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Rebuilding the Wright stuff

Nebraska banking couple restores one of famous architect’s “Prairie Houses” after years of neglect

In 1905, construction began on the outskirts of McCook, Neb., on a home for Harvey and Eliza Sutton. It was one of a handful of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. By all accounts, Eliza Sutton loved the home, an example of Wright’s “Prairie House” style. While Harvey Sutton, a jeweler, wrote the checks, she served as de facto general contractor, working with the brilliant yet quirky architect and associates.

Fast forward to 1992. The Sutton House, now near McCook’s downtown after decades of sprawl, has seen better days. In the 1930s there was a fire. During World War II, an urgency for housing in McCook, then home to McCook Army Air Field, saw its conversion to apartments. In the 1960s a doctor turned the Sutton Home’s open floor plan into a warren of consultation rooms. Wear and tear took its toll.

And then came Van and Jan Korell. “Jan had been looking over the fence at this house for 20 years,” says Van, chairman, president, and CEO at $254.1 million-assets AmFirst Financial Services.

Wright’s style featured low-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves, with his signature cantilevers in a horizontal theme. On the inside, windows wrap the walls of the Prairie Home—“It brings the outside into the house,” says Jan—and, in the original open floor plan, “the rooms flow right into each other.”

The home came onto the market, the Korells bought it, and then the “fun” began. Jan, daughter of a builder, had her eyes open. And Van saw how much work—and cash—would be needed to restore Wright’s original vision, while updating the plumbing and electricity. The couple, especially Jan, took on the job as a labor of love—but they also wanted to live there.

“It was in pretty poor condition and the floors were sagging dramatically,” says Van. Jacks and hydraulic lifts were brought in to fix the floors. Builders ripped out walls that didn’t go with Wright’s plan, or to allow upgrading.

Other issues came as surprises. Wright’s architecture, while often visually stunning, has a reputation for not standing up to time, and for leaking roofs, Van notes. “We didn’t know we had a roof leak, until we had water coming out of the light fixtures in the basement,” says Jan.

Jan swung her own hammer. Yet the restoration took plenty of costly expertise. Besides builders, the couple brought in specialists:  an expert from Taliesin West, a center of Wright’s philosophy, and, later, a Chicago expert on Wright restorations.

Initial work began in 1992, and major reconstruction took place from 1999-2001—with the couple living amid the mayhem and debris.

“I had a wonderful time,” says Jan, “even though I was in dust all the while. I loved it, though I can’t say Van did. He tolerated it.”

Having a Wright home is as much a legacy as a dwelling. Much time and money was spent furnishing the home with Prairie reproductions and originals. The couple welcomes selected visitors, including, at times, students from the local middle school. Four of those students have gone on to become architects.

What did it all cost? Groans Van: “You don’t want to know.”

 

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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