Answer Man

Noted local architect finished home the Wright way

Q. I enjoyed the recent BND article about the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield. Way back in 1948, I was secretary to Dr. Charles Bell, a radiologist in the Murphy Building in East St. Louis. Dr. Bell had visited with Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mr. Wright designed a home for Dr. Bell that was to be built on the bluffs near the Signal Hill area. As the story mentioned, Dr. Bell died suddenly, and the house was not built. What I have often wondered since Dr. Bell's death was who bought the plans for his home and if it were built in the Belleville area.

— Mary Kay Martz, of Belleville

A. Allow me to quickly satisfy your curiosity by turning your question on its head: Although no two of his designs were exactly alike, the house that Wright designed for Bell was based on the Douglas Grant House that had been built in 1946 in Marion, Iowa., according to Larry Betz, president of the Belleville Historical Society.The Bell plans never went any further.

But that doesn’t mean the famed architect didn’t leave a footprint in the metro-east that remains to this day. As Betz loves to say, there is no Frank Lloyd Wright house in Belleville — but we do have a Frank Lloyd Wright foundation. So settle back for a tale of tragedy and triumph that might be called “A Tale of Two Architects.”

It begins, of course, when Bell, then living on Juanita Place, began planning a new home for himself, his wife, Frieda, and their five kids. It was to be built on the bluffs on Briar Hill Road with plenty of two-story glass windows on the west side to give the family a spectacular view of the St. Louis skyline. By 1949, it had begun to take shape.

“It was started to be built,” Betz said. “It’s a Usonian and, with Usonians, you pour a concrete slab that actually has pipes in it for heating. Then you start building your brick walls up on that slab.”

But on Nov. 20, Bell, just 41 years old, died of a heart attack at his home. His widow abandoned the project.

“So that’s the stage it was at when he died,” Betz said. “There were brick walls and a foundation. Some of them were halfway up, some of them not as far.”

That’s how it stayed for several years until noted Belleville architect Charles King and his wife, Audrey, bought the property. But instead of finishing the Wright house, King designed and built an entirely new structure alongside.

“I guess he wanted to have total control over what he built, probably,” Betz surmises. “My educated guess — which is not worth a plugged nickel — is that King wanted a house parallel to the bluff rather than perpendicular to it (as the Wright house was) so he could have a lot better view out over St. Louis.”

Fast forward to about 1962, when the Kings divorced and sold the property to Bob and Diane Kelce, of Carriage House restaurant fame. The new owners had children and needed more space, so they asked King to finally finish the Wright house.

“Clearly, it was great that an architect like Charles King designed the house to go on that foundation because it follows the spirit of a mid-century, modern Usonian house, which is what Wright was building,” Betz said.

“It’s not Wright’s plan, but the footprint is the same. (Kelce) built the house and then attached it to his own house so there’s kind of a two-story walkway between them. You can get there from the lower level or the upper level.”

Eventually, the twin-domicile was acquired by Belleville attorney Ray Freeark and his wife, Arlene, who fell in love with it immediately.

“They liked mid-century, modern furniture and everything anyway, so they were looking specifically for a mid-century, modern house,” Betz said. “She said the last three they had it narrowed down to were all Charles King houses. She said, ‘Ray took me to all three of them and there was never any doubt which one of them we would decide on.’”

The houses now sit at the end of Briar Hill, because Freeark had the remaining portion of the road down to Illinois 157 closed. And after Freeark died in September 2000, Arlene married Masters golf champ Bob Goalby, who now enjoys the “phenomenal” view himself in a living room with its floor-to-ceiling windows.

“Arlene has been an outstanding steward of the house,” Betz said. “She also built a really nice swimming pool out on the bluff side of the house, so even when you’re out there by the pool, you just have this fantastic view.”

If you’d like to see an array of shots of the houses, go to www.bellevillehistoricalsociety.org. Click on “Photos” and then click on “The Belleville Architecture of Charles Erwin King.” About halfway down the page you’ll find a dozen shots of the King-Kelce houses. You can also find an aerial view by using Google maps.

If you weren’t aware, there are two Frank Lloyd Wright homes in St. Louis, including one you can tour. The 1,900-square-foot house built for artist Russell Kraus in Ebsworth Park (120 N. Ballas Road) was the architect’s first completed building in the St. Louis area, according to ebsworthpark.org. It’s a mind-blowing design that features 60- and 120-degree angles almost exclusively, Betz said. The other is the private Theodore Pappas House at 865 Masonridge Road in Town and Country.

Today’s trivia

Why would a company pick Clabber Girl as the brand name for its baking powder and baking soda?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: Want to play a musical instrument without touching it or blowing into it? No problem. Buy yourself a theremin, patented in 1928 by Russian inventor Leon Theremin. By simply waving your hands near the electronic device’s two antennas, you can control pitch and volume. Composer Bernard Hermann used the futuristic sound in his score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — and Sheldon once played it on “The Big Bang Theory” just to annoy his friends.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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