By Stephen Milligan
In 1956, Donald and Virginia Lovness, a young Minnesota couple with two little girls, set out to build their own Frank Lloyd Wright house—by hand. Within two years, armed with nothing but a set of plans drawn by Wright and sheer determination, the Lovnesses had realized their dream. The couple would go on to build another Wright-designed structure on their property, in addition to forming lasting relationships with the architect and his Taliesin family. The Lovnesses’ daughter Lonnie has chronicled her family’s journey in the recently published book Growing Up Wright, which is currently available in Taliesin’s gift shop.
Early in their marriage, Don, a research chemist at 3M, and Virginia, an artist, would feed their budding admiration for Wright’s architecture by visiting as many of his built designs as they could. Don would photograph the structures for the couple to study and gain inspiration from.
In June 1955, the Lovnesses approached Wright, seeking guidance and suggestions regarding Virginia’s plan to add onto their modest home on Minnesota’s White Bear Lake. While Don toured the Taliesin estate, Wright politely interviewed Virginia and studied her drawings, which included a studio for her artistic pursuits.
Pronouncing the proposed changes to the existing house inadequate, Wright suggested that the Lovnesses sell the property and find a new parcel on which to build a home, one that he would design to fit into their $10,000.00 budget (a figure slightly overestimated by Virginia, who strove to remain undaunted in the face of the architect’s typical costly project budgets). The home Wright proposed would serve as both a studio and a residence for the family.
Soon the Lovnesses had sold the White Bear Lake house and acquired a piece of property on Woodpile Lake in Washington County, Minnesota. With their construction budget falling well short of the $10,000.00 mark, the couple—who had no building experience—decided to tackle the project themselves.
The family lived on the property in a camper, bathing in the lake and using an outhouse, during the two-year construction period. Don maintained his position at 3M, while Virginia would chisel and lay rock for the walls and massive fireplace throughout the day.
Lonnie and her younger sister, Ty, both small children at the time, also contributed to the construction of the house.
“We were home while they were doing all of this building, and they’d give us some buckets, and we’d pick up rock—we called it rubble—and it went inside the columns where the fireplace was,” Lonnie says, referring to the material used as filler between the interior and exterior rock walls.
The couple would continue to work when Don returned from his day at 3M, sometimes as late as midnight, to get the most out of the construction season before the Minnesota winters set in.
Even though the winter months were not conducive to working outside, they did prove favorable to other projects, particularly building the furniture, which Wright had also designed. The architect’s furnishings have a reputation for being uncomfortable, but Lonnie counters that widespread belief with an observation from her parents’ experience:
“When my parents had a dinner party, people were sitting around that [dining] table,” she says. “No one ever left early because the chairs were uncomfortable. If that conversation could not keep things going, if the whole feel of being there wasn’t enough, then…those people need to go find some comfy furniture!”
By 1958, the house was complete, but the Lovnesses were not done. Before his 1959 death, Wright had drawn plans for three guesthouses to be built on the property. None of these designs ever came to fruition, but in 1972, the couple started building a cottage, a revised version of Wright’s design for the Seth Peterson Cottage near Lake Delton, Wisconsin. Again, Don and Virginia tackled the project themselves and would eventually maintain the cottage as their fulltime residence, using the studio as a guesthouse.
In addition to building a home, the Lovnesses also built long and lasting relationships with—and became a part of—the extended Taliesin family, including William Wesley Peters, Wright’s first apprentice (later chairman of Taliesin Associated Architects and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation), and Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, who was the first guest to stay in the Lovness cottage upon its completion. So frequent were the Lovnesses visitors to Taliesin that the couple had a guest suite on the lower level named for them.
Virginia, conscious of the gravity of what she and Don had embarked upon and the significance of their ties to Taliesin, meticulously documented their experiences through the years.
Many of these documents—drawings, photographs, telegrams, receipts, newspaper clippings, letters, and Virginia’s own notes—are reproduced in the book, which is as much the story of the Lovness family as it is the story of the house they built with their own hands.
“I highly recommend this remarkable book,” Minerva Montooth, Taliesin Legacy Fellowship Member, says. “It creates a new awareness of the planning, construction, and living in a work of art by Frank Lloyd Wright. I was captivated by the superb stories and photographs delineating the actions and interactions of the principals. As a member of the Taliesin Fellowship during the same years, I was a part-time participant in many of the activities and can verify their amazing authenticity.”
Today, the studio and cottage are owned by Ted and Debbie Muntz, who are able stewards of the property. Lonnie and her husband, Gordon Maltby (who is responsible for the layout and design of the book, having been in the publishing industry for many years), live in a home influenced by Wright’s principles. The sophisticated simplicity of the structures and the lifestyle they inspire have permeated Lonnie’s consciousness, and she believes this eclipses any faults in Wright’s designs or philosophies.
“That somehow just fades away in the background when you’re thinking about the importance and the way the art of the structures…entered my body, entered my mind, and the same is true with my sister, who also has a home now that reflects the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Lonnie says.
To experience the full story of the Lovnesses and their incredible story, pick up a copy of Growing Up Wright, available now in Taliesin’s gift shop.