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Restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse seeks to showcase small space design

Described by some as a “man cave,” the small brick structure shows Wright working on a smaller scale, designing in tune with the landscape

Frank Lloyd Wright loved Wisconsin. But a project in Quasqueton, Iowa, gave the architect a unique opportunity to reflect the Midwest landscape from multiple dimensions. At what’s known as the Cedar Rock House, he designed a series of structures that anticipated how the owners would enjoy and appreciate the landscape, including a standout Usonian house. A $220,000 restoration project currently underway, seeking to preserve and protect the property’s two-story boathouse, is bringing a small but significant part of Wright’s vision back from decades of deferred maintenance.

The Cedar Rock boathouse, which sits on the Wapsipinicon River, was the property of Lowell and Agnes Walter, who retired in the 1940s and enlisted Wright to create a perfect home for their twilight years. Using profits from Lowell’s Iowa Road Building Company and real estate investments—the Walters smartly bought up acres of prime local farmland—they were able to present the architect with an 11-acre riverfront site in Lowell’s hometown.

The couple asked the architect to design a residence that would best showcase the natural advantages of the site. Swamped with work when he received the offer, Wright said he’d just sketch something without visiting Iowa, but Lowell and Agnes eventually convinced him otherwise. Wright would visit, get inspired, and even stop by during construction; archival photos show Wright demonstrating the best way to lay bricks to local contractors.

Completed in 1950, the home was a unique example of complete Usonian-era work by Wright, featuring brick walls and an interior decorated with the architect’s furniture (he even picked out all the draperies). The "tadpole" shaped house—a central cluster of living rooms attached to a long hallway of bedrooms—features a celebrated garden room ringed in three glass walls, which offered wide-angle views of the surrounding countryside.

"There’s something really special about the garden room at Cedar Rock, the way he brings the outdoors into the house just touches people," says Kathryn Hund of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, who manages and oversees Cedar Rock. "There’s a quote where Wright talks about the building growing from the site, and I agree. I looks like it just grew from the ground."

The boathouse site about 100 yards from the main building on the opposite end from the home on a limestone outcropping that gives the estate its name. A miniature version of the house that mirrors its flat roof and profile, the tiny space provided an escape for Lowell.

Some have called it a Wrightian version of a man cave: the two-story structure contained a garage-like space for Lowell’s custom wooden motorboat, gear, and canoes, as well as a second floor space with a bed and desk. There’s both an indoor working space, fireplace, and screened-in porch.

The boathouse is just one of the other outdoor spaces Wright designed at Cedar Rock that made the landscape, the primary selling point, more enjoyable and accessible, according to Alison York, President of Friends of Cedar Rock, the local organization that helped fund the restoration.

"There’s a council fire, a large fireplace with a built-in bench, and then boathouse down below by the river," says York. "The structures really let the owners interact with the site."

Frank Lloyd Wright designed other boathouses in his career, but the one at Cedar Rock stands out as being the only one designed in concert with the main residence, as well as an original that’s still standing; a similar project on Lake Delavan in Wisconsin burned down.

The push to restore the boathouse project started in 2009, when a Department of Natural Resources engineer noticed the the building was leaking and was in dire need of work. When Lowell passed away in 1981, Agnes donated the Cedar Rock house and all 11 acres to the state, which placed it under the purview of the Department of Natural Resources, and set up a trust fund to pay for the upkeep of the home. But beginning in 2009, the state began to pick up the tab for maintenance.

After Iowa funded a roofing project that served as a stopgap to prevent further damage, and began soliciting donations from visitors, the Friends of Cedar Rock, a local non-profit, decided to pitch in and help cover the needed boathouse restoration project. Beginning in 2010, the group raised enough money, and won enough grant funding, to fund a full renovation, which is currently underway and set to finish sometime in September or October.

Currently, crews are working on concrete, brickwork, and tuckpointing, and recovering from floods caused by a recent heavy rainstorm. The season at Cedar Rock runs from May to October, so those wanting to check out the new boathouse will probably need to wait until May to see the finished product, since the contractors are racing to finish by the end of October.