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COUNTY AGENT GUY

By Staff | Nov 5, 2010

We were driving toward Illinois with my wife at the wheel, which is how we ended up in Quasqueton.

Quasqueton, located in eastern Iowa, is a small town that sits astride the Wapsipinicon River. These names were obviously bestowed early in Iowa’s history, a time when people believed that the supply of vowels and consonants was infinite.

Sadly, this proved to be untrue, which is why some Iowa towns received such names as Burt and Milo.

A roadside sign prompted my wife to pull over at Quasqueton. The placard mentioned Cedar Rock, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

My wife impulsively stated that it might be fun to tour the house and I agreed. That’s the sort of wild and crazy people we are.

We went to the visitor center and learned that they would be conducting the next tour within minutes. There’s no better luck than dumb luck.

A nice young man named Joey seated us on an open flatbed and pulled us out to the Cedar Rock house with a John Deere tractor. Arriving at the house, he shut off the diesel tractor and donned a pair of white cotton gloves, the kind worn by museum docents when handling delicate artifacts. I saw nothing particularly delicate about the sprawling single-story brick structure.

Joey gave a short talk before we entered the house.

He explained that its original owners, Lowell and Agnes Walter, commissioned Wright to design their home in 1945. Wright drew up plans for an 1,800-square-foot abode in a style he had dubbed Usonian. The Usonian moniker supposedly implied that anyone in the U.S. could own one. Some were built for as little as $5,000.

The Walters were told that their Usonian home would cost between $20,000 and $50,000. But when finally completed in 1950, its price tag had ballooned to $150,000! Which proves that the government doesn’t have a monopoly on the phrase “behind schedule and over budget.”

The Walters were able to easily absorb the cost overruns. Lowell had made millions in the road construction business by inventing a bituminous oil process for paving roads. Strange, that such an icky base product would lead to a structure of such grace and beauty.

Some of the soaring costs were due to the fact that the house is situated on a limestone bluff. Site preparation so problematical that dynamite had to be used just to excavate holes for planted trees.

But what a site! On one side the house has a commanding view of the Wapsipinicon; on the other is a whispering forest, which, like every detail of the home, was planned by Wright.

Agnes Walter stood five feet, three inches tall, and Wright used this as a scale for their home. The cement floor tiles (which hide the radiant heating system) are five-foot-three wide, as are the windows. Everything was built so that it would be an easy reach for Agnes.

Lowell was by no means left out. A few rods downhill from the house, perched on the limestone bank of the Wapsipinicon, is a boathouse that became Lowell’s domain.

These days, such a thing would be called a smokehouse: a place where a guy can fire up a stinky stogy, scratch himself and emit manly bodily noises without having to say “excuse me.”

But what a smokehouse! It’s essentially a miniature version of the main house, with a boat ramp underneath. The river rolls lazily past the verandah; it would be impossible to resist the temptation to stretch out on a chaise with a fishing rod in one hand and a cold beer in the other.

Yep, the Walters had a pretty swell little shack. But it came with a price in the form of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As Joey explained, the Walters moved in with only their clothes; Wright insisted that he design all the furniture that went into “his” house. Wright even demanded veto authority regarding housewarming gifts!

And it didn’t end after construction ended. Wright often kept a set of keys to “his” houses and might drop in for an unannounced inspection. He would throw a fit if the homeowner had done something that didn’t match the scheme of “his” house. Wright was both a genius and The Architect From Hell.

One day, Agnes was watering her houseplants when Wright suddenly strode into Cedar Rock. He glanced around the room and announced, “When you’re finished, Agnes, the vase belongs here.” Wright then moved said vase six inches from the spot where she had left it.

Cedar Rock is an awfully nice home, but I don’t think I would want to live there. Because I’m a slob and it could be that Wright is like a weed: you never know when he might pop up again.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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