Frank Lloyd Wright died at age 91. An earlier version of this story listed the age incorrectly.
A scandalous affair and a shocking mass murder may have played a part in Frank Lloyd Wright’s decision in 1928 to design a home in Tulsa for his cousin.
Westhope, a distinctive concrete block and glass home at 3704 S. Birmingham Ave., was built for the family of Richard Lloyd Jones, publisher of The Tulsa Tribune.
America’s pre-eminent architect, Wright had scandalized Chicago society in 1909 by leaving his wife and six children and running away with the wife of a client. Five years later, Wright’s mistress and six others were savagely murdered by a crazed hatchet-wielding servant.
Wright was out of town when, on Aug. 15, 1914, cook Julian Carlton killed Mamah Borthwick Cheney, her two children and four others. Carlton also set fire to Taliesin, the Wisconsin home Wright had built for his mistress. Carlton’s motive remains a mystery, as he drank poison and died in jail seven weeks later without explaining his actions.
Beset by grief, lawsuits, a disastrous second marriage and the public’s changing taste in design, Wright may have needed the Tulsa job. However, he immediately locked horns with his cousin.
Jones wanted a home in the architect’s signature Prairie style. But what he got was a futuristic house built of formed concrete blocks stacked into pillars, interspersed with vertical glass panels.
'A pickle factory'
The home was built on a knoll, then located outside the city limits. The original budget of $40,000 ballooned to $100,000 for the 8,443-square-foot home.
During construction, neighbors were increasingly baffled by the house and wanted to know what it was, according to “Frank Lloyd Wright,” a biography by Meryle Secrest.
“A pickle factory,” Jones replied. He was then asked, “Do they have to build them like this?”
Wright was proud of his design, though, reportedly saying during one visit, “The damn thing is even more beautiful than I had imagined.”
The flat roof began to leak as soon as Jones, his wife Georgia and their three children moved into Westhope in 1931. Furious, Jones made a long-distance call to his cousin.
“Dammit, Frank. It’s leaking on my desk!” Jones said.
“Richard, why don’t you move your desk?” Wright replied calmly. (The desk was built-in.) Mrs. Jones was more philosophical.
“This is what we get for leaving a work of art out in the rain,” Georgia Jones said.
Despite such problems, the Jones family grew to enjoy their unusual home.
“This Tulsa home has proved the practical reasoning behind Wright’s ideas,” wrote Gretchen Haralson in a 1955 Tribune article. “The Joneses have no fire hazard in this concrete home. There is no expensive millwork. The clerestory lighting brings the moon in and sunlight is there all year without glare. Rooms melt into each other.”
After Jones’ death in 1963, his family sold the home to architect M. Murray McCune, who succeeded in having the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. He also updated the kitchen and installed air conditioning, concealing the vents with grills made using Wright’s original patterns.
A 1991 story said the house contained five bedrooms, 4½ baths, five fireplaces and a five-car garage. There is a lap pool, cabana, fountain, fish pond and two original Wright-designed light fixtures.
The home has its quirks, Mona Shoup wrote in a 1990 World story. Such as the front door, which blends into the glass panels so seamlessly that visitors can’t find it.
“That’s a Frank Lloyd Wright signature,” said then-owner Dwight Holden, who lived there with his wife, Sandra, and two daughters. “He likes to have some mystery about the doors.”
The home has changed hands several times over the years, but at least one object remains: a 7,000-pound petrified rock.
Recessed lighting radiates from concrete columns, each of which has its own light switch. Holden said the living room alone has 57 lights, making changing bulbs a weekly chore. Turning out all the lights at night is comparable to putting a 5-year-old to bed, he said.
There are few places to hang a picture, and anyway you would need a concrete drill, Holden said. Plumbing and electrical repairs must be done by workers accustomed to the house’s eccentricities.
Barbara Tyson, a member of the family that founded Tyson Foods Inc. in Springdale, Ark., currently owns the property, which is valued at about $1.3 million by the Tulsa County assessor.
And what of the architect? Wright found happiness again with his third wife and rebuilt his reputation, culminating with one of his most significant achievements, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened in 1959 six months after his death at 91.