The Fate of a Frank Lloyd Wright Icon

St. Louis Park Frank Lloyd Wright home changes hands.

At first glance, it’s an unassuming house for sale on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Lake Forest neighborhood of St. Louis Park. According to architectural historian Jane King Hession, this may well have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s preference: he valued privacy and the privacy of his clients. Those clients, in the case of this Wright-designed and -built home at 2206 Parklands Lane, were Helen and Paul Olfelt. Coldwell Banker realtor Kate Wall says the Olfelts were inspired to write to the famous architect after hearing him speak at the University of Minnesota. They were a young couple with three small children who’d recently purchased a 3.77-acre, secluded piece of property in St. Louis Park. Would he design and build their family home? They probably suspected he’d never answer their letter. He did. “This was a late-life career project for Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Hession. “It was designed in 1958, he died in 1959, and the house construction was completed in 1960.” The Olfelts, now in their 90s, are the original and only owners. Their home went up for sale in June.

It’s a story of privacy versus seclusion, of a family home versus iconic architecture; of an architectural style that was groundbreaking at the time, but may not meet the commonplace demands of some families currently in the market for a home; of a man about whom anecdotes of a strong-willed artistic sense—some might even say a stubborn streak—abound, yet who is known to have had very cordial relationships with many of his clients.

A Family Home, Not a Monument

The Olfelts went on to have another child, for a total of four children who grew up in this home and two adults who have lived here for almost 60 years. Wall reveals that a late-July tour of the home, specifically arranged for Frank Lloyd Wright devotees (and magazine writers!) with no intent of buying, is an exception to the specific requests of the Olfelt family. No tours of the home were conducted while the family lived here, either, she says. In a June 13 article in the Star Tribune, Jim Buchta writes that Paul Olfelt said he and his wife did not want their children feeling as though they were living in a monument. “It was home to us,” Olfelt is quoted as saying. “It was a very warm and wonderful place to live.”

Another example in which practical demands of a growing family appear to have overridden issues of architectural style is the home’s fully finished basement. Coldwell Banker realtor Barry Berg, co-lister of the home with partner Chad Larsen, says that Wright’s general philosophy was that homes did not need basements. On the property tour, Wall says that, in the Olfelts’ case the basement was dug out before Wright passed away. While it’s clear the Olfelts knew their large family would put finished basement space to use and succeeded in having it built, some mystery remains as to whether or not it ever received Wright’s approval.

Groundbreaking Style, a Half-century Removed

Architectural historian Jane King Hession sheds some light on the basement-no basement debate. The Olfelt home, she says, was built in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style, a term she says was first used by Wright in the 1930s and intended to describe the quality, affordable housing he wished to produce for the American middle class. “Wright had a lifelong interest in affordability,” she says, particularly in the years after World War II. He didn’t build basements, garages and attics as a practical way to reduce costs, and also, says Hession, as a way of avoiding spots in homes that simply collect a lot of clutter.

The minimalist, clutter-free design for which Wright is known is evident at first glance. Exterior red concrete stairs lead to red concrete floors throughout the home’s interior, just one example of Hession’s description of the home’s quiet, private exterior opening up and “visually exploding” inside. Several Wright architecture fans on the tour commented on another aspect of this visual opening: hallways and connecting rooms that are low-ceilinged but yield to bigger, more open spaces, a feature the architect called “compress and release.” Also new at the time of this home’s construction, says Hession, was the concept of “breaking the box:” opening up floor plans to improve the flow of living space. Berg comments that in general, Wright did not believe in “gargantuan spaces” and was one of the first to use the great-room concept (in the case of this home, a combination living-family-dining area) to assure that no space in a home is wasted. Natural light in the great room is abundant, owing in part to keel-like, frameless corner windows (which some say is a Wright invention). Found here and throughout the house is a plethora of built-in furniture. All the built-ins, which are original and designed by Wright, are included in the purchase of the home.

At 2,637 square feet, including approximately 800 square feet of finished basement, the house might seem a little small by today’s suburban standards, but Hession notes that mid-20th-century families lived differently than families today. The two bedrooms and one bathroom shared by four Olfelt children might today be shared by one or two, suggests realtor Wall. “The public space in this house is perfectly comfortable,” says Berg, and all parties agree that the nearly 4-acre lot is beautiful and expansive. Wall was present, recently, when several deer gathered in the backyard. The property hosts eagles and many songbirds as well.

The Man Himself

Anecdotes about Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal preferences and opinionated manner are easy to come by. One story this writer heard even suggested that Wright liked built-in furniture because he didn’t trust clients’ interior decorating taste as much as his own. “These negative attributions to Wright are frequently untrue,” says Hession. She has read a fair sampling of the correspondence between Wright and his clients and concludes that “many people had very cordial relationships with him.” She admits that he had a tendency to overrun budgets, but in his defense she says he was doing a lot of experimental design, the cost of which may have been difficult to estimate. “What people got was a work of art for the price of a home,” she concludes. Many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s clients specifically sought him out and were “rapturous,” she says, throughout their building project with him.

The Fate of an Iconic Home

True to form, the Olfelts sought never to place their home on a historic registry, says Wall. “They did not want to encumber the home they’d lived in for over 60 years,” she says, preferring to leave it to its own fate once they were gone. Barry Berg has worked with several parties (local, national and international) signaling interest, he says. On the tour, Wall mentions that the home is situated on three parcels of land, which need not all be purchased by one buyer. The perhaps unlikely possibility of a property split or, worse, a take-down sale looms. “Of course I’m concerned about the Olfelt house,” says Hession. “I’m always concerned when a Frank Lloyd Wright home, or any piece of contemporary and/or historical architecture, changes hands.” But as one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright houses still owned by the original owners and a property in pristine condition, she is hopeful. “I think there’s a sympathetic buyer out there. I’m optimistic for the Olfelt house, because it’s such a terrific family home.”