By: Barbara Kimberlin Broach, Donald E. Lambert, and Milton Bagby
Reviewed by: Todd Dills
Pomegranate Communications, 2006
The story of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Rosenbaum House in Florence in northern Alabama is one that shares the traits of the tales of other of the pioneering architect’s projects—his and his apprentices’ staunch commitment to architectural vision leads to cost overruns and other frustrations that intersect neatly with personal dramas near and far. This seventy-nine-page tome, somewhere between art history and coffee-table book, tells the story of the home’s genesis, degradation and restoration in words and pictures both current and historical.
The Rosenbaum House was built at the request of Florence residents Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum—newlyweds in 1939, the year plans began—who had been referred to Wright by their friend and architectural student Aaron Green when his own design failed to meet the Rosenbaums’ desired budget. It was to be the second of Wright’s “Usonian” designs, the first having been built for Herbert Jacobs far north in Madison, Wisconsin. Wright, the authors note in the first chapter, “claimed to have borrowed [the term “Usonia”] from Samuel Butler to represent the United States and to symbolize his vision of an enlightened American society...combined with an advancing culture liberated from European influence.” The designs would come to typify Wright in the American cultural mind—the low but multilevel brick exteriors and virtually flat roofs providing long horizontal lines mimicking the flat landscape, large floor to ceiling doors in certain areas uniting indoor and out.
The authors’ story here follows the project through its conception, the construction phase, and a 1940s addition, then neatly testifies to the influence of former, now deceased Florence mayor Eddie Frost on pushing the renovation phase of the project, detailing the termite damage to the interior walls as well as the amazingly leaky roof.
Florence purchased the house for what might seem a song— $75,000. “We knew it was raining inside the house,” says Barbara Broach near the end of the book. Near $700,000 would eventually be required to turn the house into what it is today—a city of Florence museum. The only Wright home ever built in Alabama, it’s a valuable testament to the vision of an American original.
Broach’s frequent presence in the book as director of Florence’s Department of Arts and Museums, likewise as one of the book’s authors, however, lends a feel of advertisement to the story’s latter parts. At the same time, for connoisseurs of architectural history this may well make a great addition to the shelf.
Todd Dills is editor and publisher of THE2NDHAND, a Birmingham and Chicago-based broadsheet and online magazine for new writing, and the author of the novel Sons of the Rapture.