discussing dimensions, designs, and layout. After years of back-and-forth, by 1952, Wright had created a home that gave Kenneth great freedom of movement and control. Spotted from the outside, on a curvy suburban street where homes are spaced far apart, the brick facade and hemicycle shape of the Laurent House is intriguing. Indoors, however, the 2,600-square-foot home’s unique layout quickly becomes apparent.

Wright design all the furniture and interiors with the experience of Kenneth Laurent in mind. Fold-down cabinets replaced pull-out drawers, and wider doorways and lower doorknobs simplified movement around the home. The bathroom, larger than those in typical Wright designs, was created with the needs of its owners in mind, not outfitted with unwieldy railing after the fact. All the entrances to the home were made to be wheelchair accessible. Groh says that Wright even lowered seating throughout the home so guests sat at eye level with Kenneth; contemporary visitors in wheelchairs have marveled at the feeling of being in a space where they don’t constantly feel like they’re being looked down on by others.

"When people talk about Frank Lloyd Wright, they talk about him giving you the home he thinks you should have," says Dodd. "I think he did a fantastic job for this family, and we don’t hear a lot about houses from this time that were built to be so accessible."

The Laurents would live in the home their entire lives, and maintain a closer relationship with Wright. Before his death, they would ask him to design an addition that included an additional bedroom—after saying "it was perfect when I gave it to you," Wright finished preliminary sketches for a project that would be completed by Talisein fellow Jack Howe in 1960. When Wright died, the Laurents received an invitation to his services in Taliesin.

Before the Laurents passed away in 2012, they expressed a desire to turn their home into a museum. That same year, the Laurent House Foundation was formed to preserve and protect the residence for future visitors, and purchased the home. A year-long, $430,000 renovation by noted Wright restoration architect John Eiffler refurbished the home, repairing the extensive water damage suffered by the flat roof while updating the home’s aging infrastructure, including new wiring and an HVAC system.

When the museum opened to the public in 2014, it boasted nearly the entire collection of original Wright-designed furniture. The layout of the house museum attempts to live up to the Laurents’s desire that it look authentic, "as if we went across the street for a cup of coffee."

Later in his life, when Wright was reviewing his favorite projects and designs, a collection of 38 buildings that would become known as the Masterworks, the Laurent House made the list. While it lacks the cache, the display of total design, and the control of the environment, shows Wright at his best.

"You can tell when a home is retrofitted with rails and bars," says Groh. "Looking at the Laurent House, you’d never know that it was designed for someone in a chair."

Tours of the Laurent House are available the first and third weekend of every month.