Wright Sized Alabama: The Rosenbaum House

Throughout his career, Frank Lloyd Wright had a passion for designing smaller houses. From his Prairie School houses in the early 1900s to his one story Usonian houses starting in the 1930s, Wright made several houses of small size for the typical middle class American family. Remarkably enough, it had been from the 1930s, at the depths of the Great Depression, which Wright was able to realize a few of these designs. Designs Wright called Usonian.

The first Usonian house was the 1936 Jacobs House at Madison, Wisc.. Following this, Wright designed four Usonian houses in 1939. The Rosenbaum House at Florence Alabama was one of these.

Constructed in 1940, the Rosenbaum House was a wedding gift for Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum. Originally 1,500 square feet with three bedrooms and 2 baths, the house was expanded in 1948 when the Rosenbaums predicted on Wright to design an improvement to accommodate their growing family.

Mildred Rosenbaum, one of the original owners, lived at the house for six decades. In 1999, when she was no more able to live alone, she deeded the house to the City of Florence. Although some thought the house must have been torn down, Florence Mayor Eddie Frost saw to it that the house be revived and be a continuous piece of the Florence cultural life. So important was the recovery of the house when Mayor Frost died suddenly before the restoration’s completion, interim mayor Dick Jordan kept the project moving . The house, restored using funds generated by a one-cent sales taxation, has been headquartered in 2000.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

The back of the house faces southwest and contains an extensive amount of glass with heavy roof overhangs to block Alabama’s summer sun. The two legs of the L-shaped plan type a patio where the family could have appreciated outside living.

The principal living regions of the house are at the left of this photo, where there’s a wall of glass doors, while the bedrooms are at the right. A”floating” balcony is clear at the right, just off the master bedroom.

It’s clear from this vantage point the house reaches out and embraces its gently sloping site.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

Like many of Wright’s designs, the road side of the home is closed, and the entry does not leap out at you. Actually, the only element that gives a clue at an entry is the broad cantilevered roof at the front door.

Contrary to the traditional single-family houses near, the new Rosenbaum House must have caused quite a stir. It’s stated that many hundred people per day could come by and gawk at the house since it had been under construction.

Bud Dietrich, AIA

A feeling of the measurements of the cantilevered roof at the front door could be viewed here. Originally a seat, the low ceiling of this space would not adapt a Cadillac Escalade.

Essentially a linear arrangement of rooms, a view in the northwest indicates exactly how thin the house is. The cantilevered roof at the entrance will be visible on the left and the patio at the back of the house is visible on the right.

The home is clad in horizontally laid cypress siding. One of Wright’s favorite materials, cypress is insect resistant and long-lasting.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

In the front entrance, the view is down the north wall of the house to Stanley Rosenbaum’s den. Wood ceilings and walls in addition to a stained concrete flooring bring the materials used at the outside to the interior. A row of recessed lighting aligns with the scored concrete flooring.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

Brick walls anchor the primary living area. A wall of glass leads to the courtyard into the southwest. This wall of glass doors could have been a remarkable feature in 1940 as the typical house of the time may have had one doorway leading to a backyard. In many ways, Wright’s Usonian houses were harbingers of the carefree and barefoot life styles we like now.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

Opposite the wall of glass into the yard is a solid wall of cypress paneling and built-in book shelves. The row of clerestory windows above the bookshelves is held tight to the ceiling. These windows allow cross ventilation of the room and create the sensation of the ceiling plane drifting in space.

The ceiling has been raised at the center for the amount of the room. Clerestory windows to one side of the elevated ceiling increase natural lighting, while reverse these windows are concealed light fixtures. From the start of his career, Wright wanted to explore methods to utilize both artificial and natural lighting to accent and complement the design.

The house now incorporates many bits from the original, Wright-designed furniture, like those living room chairs.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

At the intersection of the 2 legs of the house’s”L” is the kitchen with a dining room area right opposite.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

Even though the dining room is nestled into the corner from the kitchen, it is open to and part of the main living area. The glass doors which link interior and exterior spaces also link the dining room area together with the patio.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

Stanley Rosenbaum’s den can also be connected to the backyard patio with glass doors. The room features an integrated desk and bookshelves, not as the rest of the main living room. For the 1948 addition, Rosenbaum specifically asked additional bookshelves, as his book collection had increased considerably.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

The house features mitered corners of cypress paneling, and in a couple of cases, an open corner of glass. Wright’s use of a frameless glass corner was remarkable given the material technologies of the 1930s. It really has only been in the last decade or so that material technology has caught up with Wright’s designs.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

The hallway that leads to the master bedroom is broad enough to accommodate built-in storage elements. The recessed lighting located elsewhere in the house continues in the hallway. My sense is the hall would have been considerably brighter when initially constructed, since the wall into the left could have been an exterior wall with a few clerestory windows.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

The master bedroom, like so many Wright designed, is quite small. An integrated makeup mirror and desk is nicely lit by the adjoining glass doors. And here, in the bedrooms, the ceilings and walls are cypress paneling. This is certainly not the kind of house where the walls needed repainting every couple of decades.

Florence Dept. of Arts & Museums

The dorm room of the 1948 addition accommodated the Rosenbaum’s four sons. The room is quite large as it served as playroom, bedroom and much more.

Here’s the original floor plan of 1939. The family and group places are in 1 leg, and the bedrooms and personal spaces are at the other. Bathroom, kitchen and utility spaces are at the intersection of the 2 legs. The plan reveals the extensive use of glass doors leading to the outside courtyard in the interior rooms, such as bedrooms and den.

This floor plan shows the original house and 1948 addition. Additionally included a larger kitchen and breakfast room, a larger utility and laundry room, a dorm room for the Rosenbaums’ four boys, and a guest room.

Some 4,000 people visited the house during a “Walk Wright In” event held when the house first reopened in August, 2000. According to Barbara Broach, the manager of arts and museums for Florence, people stood in long lines at the summer heat to get a glimpse of the home’s interior.

Visitors from Japan, Russia, Australia, England and from All Around the United States come to Florence to visit the house. The house continues to welcome visitors from all over the world.

For people who want to learn more about this remarkable”Wright Sized” house, get a copy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House: The Birth And Rebirth of an American Treasure, that details the home’s design, construction and recovery. From funding to technical concerns to finally saving the house, this publication provides an excellent narrative about an inspired client, a visionary architect and a progressive city.

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