“Do I really want to live in a work of art?,” Ellen Johnson asked herself as she considered whether or not to buy the house at 534 Morgan Street in Oberlin, Ohio in 1968. “Won’t that be too demanding? Every little thing in the building is so determined and so perfect, how can I be myself in it? How can I live my own life, adding its normal traces to an absolutely complete and beautiful work of art?”
As she recalled in Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson, the Oberlin College art history instructor realized soon after she bought it that she was very lucky to live in this house that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1947 and completed in 1949. She discovered it was an easy, comfortable, even consoling house to live in. “It is the most serene of any Wright house I’ve been in,” Johnson said. “One feels rested just being in it.”
Visit this unique place and you’ll see what she meant.
Charles Weltzheimer, a Cleveland businessman who had acquired a business in Wellington and wanted to move his family to nearby Oberlin, commissioned Wright to build the home, but with some special requests. His wife wanted plenty of bookshelves; their 13-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, wrote Wright that her dream room was small and compact.
Wright got to work, designing his first Usonian home in Ohio without ever visiting the site. Using four basic elements –- concrete, brick, glass and wood — Wright sought to create a home that was affordable both to build and to maintain. He employed an L-shaped floor plan, with the public entrance, living and dining spaces in the short part of the L and four private bedrooms, two bathrooms and a long, narrow hallway lined with bookshelves and closets with wide bifold doors in the long part of the L. He also eliminated a basement and an attic, and replaced a garage with a carport.
He sited the house on a long, narrow lot, far back from the street. To ensure privacy, he called for a row of evergreen trees to be planted on each side of the house, as well as on the part of the lot nearest Morgan Street. He also planned to establish a small orchard with several varieties of fruit trees.
The exterior and interior of the house feature a continuous stretch of horizontal redwood boards topped by narrow clerestory windows with decorative curvilinear cutouts.
Hundreds of stained wooden spheres ornament the underhang of the roof.
The living room has four sets of them, alternating with plain windows of the same size.
Enter through the front door, which is really at the back of the house, and step inside.
as well as on Johnson’s original sofas and chairs, and survey the space.
Several open shelves in the living room present displays pieces of the china that Wright designed for the Imperial Hotel in Japan, as well as shells, coral, pebbles, and other artifacts that Johnson brought back from summer snorkeling trips to the Caribbean, Greece and the Great Barrier Reef.
A series of floor-to-ceiling brick pillars separates the kitchen from the living room, yet keeps the space open enough so that the hostess could still interact with her guests while in the kitchen. Many of Johnson’s appliances from the 1970s are still there.
Since Wright was experimenting with solar heat at the time he designed the house, he sited the building to take advantage of the sun’s position in different seasons. In the southwest-facing living room, the sun is kept at bay in the summer, keeping the room cool, but in the winter, it streams all the way across the room and into the kitchen, creating a naturally warm environment. He called for the concrete floors to be painted dark red so they would absorb the sunlight, then installed hot water pipes in them for radiant heat.
Johnson described the home’s ceilings as “such a joy to look up at on waking: the boards and battens are unchanged in width throughout the building, but their length is varied so that there is a different ceiling design in each room.”
The master bath is still fitted with its original pink fixtures, now displayed with period advertisements for them. The uniquely shaped tub had been removed in 1968, but was found in a farmer’s field and returned. Johnson added Formica cabinets and brown tile.
The master bedroom features its original bed, designed to be moveable. The Weltzheimers selected and installed patterned hearth bricks, much to Wright’s dismay.
Sixteen-year-old Harry Weltzheimer’s bedroom originally had bunk beds, a built-in chest and closet, and an additional set of French doors. Johnson used the room as a study. Six-year-old Gretchen Weltzheimer’s bedroom remains largely as it was originally designed.
The Long Gallery (Wright’s term for the home’s hall) features Mrs. Weltzheimer’s requested bookshelves. Johnson found that they were an ideal place to display her collection of small prints, drawings and paintings, as well as her books.
The 46’ long, 4’ wide gallery dead-ends at Mary Ann’s bedroom, an enchanting place with a unique mitered glass corner window and two sets of French doors, one looking across the lawn to the orchard and the other opening out and into a spruce tree. There are two other mitred glass corners in the house: one in the third bedroom and the other in the clerestory, just before entering the gallery.
In 1963, the Weltzheimers sold the property to a real estate developer who sold off portions of the original three-acre lot and made substantial changes to the house’s structure and interior design to make it more attractive to potential buyers. After Johnson bought the property, she worked hard to restore the house to its original appearance, scrubbing off the whitewash on the brick fireplace and interior walls, refinishing the woodwork, and scraping off dirt and stains from the red-painted floors.
Johnson’s efforts paid off. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable remarked that it was one of the most beautiful spaces she had ever seen.
After the 81-year-old Johnson died in 1992, the property was given to Oberlin College to serve as a guest house and a location for musical recitals and other special events.
The Weltzheimer/Johnson House is managed by the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin University. Public open houses are held between 12:00 and 5:00 pm on the first Sunday of each month from April through November. Presentations on the architecture and history of the house begin on the hour. Admission is $5 for adults and free for college students and children under 18. Advance registration is not required, except for groups of 10 or more.
For more on the Welzheimer-Johnson House, see Frank Lloyd Wright at Oberlin: The Story of the Welzheimer/Johnson House, Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, volume 49, number 1 (1995); “Frank Lloyd Wright Design in Oberlin Doubles As Showplace and Residence,” from the September 12, 2010 issue of The Columbus Dispatch; and Wright in Ohio, with photographs by Thomas R. Schiff.
To read Johnson’s work, check out Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes and American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980, as well as books she wrote about artists Paul Cezanne, Edvard Munch, and her friends, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.