Frankfort home is all that’s Wright in Kentucky

FRANKFORT —Frank Lloyd Wright was hired in 1910 to design a Frankfort home for a Presbyterian minister he met during a trip to Europe. But it would be nearly four decades before the architect would visit his creation.

Wright was speaking in Louisville and Lexington, and he asked to be taken by the house. When the man who then lived there answered the door, the story goes, Wright walked in as if he owned the place.

During the visit, the man asked Wright, then 80, what he had in mind when he designed the display case around the top of the living room fireplace. It is the only one like it in any of the hundreds of homes Wright designed.

After a few moments, Wright replied that he couldn’t remember what he was thinking at the time, “But I’m sure it was very advanced.”

Ed Stodola, who has owned the Rev. Jesse Zeigler house at 509 Shelby Street for nine years, smiles when he tells the story. Wright was almost as famous for his outsize ego as for his innovative architecture, so Stodola thinks the story of that 1948 visit just might be true.

One thing is for sure: Of the more than 1,000 structures Wright designed during his 70-year career as perhaps America’s greatest architect, only one was built in Kentucky.

Wright is getting a lot of attention this year, the 50th anniversary his death in 1959 at age 91. It also is the 50th anniversary of Wright’s last great building, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The art museum on Fifth Avenue marked the occasion with a retrospective of Wright’s work.

Wright is best known for his “prairie” style buildings that blend into the natural landscape. His most famous creations might be the Guggenheim and Fallingwater, a house built over a waterfall in rural Pennsylvania.

Wright’s ideas about architecture had a profound influence on 20th-century home design, from the bungalows of the 1920s to the ranch-style homes of the 1950s. He pioneered and popularized open floor plans, built-in cabinets and carports. He experimented with pre-fabrication and even designed furniture and fixtures for his houses.

Stodola and his wife, Sue, are Wisconsin natives who were taught in school about native son Frank Lloyd Wright the way Kentucky children are taught about Abraham Lincoln.

Stodola, a psychologist, was living in Lexington in 2001 but doing most of his work in Frankfort. He vowed he would move to Frankfort if the Zeigler house ever came up for sale. Driving by one day, he noticed a “for sale” sign in the yard. He soon bought the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The four-bedroom Zeigler house, which like most Wright houses is of modest size and distinguished by strong horizontal lines, was built by a Frankfort contractor. The leaded-glass windows and Roman brick on the fireplace came from Wright’s studio in Chicago, Stodola said.

Zeigler, who had a wife and three children, economized in a few places: the upstairs floors are heart pine, rather than oak, and plain glass was used in rear, upstairs windows.

All but one room open to an outside terrace or deck. That and the windows help accomplish Wright’s goal of “organic” architecture that visually brings the outside environment inside.

There are many small design touches, such as the pink dogwood blooms painted on the shades of wall-mounted light fixtures in the master bedroom, echoing the pink dogwood tree that has always been in the front yard.

Although Wright’s designs are an architect’s dream, they can be a structural engineer’s nightmare. Fallingwater has been jokingly called “Fallingdown” because it has required costly repairs over the years.

Luckily for the Stodolas and the four previous owners, the Zeigler house hasn’t had many such problems. One reason could be that its roof is more steeply pitched than those of many Wright houses. It also has a basement, a rarity in a Wright house.

“This home is very livable,” Sue Stodola said. “I never feel crowded in the rooms, because they feel bigger than they really are.”

Light shines through the wavy, leaded-glass windows and reflects off the oak woodwork differently depending on the weather and season. Ed Stodola loves sitting on the back, upstairs terrace with a glass of wine during a summer rain; the drops make an interesting sound on the roof overhang.

“There’s this ongoing discovery with the house,” he said.

The Zeigler house also has another claim to fame: Woodrow Wilson slept here.

Soon after the house was built, and three years before Wilson became president, he was Zeigler’s guest while attending a National Governors Association meeting in Louisville. Wilson was then president of Princeton University and had just been elected governor of New Jersey. The two men had known each other at Princeton.

The Zeigler house has had a state historical marker out front for many years. The Stodolas added a small “private home” sign after more than a few curious sightseers knocked on their door or looked in their windows, thinking the house was a museum.

One woman came to the door and explained that she was a schoolteacher visiting Wright houses as part of a cross-country trip. As it turned out, she was from Denmark, Wis., Stodola’s tiny hometown. After a few minutes of conversation, they discovered that his mother had been her fourth-grade teacher and she now taught in her old classroom.

The Stodolas have come to accept that the occasional stranger at the door is the price you pay for living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. His designs are so iconic, his influence on architecture so great, that it feels natural for some people to want to walk right in as if they owned the place.

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