Family ties spawn modern magic


Tim Hossler

The Zimmerman House, built in 1955, is a thoroughly modern house of a kind not otherwise found in Lawrence. Strongly influenced by Japanese architecture and to a lesser extent by European modernism, it presented a strikingly different house than most people in Lawrence had ever experienced. It was so different that it bewildered, even offended, which paralleled an emotional reaction many people had to modern, non-representational paintings of a Picasso, Juan Miro, or Mark Rothko. Like these paintings that didn’t look like art to many people, the Zimmerman house didn’t look like a house to many people. It was shocking, a response to modernism scholars later described as the “shock of the new.”

As an architecture and engineering student at KU in the 1940s, Warren C. Heylman was steeped in modern architecture. He personally experienced Japanese architecture during his service in the U.S. Navy after World War II and in the Korean War. He also knew how much Japanese architecture had influenced Frank Lloyd Wright who had visited the KU campus while Heylman was a student. Shortly after Heylman began his practice in Spokane, Washington, in the 1950s, he married into the Zimmerman family of Lawrence. Lee Zimmerman was a very successful businessman who founded the Zimmerman Steel Company and in that business he was persuaded by the value and economy of industrialized building principles. Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman owned a house lot in a new subdivision south of 23rd Street, and they were ready for the new architectural ideas and building practices that Heylman championed and that Kenny Frank, an important Lawrence contractor, could build. The Zimmerman House was one of Heylman’s earliest projects in a long, nationally prominent architectural practice, which he still leads today in Spokane, Washington, at 94.

What made the Zimmerman House so modern and shocking at the time? To the viewer, it did not have the traditional exterior ornamentation of a commonly known house style that hid the structural system. It had no gables. Instead, to the dismay of many people, the architect employed an umbrella structural system as the ornamentation, which carried a nearly flat roof on a two-story house, divided the house into four sections, expressed how the modular interior was laid out, and provided the umbrella infrastructure for both the unorthodox fenestration on the exterior, and the walls, doors, and hanging stairs on the interior. On the inside, the space flowed freely with as few walls as possible. Light poured into the interior from large windows, especially the north, two-story window wall. Building materials and the details of construction were celebrated in the interior and exterior design. All these features were highly unusual. They made the house shocking and they made it modern. In Lawrence architecture, these features and their integrity also make the Zimmerman House a uniquely historic residential property, along with the rich story of its owners and architect.

We are very excited to announce that Helyman, FAIA, and Lee Zimmerman, the original owner, are scheduled to attend our event on April 14 and share their stories of this remarkable house, which is now listed on the Lawrence Historic Register. The Open House will be from 3-5 p.m. with presentations starting at 4 p.m. Guests are encouraged to bring a dish to share.

This is an event you do not want to miss!!

-Tom, Dennis, Tim & Bill


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