A humble apprentice

BesignerCurtis Besinger, Professor of Architecture at KU from 1955-1956 and 1957-1984, was a man without pretense. He eschewed all sartorial or any other kind of extravagance in contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright for whom he worked 16 years from 1939 to 1955. Instead, Curtis drew no attention to himself, dressed modestly in browns and grays, white shirts and sometimes plaids, almost always with a tie, usually of woven cloth with no pattern and in a single color. He knew how to pass inconspicuously through the corridors of Marvin Hall in heavy traffic, like a background figure in a play, speaking respectfully to everyone in a soothing voice, stopping to view a student project when one stood out. He was always friendly, when he turned to you with what seemed like the longest “yes?” in history, but he wasted little time for small talk (he did like gossiping with trusted friends) before he sidestepped out the giant front door and touched lightly down Marvin’s stairs to Jayhawk Boulevard. A brisk walk and unassuming manner took him anonymously across the campus to and from his small, hidden house on the southeast cusp of Mt. Oread. For me, Curtis cut a figure as refined as any character Proust portrayed in A la Recherche du temps perdu. Many of his former students and colleagues would agree.

He had many students, hundreds of them, who pushed and shoved for his design studios year after year. Over his 32 years in the school he taught just about every course in the architectural curriculum—design at every level, graphics, watercolor, Japanese architecture, site planning, history, theory, professional practice—except construction, mechanical systems, and structures. Students and faculty eagerly sought his opinions on design, architectural history, Japanese architecture, and especially Frank Lloyd Wright. Among serious and not so serious students, a design studio with Curtis was considered almost a rite of passage, an experience that brought them back to KU to seek out Curtis after they graduated, when they could find him. Curtis was no slacker, an Eagle Scout, well traveled and he knew how to disappear quietly happily into his work all his life.

When Curtis graduated from KU in the middle of the Great Depression in 1936, he had won all the student prizes, including the 1934 Gertrude Goldsmith Prize, the 1935 Thayer Medal, and the 1936 A.I.A. Medal. He immediately got jobs in Kansas City with Joseph Radotinsky, Charles Keyser, and Arthur Archer. Then in 1939, at the behest of the “radical” professor George Beal, Curtis was accepted into the Taliesin Fellowship. Curtis was a perfect apprentice because didn’t mind doing the humble work that others found demeaning or meaningless, such as garden work, waiting table, dish washing, repaired and painted buildings, re-built buildings. Curtis could cook, too. He became the breakfast supervisor, and taught other apprentices how to undertake the delicate responsibility to preparing food equal the Wright family’s high expectations. Curtis was especially good at making beautiful flower arrangements for table settings, one of the most important and certain indicators to Mr. Wright that someone had a design mentality and was ready to do serious architecture work in the studio.

Many apprentices never got to the studio but Mr. Wright had other ideas for Curtis Besinger whom he recognized as a gifted architect, designer, illustrator, pianist, and cello player. Curtis eventually conducted the Taliesin Chorus and accompanied Mrs. Wright’s dancers but he worked in the studio whenever there was enough work to do. Jack Howe was the main project manager for much of Mr. Wright’s work at that time, which meant that Howe was in charge of doing preliminary sketches, preliminary design drawings, presentation drawings, working drawings, and models. By 1940, less than one year after Curtis joined the Fellowship, he was assisting Howe in all of these creative activities. Howe usually did plans and elevations, and Besigner made the large-scale sections and details of construction, according to Besinger’s CV, which he corrected before his death. After a three-year interruption as a Conscientious Objector from 1943-1946, Curtis returned to Taliesin and was named a Senior Apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright until 1955. In that role, he worked carefully with Howe and Wesley Peters on residences, churches, hotel resorts, retail stores, museum exhibitions, apartments, and synagogues. Most notably perhaps, Besinger helped Howe make three sets of working drawings for the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and did preliminary drawings and working drawings for the V.C. Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco.

