A living history

A living history

Springfield’s Westcott House demonstrates Wright’s Prairie style

Story by Jane Beathard

Photos courtesy of Westcott House

 

It is part museum and part architectural novelty. And it draws more than 8,000 visitors to Springfield each year.

Westcott House is more than a dwelling. It is among the finest examples of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Prairie style. And it is the only Prairie style home in Ohio.

“He (Wright) was still trying to shape himself (when he drafted the design),” said Marta Wojcik, curator and executive director of Westcott House.

It was a mutual love of cars and the burgeoning auto industry that brought architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Springfield resident Burton Westcott together at the turn of the 20th century.

Wright was building a reputation that would make him famous around the world.

Westcott was a prominent industrialist, riding the wave of prosperity and prominence that made Springfield a leader in the manufacture of farm equipment.

Both men were unconventional and forward-looking thinkers, Wojcik said.

And both were intrigued with automobile design.

Wright bought his first car in 1908 and would eventually collect garages full of early Jaguars, Packards, Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benzes.

Westcott started manufacturing his own model of car in 1909 — a venture that would eventually prove his financial downfall.

Springfield was a boomtown in those days. And people who could afford it built grand houses on East High Street, the epicenter of social activity and status. As treasurer of the new American Seeding Machine Co., Westcott had the means to join that exclusive club.

In 1906, Westcott asked Wright to design a new home at the corner of East High Street and Greenmount Avenue. At the time, Burton and wife Orpha had a daughter named Jeanne and were expecting son John.

Wright’s plan for the parcel included a garage — a novelty in that era — for the Westcott family’s two autos. The garage design also included a turntable, mechanic’s pit and a small stable for the Westcott children’s ponies.

Electricity was another novelty and Wright envisioned a home that incorporated that new energy source, including a dining room table with stained glass lamps built in.

A long, horizontal roofline, as well as a terrace, urns and lily pond, gave the exterior an Asian feel. All were inspired by Wright’s 1905 trip to Japan.

Downstairs, the living, dining room and reception rooms appeared to merge into one — so typical of Prairie style houses — with much of the furniture built in.

“They feel like free-flowing spaces,” Wojcik said.

Upstairs, each of the four family members had a bedroom. Two additional bedrooms served the nanny and cook.

“There were also four bathrooms,” Wojcik said. “Obviously, a luxury at the time.”

On summer nights, the family could retreat to two sleeping porches that were adjacent to the front bedrooms.

“It was a way to keep cool with no air conditioning,” Wojcik added.

Orpha was active in the community and the home became a popular gathering place on the Springfield social scene.

“It would have been a wonderful thing to entertain in this house,” Wojcik said.

Old newspapers tell tales of parties and receptions in the house — all coming to a grand climax with daughter Jeanne’s wedding in 1918.

But after that, the Westcott fortunes soon turned sour.

Orpha died unexpectedly in 1923 of surgical complications. And Westcott took his wife’s death hard, Wojcik said.

At the same time, his car company began struggling financially.

Westcott poured money into the car venture, eventually mortgaging his house to keep the business afloat. That was a disaster.

The car company closed in 1925 and Westcott died a year later at age 57. The bank took possession of his grand house.

The Westcott children gathered what they could from the house. Some of the Wright-designed furniture went to a local polo club, while other pieces simply disappeared.

“Many pieces ended up in a Dumpster,” Wojcik said, regretfully.

The house also fell on hard times, passing from owner to owner during the Great Depression and World War II.

Following the war, a local woman named Eva Linton acquired the house and divided it into six apartments — with an additional apartment in the garage.

“They made so many changes that it affected the structure,” Wojcik said. “It was unstable.”

Time, termites and flooding also took their toll.

In 2000, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy acquired the unique home, then sold it to a non-profit called the Westcott House Foundation. An extensive renovation began.

“Urgency was the word,” Wojcik noted.

Using drawings and photos uncovered at Wright’s archive in Arizona, local contractors and craftsmen brought the house back to its original glory. By 2005, structural work was complete and some of Wright’s original furniture pieces were re-created.

Based on a 1908 newspaper clipping, workers even revived the encauctic interior wall décor — a unique combination of paint and wax.

“They found it under layers and layers of paint,” Wojcik said.

A restored Westcott House opened for public tours in 2005.

Today, 65 active volunteers supplement Wojcik’s staff of two full-time and three part-time workers at the house. Local Master Gardeners tend the gardens in warm months.

It’s just one of several unique buildings in west central Ohio, Wojcik said.

“There’s so much interesting architecture in the Dayton, Springfield and Yellow Springs area,” she noted.

Westcott House may well be the most interesting.

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Westcott House is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays.

During the busy season, as many as six volunteer-led tours take place on open days. Visit westcotthouse.org for specific tour times and other details.

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