A wooden counter wraps around the tight turn between the kitchen and the dining area of the Tonkens House. Beverly Tonkens said people get used to some of the narrow spaces in the house. Frank Lloyd Wright didn't like to waste space and was a small man, so he often designed houses with narrow and low hallways and, in general, rooms that fit him. / Cara Owsley, The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI -- Car dealer Gerald Tonkens packaged $25,000 with a lot of moxie in 1953 when he asked Frank Lloyd Wright to build him a home. The 35-year-old Tonkens even sent plans drawn by a Wright disciple to the famous architect's Taliesin West studio in Arizona.
His timing was superb.
Wright, by this time in his mid-80s, was pumping out what he called Usonian homes for "common" American families at a prolific rate. Some of his latest designs used interlocking, concrete blocks molded on site. His hope was to save owners money by involving them in the construction process.
Wright invited Tonkens to meet at Taliesin West in Arizona, recalled his second wife, Beverly Tonkens, who is selling the home after living there for 43 years.
Disgusted with the proposed plans of his disciple, Wright burned them in a fireplace and asked Tonkens if he would be a "guinea pig" and allow Wright to build a concrete home in the Usonian Automatic style he had developed.
More than three years and an additional $125,000 or so later, Tonkens, his first wife and their two daughters moved into what is now known as the Tonkens House.
It has been in the good hands of the Tonkens family ever since, creating a 57-year continuum of ownership that is rare for a Frank Lloyd Wright home.
That string could end soon.
Last Monday evening, Comey & Shepherd real estate agents Lori and David Wellinghoff publicly listed the Tonkens House, its four acres and old one-bedroom cottage for sale.
The asking price is $1.788 million. For another $70,000 or so, the buyer can purchase most of the house's original furniture that was designed by Wright and made by Henredon.
Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy President David Woodin said he expects a buzz to reverberate throughout the vast flock of Wright fans. After all, it is one of just 270 Wright homes out there, of which only seven are Usonian Automatic, according to the Conservancy.
"I consider the Tonkens House to be one of the premiere Usonian Automatic houses," Woodin said. "They've kept it in outstanding condition."
"This house has been way, way, way loved on. It's in pristine condition," agreed Lori Wellinghoff.
Comey & Shepherd is vetting potential buyers to weed out people who just want to see inside a house that's on the National Register of Historic Places and was a lively social center and celebrity magnet in its heyday. There will be no open houses.
The Tonkens House was listed for sale on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy's website (www.savewright.org) Jan. 30, exposing it to a broad, highly interested market. The listing describes the house as "best-of-breed" Usonian Automatic.
"A Wright house like this often attracts national, sometimes international interest," said the Conservancy's executive director, Janet Halstead, who visited the Tonkens House a couple of years ago. "I've been told by buyers that (the FLWBC's website) is the first place they look."
Local interest will be high as well, said Chuck Lohre, the 10-year owner of a Wright house in Clifton and member of a the modern design admiration group Cincinnati Form Follows Function (CF3).
"The Tonkens House is probably in the top 10 Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the world in that it's still in immaculate condition," Lohre said. "It's on a beautiful (4-acre) lot and is such a fabulous, unique house."
The last Usonian Automatic house to come onto the market, the 1955 Tracy House in Seattle, sold last year for $935,000, $224,000 below the asking price. It is about half the size of the Tonkens House and has not been maintained as well, said Woodin, who executed the sale of the Tracy property.
Hopefully, Wellinghoff said, she can find a buyer who will be as good a steward as Gerald Tonkens (who died in 1990), his second wife, Beverly, and her second husband Sherman Vangrov, have been.
"From the Conservancy's perspective, it deserves to have a sensitive, preservation-oriented buyer," he said.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy listing is at www.savewright.org. For more on Usonian Automatic architecture and to see photos of the seven existing examples, go to www.steinerag.com/flw/.
About the house
The Tonkens House is a terrific example of Organic Architecture â?? building the way nature builds, bringing the outdoors in â?? that was championed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Built: On a four-acre lot under the supervision of Eric Wright, Frank's grandson, over a 17-month period, ending in October 1956. The red tile inscribed with Frank's initials located just above the doorbell certifies the house was built exactly how he planned it.
Dimensions: Wright never measured the square footage; it wasn't a number he ever cared to know. The Hamilton County Auditor's website says it has 2,100 square feet of living space.
Materials: Molded concrete, Philippine mahogany, plate glass, brass hardware, granite countertops (not original), ceramic tile, gold leaf.
Windows: Beverly Tonkens said she once let a local student count them for a school project, and she counted 397. Other sources say there as many as 492 windows.
Entrance Hall: 13-foot, 6-inch ceiling room leads to a 7-foot high, narrow, mahogany wall- and bookshelf-lined hall into the Great Room. Inset, clerestory windows run the entire length of this west side of the house.
Great Room: Concrete block, coffered ceiling, cantilevered fireplace and plant shelf and floor-to-ceiling French doors that open on a Cherokee Red (Wright's signature color) lanai define the 34-foot by 22-foot living and dining room areas. There's a built-in stereo system and piano nook with the original baby grand. All the furniture and fabrics were designed by Wright.
Kitchen: The coffered ceiling reaches 13-feet 6 inches above the scored Cherokee Red concrete floor. The sink counter is several inches higher than the 36-inch standard to reduce bending. All cabinets (and doors throughout the house) have full-length, piano-style hinges made of brass. The room is 14 feet by 13 feet.
Bedrooms: The bedrooms share a compact hallway bathroom and shower; master suite includes attached bedroom and study with patio. Sleeping wing ceilings are 7-feet 6-inches high and gilded in 18 karat gold leaf to evoke warmth and comfort.
Utilities/Laundry: Electrical box, central heating and air conditioning units in two-level room between kitchen and entrance hall.
Roof: Rebuilt by a Taliesin team after flooding in 2001, it's covered with three layers: insulation, rubber membrane and pea gravel. There are no gutters.
Storage: No attic, basement or garage, but extensive built-in closets and cabinets throughout the home. Wright was against material clutter, but there are two outdoor storage spaces, one in the pier of the two-car auto port and one to the side of the house.
Miscellaneous: Cherokee Red driveways lead to the house; red, metal gates artfully designed by Wright at the road entrances; red lanai and garden area with three gas torches in corners of a low cement walls; one-bedroom farm house in good condition.
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