The Story Behind Oberlin College's Frank Lloyd Wright House

An exterior view of the Weltzheimer/Johnson House in Oberlin [Carrie Wise/ideastream]
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Tucked in among other homes in Oberlin, not far from the college campus, is one that is not quite like the others. The modern ranch, designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, had been a bit of a hidden gem until a social media post went viral with Wright aficionados.

“Last year was the 150th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth,” said Andrea Gyorody, a curator for Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. “There was a lot of activity on social media about Frank Lloyd Wright and his legacy and people going to Wright house to Wright house, who were just like junkies for modernist architecture.”

Thousands of people saw Facebook posts about the house in Oberlin, but staff was shocked when nearly 1,000 people showed up for a tour event, about four times a typical crowd.

 “It was a day with heavy rain and a tornado warning, but that did not stop people from coming to the house, often from very far away, neighboring states, not even from the area,” she said.

Oberlin College student Lucy Haskell was there that day giving tours.

“It was just lines from the house all the way down the drive, people just waiting for hours and hours to get in,” Haskell said. “Luckily we found ways of ticketing now in advance to gauge better.

The enthusiasm is still going strong, with ticketed tours often selling out in advance.

The home, designed mainly of wood, glass, brick and concrete, generally strikes people as either an ideal place to live or undesirable, Haskell said.

“A lot of people find it very dark, which is as it was designed,” she said.

A view from the living room

More than 60 years ago, Oberlin’s Weltzheimer family admired Wright’s work and wrote him asking if he would design something for a modest budget. The Usonian home, completed in 1949, includes the characteristic flat roof, narrow hallways and built-in storage spaces.

Subsequent owners remodeled the home, adjusting the design. However, Oberlin Art History professor Ellen Johnson purchased the home in the late 60s and went to great lengths to restore it to its original design.

“Some older alums who were here during Ellen’s time, during the 60s and 70s, will tell you that for extra credit they came and removed white paint from the interior,” Gyorody said.

Johnson even tracked down a pink bathtub removed from the master bathroom by a prior owner. 

“Ellen was driving around and happened to see in a field that some farm animals were using a pink bathtub as a bath, and she decided to go ask for it back,” Gyorody said. “She wound up paying for it and then brought it back to the house and put it right back where it used to live.”

The infamous pink bathtub in the master bathroom

Johnson donated the house to Oberlin College before she died in 1992, with a few stipulations, including that the public have opportunities to visit the home. The Weltzheimer/Johnson House, 534 Morgan St., is open for tours from April until November.

"Redwood," a contemporary art exhibit by Juan Araujo, is on view inside and outside of the home through September. Araujo created works inspired by both the home and Johnson’s art collection as part of the FRONT International Triennial.

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