Clockwise from the top: Besinger (left) with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West (photo by Robert Carroll May); Besinger’s Tom MacNider House (1959), Mason City, Iowa. (Photos by Elizabeth Dunbar)

After Besinger returned to Lawrence for good in 1957, he had a modest practice while he taught full time at KU. He did houses, mostly, but also exhibitions, pavilions, interiors, and historic preservation work. During the summers from 1956 to 1981, he practiced architecture with Fredric Benedict in Aspen, Colorado, and designed the master plan for the Aspen Campus along with its multi-purpose building, classroom building, and the practice room quadrangle. During that practice, Besinger also worked with Herbert Bayer on the Central Building, Aspen Meadows, as well as presentation drawings for Bayer’s design for the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. In addition to teaching and his architectural practice, Besinger was a prolific writer who published more than 85 articles and designs in House Beautiful between 1957 and 1964 on design, as well as articles for in The Prairie School Review, The Prairie School of Iowa, and The Kansas City Star.

Curtis and I had small town Midwestern lives in common, and we worked together in the School of Architecture at KU from 1976 to his death in 1999. But I was 30 years younger and always considered him a mentor and friend who I frequently visited at his home in Lawrence and Aspen. We got to know each other well in our travels together to Taliesin West and Washington, D.C. He took special interest in my study of vernacular architecture and American architecture that initially focused on Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence on German architects during the early 20th Century. In the quiet background of my life and the lives of many of Curtis’s students, he counts as one of the most admirable and significant people in my architectural life. For me, Curtis is a warm, easy memory.

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Here is Curtis Besinger directing the Taliesin Chorus. Sitting up front in white overalls is Wesley Peters and right behind him is Jack Howe with whom Curtis worked at Taliesin. (Taken from The Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman, p. 228.)

*Much of this information is taken from an article I wrote about Curtis Besinger in the KU Architect, Summer 1984, 3, 8, and from an unpublished interview Roger Martin and I did with Curtis, also in 1984. Find the best information on Curtis Besinger in his own book, Working With Mr. Wright: What It Was Like, that was published in 1995 by the Cambridge University Press.

—Dennis Domer


Ed. Note: Lawrence Modern is seeking photographs of Curtis Besinger’s work for a retrospective of his architecture. Please contact wsteele@ku.edu if you have any information. Thank you!

FLW-inspired time capsule delights

The Beal House's park-like backyard

The Beal House’s park-like backyard

Oh yeah. It was the mod gathering to top all mod gatherings. The Beal/Charlton House event on the 18th was fantastic, probably the best attended and most satisfying that Lawrence Modern has ever done. Somewhere up there Frank Lloyd Wright was smiling. George Beal was smiling. Robert Still, the builder, was doing cartwheels. Down here, the Lawrence Modern faithful were in ecstasy. Could the weather have been any better, the backyard any more perfect? Nope. For those of you who missed it — or want to revisit — check out the video.

Dennis, Bill, Tom & Tim

***NEWS FLASH!!!*** On January 12, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to put The Beal House on the Local Historic Register, and two days later, Lawrence Modern learned that the Beal House was added to the National Historic Register! Congratulations to John Charlton and special thanks to the Lawrence community for supporting this worthwhile effort.

Profs Steve Grabow and Dennis Domer on the architectural significance

KU Professor of Architecture Steve Grabow explains the significance of the Beal House, built in 1951 next to the KU campus. Dennis Domer is to his right.

Prof. Dennis Domer on the microphone

Prof. Dennis Domer on the microphone

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A lively scene inside, with owner/caretaker John Charlton at center

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Historic modernism on view Oct. 18

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Jennifer Steele

Designed in 1950 by KU architecture professor George Beal, the unassuming wooden house at 1624 Indiana — the location of our next event — is an outstanding example of Usonian architecture, a term coined by Frank Lloyd Wright to describe his vision for an organic architecture suited to the United States. Prof. Beal was a Taliesin Fellow and a good friend of Wright, and often hosted him when he passed through Lawrence. He admired Wright’s Usonian ideas and at 1624 Indiana made a significant advancement on Wright’s organic concept by introducing passive-solar design. He accomplished this by inventing a device called the Heliodon to precisely orient the house for maximum heating and cooling. This was long before the LEED rating system for green buildings came into existence.

