While Hallelujah and Lucy got acquainted outside, Cecilia and I toured the Westcott House last Saturday with Dick Flickinger, a well-spoken, knowledgeable docent who shared interesting details of the Westcott family and the house that Wright designed for them.
Burton J. Westcott and his wife, Orpha, commissioned Wright to design a home for them in Springfield’s most desirable neighborhood of the day, on the northwest corner of East High Street and Greenmount Avenue in 1906. The home was completed in 1908.
The Westcott House’s unusual roofline, cantilevered overhangs and wide, low chimney are exterior elements that define the home’s long, low look. Instead of a walk leading to a front porch, the High Street side of the home features a terrace with a reflecting pool flanked by two large urns. The main entrance is located on Greenmount Avenue, with a double-hung iron gate protecting the door.
Inside, you enter a low, dark space below the first floor and climb up a staircase. A skylight of amber-colored art glass panels is overhead. The clerestory windows above the main entrance employ the same simple pattern of repetitive squares and still feature the original glass. Horizontal bands of casement windows provide a Japanese design element.
In the play room, Dick pointed out the sample set of Froebel Blocks, a toy designed by educator Friedrich Froebel that Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have played with as a child. He also called our attention to the original quarter sawn oak floors and the interior walls of the home, which are painted in golds, browns and greens. An encaustic finish gives them a shimmering, swirling quality.
After looking at the library and reception room, we walked out onto the terrace, where Dick recommended that we take a look at the home’s short downspouts. This unique feature fit in with Wright’s idea of how things should look, with very few vertical lines to compete with Wright’s horizontally focused design sensibilities. Back inside the living room, we admired the inglenook benches flanking the fireplace. Dick also explained how the horizontal mortar joints running along the long, thin bricks are lighter than the vertical mortar joints, encouraging the eye to travel across the space and further appreciate the look that Wright achieved.
The highlight of the dining room is the reproduction of the original dining room table and accompanying high-back chairs that Wright designed for the Westcott House. Art glass electric lamps were wired through the table.
In the kitchen, Dick pointed out an ice box that has a door to the outside, to facilitate delivery of ice. Upstairs, we wandered through the bedrooms that were used by the Westcotts and their domestic help. My favorite feature of the home was the Japanese-inspired “spiritual recesses” in the larger bedrooms. Designed to offer a contemplative spot where flowers, art or religious objects could be placed, these must have been the perfect places to spend time.
Behind the home, a garden is planted with Midwestern perennials, while a pergola topped with an intricate wooden trellis connects the main house to the carriage house.
Visitors to the Westcott House appreciate the story of the Westcott family as much as their striking home.
Born in Richmond, Indiana in 1868, Burton Westcott studied at DePauw and Swarthmore before becoming treasurer of the Hoosier Drill Company. The Westcotts moved to Springfield in 1903, when the company merged with four other businesses, became the American Seeding Machine Company, and established its headquarters there. Burton also owned the Westcott Motor Car Company, which manufactured hand-assembled touring cars from 1916 until it was sold to a syndicate in 1924. A leader of Springfield, Burton was elected as its president, or mayor, in 1921, and was a director of the Lagonda National Bank. His wife, Orpha Leffler Westcott, was also prominent in Springfield society. The Westcotts had a daughter, Jeanne, who was married at the home in 1918. Their son, John, was a student of Maria Montessori’s, at the first Montessori School in Italy. John also was a fan of short-wave radio.
Everything changed for the Westcotts in 1923, when 46-year-old Orpha suddenly died as a result of complications from a routine sinus operation. Financial pressures on the Westcott Motor Car Company led Burton to mortgage his home, but he couldn’t save either. Declining health led to his death in 1926, and all of the home’s original furnishings were dispersed. “The Westcotts had a nice life and it all crashed,” Dick observed.
In the early 1940s, the home was converted to seven apartments. This significant architectural change no longer made the home reflect Wright’s design.
The Westcott House remained an undiscovered Wright creation until the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and The Westcott House Foundation were established in 2000. The house was acquired from a private owner, and a team of preservation and restoration professionals were assembled to restore it. During a restoration project that lasted over four years, apartment-dividing walls were torn down, structural stabilizers were added, and a new custom red clay tile roof was installed. Exterior wood trim and interior wood floors were refinished, plaster was repaired, and stucco and windows were restored. The reflecting pool and art-glass skylight were also restored, and a geothermal heating and cooling system was installed.
Wright’s original drawings and landscaping plan, together with some original photographs from when the Westcotts lived in the home, were also used to guide the restoration. For example, the team noticed a decorative feature to the right of the home’s main entrance in Wright’s original drawings that the Westcotts did not build, so they decided to construct it during restoration. Its purpose isn’t clear, but Dick surmises that it’s a birdhouse, to complement the sleeping porch.
The Westcott House is now open to the public as a house museum that can be toured year-round. A short video on Frank Lloyd Wright and The Westcott House restoration process complements the tour. In the gift shop that’s located in the carriage house, you can browse decorative items inspired by the Westcott House, the Westcott Car Company, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. The shop also carries No Place Like Home: A History of Domestic Architecture in Springfield & Clark County, Ohio, a book by George H. Berkhofer (Orange Frazer Press, 2007) that I reviewed for the Summer 2008 issue of Ohioana Quarterly.
Another historic architectural landmark is down the street from the Westcott House. At 838 East High Street stands the magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque mansion of Asa Bushnell, who served as Ohio’s governor from 1896 to 1900. Another prominent Springfield resident, Bushnell was president of the company which later became known as International Harvester. Built between 1885 and 1888, the house is now the Richards, Raff, and Dunbar Funeral Home.
Dick says that another nearby example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work can be found in Dayton. The building housing the Meyers Medical Clinic, located at 5441 Far Hills Avenue, at the intersection of Far Hills Avenue and Rahn Road, dates from 1956.
For more, read Wright in Ohio, with photographs by Thomas R. Schiff.