Location: West Hills
Architect: George M. Beal
Builder: J.L. “Tommy” Constant
Year built: 1937
Original Owners: Mr. & Mrs. Bert Chewning
Current ranking: 7 (view details)
This tasteful, subtle modern house was designed by George Beal, chair of KU’s architecture program for many years, for a postal clerk and his growing family. Beautifully proportioned and laid out, the house has a floor plan that is a model of efficiency and functionality (see drawings). This is particularly evident in the large entry foyer, which is unusual in that it has doors leading to every room in the house. This gives the interior a special dynamism and also saves considerable space. Though nominally small, the Chewning House feels much larger as a result.
This sense of space is particularly felt in the living-dining area, which soars upward upon entry from the enclosed foyer, providing a psychological — and physical — release ala Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Wright’s Prairie School designs, the asymmetrically placed hearth is the central element around which everything else spins. Corner windows further enhance the asymmetric, dynamic feel of the interior and provide excellent natural light that enters from all different directions. Here, light and space go together to produce a warm and comfortable and open house, negating the constriction of space.
One reason the interior works so well is that Beal designed the house from the inside out, with the exterior molded to conform to the interior. This also helps explain the austere simplicity observed from the outside. But as Curtis Besinger, a longtime KU architecture professor and apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright used to say, with a smirk on his face, “It doesn’t need any frica fraca”.
Arguably the first “contemporary” house built in Lawrence, the Chewning residence was instrumental in helping establish modern architecture in Kansas. After it was completed in 1937, the house was billed as the first “all-electric” house in Lawrence. It was opened to the public for one week as a demonstration home mainly for the purpose of exhibiting futuristic electric appliances made by General Electric and plumbing and heating equipment installed by the local Kennedy Plumbing company. Seventy-five years later, while the appliances and some of the plumbing have been replaced, the architecture endures.