Cerf House catches mod fan wave

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Tom Harper addresses the Lawrence Modern group at the “Cerf House” residence of Mark & Marsha Buhler, June 25.

“Wouldn’t we all like to live here?” asked KU professor of architecture Steve Grabow to a Woodstock-like sea of people attending the Cerf House gathering June 25th. The response was affirmative, and predictable. Who wouldn’t? The Cerf House is the equivalent of a juicy steak, full of mouth-watering appeal on just about any level of midcentury modern fetishism one can imagine: exceptional site, uplifting living spaces, superb material quality, dramatic entry, inside-outside integration that isn’t just a cliché, etc. etc. Perhaps most appealingly, the house possesses that enigmatic 50s coolness—how else to describe it? Julius Schulman did a masterful job of expressing it in photographs. But to truly feel and appreciate it one must experience it for real, which is the raison d’être of Lawrence ModernThanks to all who made this event such a success and many thanks to our gracious hosts, Mark and Marsha Buhler, who have done a beautiful job of maintaining this classic of midcentury American modern architecture.

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Dennis Domer addresses the crowd

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Backyard pool

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Living room

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Tom’s Ford Galaxie in the driveway

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Steve Grabow

’50s optimism on display June 25th

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Design: Tim Hossler

When we talk about midcentury modern we’re really talking about the 1950s, the sweet spot for modernism in America. And modern architecture in the ’50s, like American cinema in the ’70s, was an unusually fervent period of rules-breaking and risk-taking that we continue to obsess over. Which brings us to the Cerf House. Built in 1958 at the cost of $80,000—enough to buy a fleet of Cadillacs at the time—the house practically defies gravity. As extravagant as it is, however, like many other great examples of modern architecture from that era it’s not flashy or insecure. Its beauty lies within, built upon sound engineering and design principles that have kept it fresh for nearly 60 years. We are grateful to current owners Mark & Marsha Buhler for graciously allowing us to tour their outstanding home and talk about the interesting lives of the people who created it. To learn more about the Cerf House, check out our Baker’s Dozen write-up here.

Some people have inquired how to join Lawrence Modern and participate in our gatherings. It’s quite simple: show interest in midcentury and/or modern architecture. There are no dues or fees. Simply show up and enjoy.

See you on the 25th!

Tom, Bill, Dennis & Tim

 

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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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

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