Following the David and Gladys Wright Home preservation debacle
in Phoenix, it’s refreshing to catch wind of a non-frantic
sale involving a rare Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residence where the dreaded “D” word — demolition
— doesn’t even begin to enter the picture. The on-the-market property in question, the Gerald B. Tonkens House, was prematurely listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1991 at the age of 35. This protects it — but doesn’t grant it complete immunity from — the wrecking ball.
Completed in 1955 in the woodsy Cincinnati suburb of Amberley Village, the Tonkens House
is somewhat of a rare bird in the world of FLW real estate in that it has enjoyed ownership by the same family for the past 57 years. It’s also somewhat of a rarity in design as one of only seven known Usonian Automatic homes built. While scores of simple and modestly sized Usonian-style homes
are scattered across the country, Usonian Automatic structures can be distinguished by their inexpensive, custom-patterned modular concrete block construction. Usonian homes were conceived after the Great Depression by Wright to appeal to middle-class families; he hoped to drive down their cost even further by later introducing DIY-friendly Usonian Automatics. Instead of going the self-construction route, most homeowners opted to hire outside help.
And then there’s the matter of the the Tonkens House's exceptionally pristine, “best-of-breed” condition:
“I consider the Tonkens House to be one of the premiere Usonian Automatic houses,” Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy president David Woodin tells the Cincinnati Enquirer
. “They’ve kept it in outstanding condition.”
Beverly Tonkens, a fierce-looking
lady of a certain age, has happily lived in the “way, way, way loved on” (to quote listing agent Lori Wellinghoff of Comey & Shepherd Realtors) home at 6980 Knoll Rd. for 43 of its 57 years. Her late husband, car dealer Gerald Tonkens, commissioned Wright to design the structure as a family home for his first wife and two daughters in 1953. Wright’s grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright, served as the contractor and even moved to Cincinnati for 18 months to oversee the project. Beverly Tonkens, who came into the picture in the early 1970s after her soon-to-be-husband seperated from his first wife, continued to live in the home after Gerald died in 1990 with her second husband Sherman Vangrov. Keeping it in the family indeed.
Earlier this year, Tonkens put the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on the market
for $1,788,000, an asking price that includes the tranquil 4-acre lot and a one-bedroom guest cottage. The home’s original Wright-designed furniture manufactured by Henredon is going for an additional $70,000 according to the Enquirer. Also included in the sale is "every other imaginable form of records, documentation and ephemera" relating to the home including correspondence between Gerald Tonkens and Wright. Other features of the 2,500-square-foot stunner include Philippine mahogany paneling, bedroom wing ceilings gilded in 18K gold-leaf, attached carport, and a private study. Sections of the home were carefully renovated following damage left behind by a 2001 storm.
With the “heartbreaking, very, very emotional” sale of the house, Beverly Tonkens is no doubt leaving behind decades of fond memories. In a great piece for the Enquirer, she recounts
living in a home that, true to Wright’s vision of organic architecture, seamlessly blends into its natural environment. “(Wright) was really thinking about space when he built this house, about bringing the outside inside,” she says.
Well, bringing in the outside inside to a certain extent. Remarking on the fact that the home has no attic, Tonkens echoes Wright’s frills-free Usonia design philosophy by noting that “they’re for raccoons.” As for the lack of a basement? “Basements are damp and they’re for moles. People store things there and never use them.” And then there’s the no-garage situation as Wright was a huge proponent of carports and is believed to have coined the term in the mid-1930s with the creation of his first Usonian House. “He didn’t believe in garages, because ‘cars don’t need to keep warm — people do,’” Tonkens tells the Enquirer. “If he could see a mega-mansion of today, he’d think it’s such a waste.”
Beverly Tonkens also remembers the numerous bold-face names that have visited the home over the years. Walter Cronkite along with John Glenn and Neil Armstrong attended a “Cronkite Day” party thrown by the Tonkenses in 1973 while Martha Stewart visited the home more recently. And while Wright himself never stepped foot inside the home, his third wife Olgivanna did so in 1971. Says Beverly of that visit: “She looked around and said ‘I feel Frank’s presence here. This is just what he would have wanted and loved. You’ve done everything possible to enhance the beauty.’”
As for the home’s sale, David Woodin notes that “from the Conservancy’s perspective, it deserves to have a sensitive, preservation-oriented buyer.” And then there’s Beverly Tonkens. She just wants “someone to buy the house who will love it as much as I have.”
The last Usonian Automatic house to hit the market
was last year in Seattle. That home, the Tracy House, was sold by its original owners for $935,000, about $224,000 under the initial asking price. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy maintains a database
of all Wright-designed properties that are currently for sale. There's even a gas station on the list.
More on Beverly Tonkens' memories and other historical tidbits over at Cincinnati Enquirer. You can view the official listing for the Gerald B. Tonkens House here
. Tonkens' stepson, the photographer Barry Vangrov, also has gorgeous imagery of the home over at his professional website