Lawrence Modern has had its eye on the Beal House since our inception in 2001. When we surveyed 35 + homes in 2009-10, we all agreed that 1624 Indiana was the most important house on our “Bakers Dozen” list. The design, craftsmanship and spatial qualities are simply remarkable. The fact that it retains such high architectural integrity is largely due to former owner Betty Jo Charlton, the first female state legislator from Lawrence. We are also indebted to her son John, the current owner who is equally invested in preserving the home. With the help of Lawrence Modern, John recently applied to get the house on the National and State Historic Registers. He will submit an application for the Local Historic Register later this year.

John has graciously welcomed us for this special gathering. We are also honored to have KU professors Stephen Grabow and Dennis Domer, who knew Beal personally, expound on the house’s significance.

There will be a light potluck, so please bring something simple & delicious to share with modern friends.

Parking will be readily available west of the house in the KU parking lot.

To learn more about the Beal/Charlton house, read on here.

Dennis, Bill, Tim & Tom

Modern fans bask on butterfly roof

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“I loved the light and the trees,” said Elaine Blank in response to the question of what she enjoyed the most of her 60 plus years in the house at 2133 Owens Lane. In 1951 Elaine and her husband, local photographer Robert Blank, purchased plans from House Beautiful magazine. Their desire to live in something new and adventurous led them to build this unique butterfly roofed structure. They moved into the completed home in 1953. Last Sunday (June 7) the new owners of the Blank House, KU philosophy professor Dale Dorsey and family, hosted a Lawrence Modern open house reception. After an introduction to the history of the house by Tom Harper, the 75 attendees were treated to an eloquent soliloquy by our resident architecture historian and modernist guru Dennis Domer. Dennis described the 1950’s context that pushed young couples like the Blanks to seek out modernist design. The country was optimistic about the future and the future was all about the new. Dennis reminisced about his own father’s attempt to modernize their home by installing the same type of mahogany paneling as in the Blank House. The paneling in the Blank House is indeed gorgeous, but the question on the minds of most in attendance concerned the roof and its drainage (especially due to our abundance of recent rains). Dale explained that the roof drained into a large center drain that carried the water off the property. A system that many seemed to question, but Dale said it has continued to work successfully. As visitors walked through the house admiring the architecture, observing the light and the views to the exterior trees, Mrs. Blank, our guest of honor, stood in the kitchen and remarked how beautiful the house looked. Although she came mostly to see the wood floors that had been covered with carpet since the mid 1950s, she left with high praise for how the new owners have preserved the house that had been such a part of her life.

Lawrence Modern would like to thank Dale Dorsey and his family for opening up their home and letting our members experience this wonderful example of mid-century modernist architecture.

-Tim

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DIY modernism June 7th

Lawrence Modern event poster

Design: Aimee Wray

Back in the days before Eisenhower was president, Bob and Elaine Blank were a typical young couple driving around Lawrence looking for a place to build their dream house when they found a barren-looking lot south of the KU campus for $2,000. At the time, Blank was a professional photographer who admired the architectural photography featured in House Beautiful magazine, which highlighted the seductive appeal of southern California modernism. After seeing plans for a modern house with a butterfly roof advertised in the magazine, they decided to go for it and build such a house themselves to save money. Blank purchased the plans in 1951 for $100, plus postage, and got to work.

After adding a basement and more windows to the original design, they completed the house with the help of Blank’s father-in-law and local contractors. Later on they added a covered breezeway and a double carport, punctuating the laid-back California contemporary feel of the property. The Blanks made all the right moves with their DIY project, including hiring a young modernist architect named Dick Peters to design their renovations, resulting in one of the most distinctive modern houses in Lawrence. The house is on our Baker’s Dozen list of top midcentury houses in the city. The Blanks lived in the house until Bob passed away a couple of years ago at age 83. We are fortunate that the new owners respect the integrity of the house and wish to share it with us. We look forward to seeing you June 7th.

PS: Please do not park on Owens Lane. It is a cul-de-sac and difficult to navigate with parked cars. Please park on 21st and Alabama.

-Tom, Bill, Dennis & Tim

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