As Howard Ellington sees it, a character with the creativity and influence like Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t born every century, so the 150th birthday of the most recognized American architect is worth celebrating.
“Wright, unlike the rest of the profession, is a household name,” said Ellington, executive director and restoration architect of the Allen House, Wichita’s only Wright-designed and -built residence. “If you ask the average person on the street to name an architect, they’ll say Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Wright became wildly popular during his lifetime, in part, Ellington said, because he went beyond building shelter and offered his customers a work of art that improved the residents’ quality of life. He challenged architectural standards with new techniques and innovative solutions, from inventing the carport concept to daring to build a house hanging over a waterfall.
The American Institute of Architects named him the greatest American architect of all time, and starting in June, communities across the country are celebrating Wright, born in Wisconsin on June 8, 1867. He died in 1959, and over the course of a 70-year career, he designed on paper roughly 1,000 structures, including offices, skyscrapers, schools, museums, churches and hotels. About 500 of his designs were built; 400 remain standing, including roughly 60 that are open to the public.
There are two Wright-built structures in Kansas; both are in Wichita and both are open to the public: Allen House in College Hill and the Corbin Education Center on the Wichita State University campus. There are other known Frank Lloyd Wright designs for Kansas that were not built, however, including a second building at WSU that significantly influenced the circular design of downtown’s Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center.
Allen House is in the Prairie School design style, which emphasized horizontal lines, earth tones and a continuous blending of interiors and exteriors. It was completed in 1918 for newspaper publisher Henry Allen, who went on to become governor of Kansas and a U.S. senator, and his wife, Elsie, who was the education director for what is now Mark Arts.
The Allens lived in the house for nearly 30 years, then two other private owners lived in the house. In 1990, the museum foundation acquired the property and began to restore the home to the 1918-23 time frame. The home features more than 30 pieces of original furniture designed by Wright and a large collection of the Allens’ art and personal furnishings.
After years of appointment-only tours, Allen House began last year offering regular tours several days a week to the public. Prices are $10-$40 for tours ranging from 90 minutes to three hours. Times and dates are listed at www.flwrightwichita.org.
Allen House is having an open house from 5 to 8 p.m. on Thursday. The cost is $10 for members, $15 for nonmembers and includes refreshments, music by ICTtrio and a chance to explore the house, terrace and the garden house, which has not been open to the public until now.
Ellington will be selling and signing his new book, “Allen House in Wichita.” Only 250 tickets are available, and the event is expected to sell out. To purchase tour or event tickets, visit flwrightwichita.org or call 316-687-1027.
Corbin Education Center
Corbin Education Center is on the north edge of the WSU campus, adjacent to 21st Street. It is also in Wright’s Prairie style, and it’s easily recognizable with its 60-foot spires that light up at night, the turquoise-colored concrete and ornamental steelwork.
The building was one of Wright’s last projects; he finished the design in 1958, the year before he died, and the $1 million building was completed in 1964. It is still used for classrooms and administrative offices, and visitors are welcome to look around on their own anytime the building is open. Fridays are the best days to visit, because classrooms aren’t in use then; you can park for free in the adjacent parking lot for up to two hours.
A wall display inside the north wing of the building gives an overview of Wright’s Kansas projects, and there’s a brochure on the Corbin building available in the foyer of the dean’s office.
WSU is holding a free open house at the building from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 9 to celebrate Wright’s birthday. Employees will be on hand to talk about the building and show the remaining original interior elements, such as desks and chairs.
Ellington said many visitors to Wichita’s Wright-designed buildings are in the middle of a pilgrimage to the architect’s other sites in the region, including Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla., and the Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
Ellington said that last year, Allen House welcomed visitors from 14 countries, and already this year, guests from nine countries have visited.