Year Built: 1951
Architect: George M. Beal
Builder: Robert M. Still
(present-day gigapan image)
Original owners: George and Helen Beal
Current ranking: 1 (view details)
Easily passed by without notice, this small wooden house is a study in form follows function modern architecture. Designed by Prof. George Beal, chair of KU’s architecture department for many years, the 1,216 sq. ft. dwelling was inspired by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian concepts and shares many of its same features — L-shaped plan, “sandwich” wall support system, carport instead of garage, radiant heating — down to the Cherokee red finish on the concrete slab floor. But this is no photocopied design. Beal studied with Wright in the 1930s, absorbed many of his ideas about organic architecture, and maintained a friendship with him that lasted for decades.
One of the many striking aspects of the Beal house is its orientation. Like many of Wright’s Usonian houses, it turns a mostly blank wall to the street, but instead of completely turning its back it presents a side profile of its sharply raked roof and projecting eaves. Beal invented an instrument known as the heliodon that records the pattern of sunlight and shadows on architectural models and used it to position the house for maximum active/passive solar heating. While the large overhangs shade the house in summer, southern facing glass collects the sun’s rays in winter, which the central free-standing chimney mass absorbs, and releases its energy into the house at night. In a 1979 interview with the KU Alumni magazine, Beal recalled many winter days when “the boiler was never switched on — the sun was heating the house.”
Beal’s focus on the sun has psychological and aesthetic effects, too. The house’s expansive natural light, filtered through century old pines, is extraordinary and uplifting. It shapes an interior that is a paragon of expressive materials and well-integrated structural systems. Gorgeous pine and redwood board and batten walls, exposed roof beams, and multifaceted brick masonry combine to create living spaces that radiate natural beauty and power. Well-designed built-ins save space and reduce clutter, helping the house feel larger than it is and enhancing its superb usability and livability. A high level of craftsmanship combined with the patina of age lends a nostalgic feel, as if stepping back in time.
It has been said that George and Helen Beal took thirty years to design the house and three years to build it. It served as the couple’s retirement home until 1968. Today this unique architectural specimen remains preserved in amber by the current owner, Betty Jo Charlton, with help from her son, John. The Beal House rated highest on our survey of modern homes and merits inclusion on the National and State Historic Registers as a significant example of modern architecture in Lawrence, designed by a KU architect with a direct link to Frank Lloyd Wright.