Into the Woods
Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Sondern lived in what is now the historic Roanoke neighborhood of Kansas City in the late 1930s and wanted to purchase a nearby wooded, hillside lot with an amazing view that overlooked Roanoke Park.
Their only hesitation was what to build and who to design it. Mrs. Sondern was very progressive, having studied Usonian design. (Usonian was a term used by Frank Lloyd Wright to describe small, affordable houses constructed with a strong connection to the outdoors.) Frank Lloyd Wright was an obvious choice, but he had not designed a building in the area. She wrote a heart-felt letter to Wright requesting him to visit Kansas City to see the proposed lot. As luck would have it, Wright had been contacted by the Community Church to design a building at 45th and Main Street. So in 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright came to town.
Wright loved the wooded lot, and the construction of the Sondern house began in earnest. The house was a thousand square feet and was executed by Jack Howe, one of Wright’s most trusted apprentices. The Sonderns lived through a few years of all the trials of building and living in a Wright house—with leaking roofs, inadequate heating, and other maladies—but the design was brilliantly Usonian and elegant at the same time. Unfortunately, Mr. Sondern’s business failed, and they had to sell the house in 1944.
Bigger is Better
Arnold Adler was a successful clothing retailer who heard about the little Frank Lloyd Wright house from his good friend Thomas Hart Benton, who lived next door. Adler and his wife, Virginia, loved the house, but they wanted more land and more house as well. Adler immediately wrote Wright after purchasing the house, bought additional land in front of the existing lot and the process of designing an addition commenced, resulting in an additional 1900 square feet incorporated on to the original house. The highlight of the Wright-designed addition is the step-up dining room and the living room cantilevered off the back of the house, suspended over the woods below, with clerestory windows and wood-framed glass doors to a deck on one side and a garden on the other.
The house is Frank Lloyd Wright at his best—stunning simplicity, brilliant planning and execution—a true iconic building. The Adlers were thrilled with the house, and as Wright reached celebrity status, the house became the talk of Kansas City. Arnold Adler died in 1951, and Virginia remained in the house until 1962, selling the house to Richard Stern, president of the largest municipal-bond company in the Midwest, Stern Brothers.
Richard Stern was an admirable caretaker of the house, which needed a great deal of attention by the time he acquired it. A renovation that included numerous repairs and steel beams to reinforce failing foundations, roof and walls was completed on his watch. Stern donated the house to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1985 but retained a life estate and lived there until his death in 2001. The Nelson sold the house shortly thereafter.
The current owner is a laudable custodian of this Frank Lloyd Wright gem, generously sharing it for functions and tours, opening the home to share this masterpiece as a seminal piece of the architectural icons in the city.