Touring the Laurent House in Rockford, IL: Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Little Gem'
We'll never turn down any opportunity to tour an amazing mid-century modern home. When that home also happens to be a Usonian home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright? Well, that's a no brainer: Of course we're going.
The Laurent House is a unique home for a number of reasons. First, of course, it's a Usonian home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It's also the only home FLW ever designed for a person with a disability. That unique set of requirements influenced some elements of the home, but still embraced the concepts for which the master architect is so well known.
The Laurent House also has a fantastic origin story. Kenneth Laurent was a U.S. Navy vet who served in World War II and was eventually diagnosed with a spinal tumor, the surgical removal of which left him paralyzed. He and his wife, Phyllis, therefore needed a home that could accommodate Kenneth and his wheelchair.
During this time, Phyllis Laurent happened to read an issue of House Beautiful that contained an article called, "The Love Affair of a Man and his House." The article was written by Loren Pope, who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build the now famous Pope-Leighey House.
So we have a young couple living in Illinois in the late 1940s who have decided that they want to build an economical home that also happens to be disability-friendly. Oh! And one more thing...they would love Frank Lloyd Wright to build it.
Kenneth wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright asking if the architect would take on the project. Kenneth was very upfront about the specific requirements needed for a homeowner in a wheelchair. The architect agreed, and a long-term friendship began. Frank Lloyd Wright's concept was a Usonian hemicycle with intersecting arcs. That makes the Laurent House, built from cypress wood and Chicago brick, one of just eight hemicycle homes by FLW in the world.
From 1952 to 2012, Phyllis and Kenneth Laurent lived in this home. When you visit now, it feels like the couple just stepped out for a moment and could return at any minute. Their personal effects still decorate the home, giving it a very warm and cozy feel.
Because the home was designed for someone in a wheelchair, I found myself searching for the changes that naturally had to be made. Our fantastic guide, Jerry, (who is also the head of the Laurent House Foundation) did a wonderful job of pointing them all out to us. The cupboards folded down with continuous piano hinges so that Kenneth could get close and remove items as needed. There is a gap beneath the built-in furniture so that the footrest of the wheelchair could fit below. At any point in the home, a wheelchair can turn around with ease.
Of special note are the clerestory windows. They are larger than is typical in a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home, and as you're walking around inside it may feel a little out of place. But sit down, and all of a sudden you realize exactly what the architect was doing. In a seated position, those larger windows are still completely private and give you a stunning view of nature. The home truly was designed so that from Kenneth Laurent's wheelchair-bound perspective, everything was perfect.
While the home was well ahead of its time when it comes to disability access, it is absolutely a home that anyone could live in. It's no surprise to anyone that Frank Lloyd Wright was principled and at times stubborn about doing things his way. Yet this house clearly shows that at the heart of it all, he wanted his clients to have a home that best met their needs. Kenneth Laurent loved his home for the duration of his life, grateful for the profound therapeutic effect the house had on him - the ultimate testament to its design.
It's worth noting that the home was completely restored and only opened to the public for tours in 2014. The work and effort that went into restoring this home, and ensuring its historical accuracy, is impressive.
The iconic red tile signed by Frank Lloyd Wright is a coveted honor for any home designed by the architect. The Laurents were presented the tile by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Wright even called the Laurent House his Little Gem, considering it to be one of his finest homes. We agree!
Below is a gallery with additional photos of the home. If you'd like to visit the house in person (which we definitely recommend!), there are public tours available. There are holiday tours as well as regular summer tours, but you can schedule a private tour at any time of year. We were fortunate enough to have Jerry, the Laurent House Foundation President, guiding our tour. He was incredibly knowledgeable and had a long history with the home, which you could tell straight away.
We have to admit that Rockford, Illinois was not on our radar before this experience. Clearly, that was a mistake! In addition to the Laurent House, Rockford is home to a number of attractions that architecture/design/art fans can appreciate.
Of note are the Andersen Japanese Gardens in Rockford. Although the gardens were closed for the winter, there is an onsite restaurant open year-round. The restaurant is housed in an incredible Japanese-style post and beam structure with glass windows, George Nelson bubble lamps and fantastic views over the gardens. This is a place we will certainly come back to - especially in the warmer months.
Other things to enjoy in Rockford include:
Architecture: Driving around Rockford revealed a lot of fantastic architecture. There are quite a few mid-century businesses just outside of the city, and a variety of interesting homes on Harlem Boulevard along the Rock River. On your way in or out of town, you can also stop by the Pettit Memorial Chapel in Belvidere, Illinois, which was built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907.
Accommodation: There are plenty of hotels just off I-90. We stayed at the Radisson, which was just 10 minutes from the Laurent House.
Picking: Come on, would you believe that we drove somewhere new and didn't try to buy some furniture along the way? We stopped at Hidden Treasures Mall & Antiques in Loves Park (just a few minutes from Rockford) and scored a few pieces!
We were invited for a tour of the Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, by the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. They kindly offered us a tour of the property and put us up for the night. If you're planning to visit the Laurent House, it's well worth visiting the Go Rockford website to scout out other great attractions and restaurants in the area.