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Greater Tulsa Reporter

Tulsan Remembers Life in a Famous House

History Editor

HISTORICAL HOME: Westhope, designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was listed in the National Register on April 10, 1975. Built in 1929, it is larger than most Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses, containing 10,000 square feet of floor space. Unlike many houses of comparable size, the unique scale of its interior spaces fosters a comfortable ambience whether it is accommodating one person or 400 people.

When Richard Lloyd Jones decided he wanted to move into a new house in the late 1920s, he knew just who he wanted to be the architect: his cousin, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright and Jones had known each other since childhood, often working as summer laborers on the same Wisconsin farms. They had a lovingly cantankerous relationship. Wright started off as a young architect and Jones, after a brief stint as a Broadway actor, became an editor at Collier’s Magazine (a rival of the Saturday Evening Post).

Their relationship can be described by a story emblazoned in family lore. One day Jones was at his desk at Collier’s in New York City when Wright came by for a visit, and to borrow $300 for fare back to Chicago. Jones wrote a check. An hour later Wright was back requesting another $300. “What happened to the $300 I just loaned you,” asked Jones. “Well, Richard,” said Wright, “I was walking to the train station when I passed this art gallery and there was this exquisite Japanese print in the window and I just had to. . .” With a sigh, Jones wrote Wright another $300 check.

Their tried and true friendship, however, came under some strain when Wright built the Tulsa house, named Westhope. In the first place the new abode wasn’t truly in Tulsa as it was at that time but far south of the city limits at 3700 S. Birmingham Ave. (two blocks east of Lewis Ave.). It was a wilderness, then. Jones’s wife, Georgia, recalled their closest neighbors were a Native-American family living in a log cabin with no road leading to it some two blocks away. All around them were woods. Wright and Jones were strong-minded men and their disagreements were acerbic.

After months and months of building, the Joneses moved in on a night when the heavens opened up. Wright’s flat roof proved unequal to the task of keeping the rain out of the house. According to Jones’s son, Jenkin, his mother ran around putting pots and pans under the leaks and cackling “this is what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.” Jones was furious. From his study he called Wright in his office and thundered, “Frank, I am sitting at my desk and water is cascading on my head,” to which Wright thundered back, “Richard, move your chair.” The roof was eventually fixed and their friendship remained unscathed.

As Jenkin’s son, and Richard’s grandson, I spent a lot of time in the Wright house and I have wonderful memories of it. It was one of the first private homes with a swimming pool, but pool maintenance wasn’t what it later became. It was a large pool, and it was filled by three garden hoses running full-bore for a day and a half. We knew nothing of swimming pool chemicals then. The water sat in the summer sun until algae covered the bottom and then the pool was drained. THAT was a great day! When the water got low enough you could get a running start on the sloping bottom and slide into whatever water was left. It made you feel slimy, but it was enormously satisfying to a grubby little boy.

The house itself seemed huge. Wright’s prairie houses in Wisconsin are known for their low ceilings, but the living room had a ceiling roughly 20 feet high. It was there a huge Christmas tree was erected every Yuletide and one of the family traditions was to see a beanbag ornament shaped like Mrs. Billy Possum (a character in the Uncle Wriggley books) that had adorned each family Christmas tree since my Uncle Dick’s first Christmas.

The interior was unique as only Frank Lloyd Wright could create, but I fondly remember my Grandfather’s study, where he dictated his Saturday editorials until he retired at the age of 86. The family pride and joy was in a glass cabinet: a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, one of only three remaining. Granddad had been instrumental in preserving the Lincoln birthplace in Kentucky and was a lifelong admirer of the 16th president. It was also in family lore that Granddad was probably the last living man who had met both Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis.

The house was such a joy to we children in the family. The downstairs had a large kitchen and pantry, a huge dining room, a billiards area, then a few steps up to the living room, Granddad’s study and a series of bedrooms. Upstairs were more bedrooms and a most intriguing staircase. It led to a landing with a door that opened to the flat roof, which could also be reached by outside stairs. But the landing itself was marvelous. It doubled as a fort, which was admirably suited to withstand Indian attacks, pirate attacks, German attacks (World War II was part of my early youth). Another area had glass on three sides and a lemon tree in a barrel. The tree was pruned back so that only one half-dozen lemons developed on the tree but, as a result, each lemon grew so large one would suffice for a pitcher of lemonade.

Of course Wright being Wright, and this being his cousin’s house, he experimented a little and the experiments weren’t universally successful. He built it of alternating columns of concrete block and windows and the concrete soaked in the Oklahoma heat all summer day and radiated it all night making the house unlivable in those pre-air-conditioned days. Happily Granddad had a summer home in first Minnesota and then Wisconsin and could escape.

The house was sold in the mid 1960s, and the last time I was in it, many years ago, I found the modern modifications to have been tasteful and fully respectful of the original. It remains a Tulsa icon and I wish it a long and happy life.

The author’s family published the Tulsa Tribune, the city’s evening newspaper, from 1919 to 1992.

Updated 02-22-2010

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