Wright at Home

Rush Creek Village in Worthington is a marvel of modern, organic architecture.

By
From the June 2014 edition

Hal Pepinsky doesn’t recall how his parents met the Wakefields. He does, however, remember well his family’s visit in 1953 to their High Street apartment in Worthington—located just down the street from his own family’s apartment—to hear the couple’s sales pitch. What they were selling wasn’t quite tangible yet. They were sharing an idea, a proposition for a plot of land in a community to be envisioned, designed and built by three disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright.

They were asking Harold and Pauline Pepinsky to join Rush Creek Village.

THE BEGINNING OF A COMMUNITY

The story of Rush Creek Village began in the 1940s, when Richard and Martha Wakefield witnessed Frank Lloyd Wright deliver a speech in Columbus. Captivated, they trekked to his compound, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona, to learn about the practice of organic architecture and Usonian homes. Wright’s advice for his visitors was to return home, build a house for themselves and then build a house for their neighbors. Likely, no one could have imagined what would follow.

Back home, the Wakefields approached local architect Theodore (Ted) van Fossen, who had worked as a laborer for Wright and was known locally for his design of the Gunning home in Blacklick, which featured elements of organic architecture. The trio soon developed the idea for a community in which homes would be designed and built specifically to meet the needs of their inhabitants, integrating with the environment and utilizing natural surroundings. In essence, the community would offer high design for the common family, at a common price. Each home would be totally unique yet inherently linked to the next.

First, van Fossen designed the Wakefield’s home using Wright’s trademark irregular angles, open room layouts, large windows and natural materials like concrete, cypress and mahogany. With their home imagined and plotted, it was time for the Wakefields to build homes for their neighbors.

The land was purchased for the community in 1951, and van Fossen immediately surveyed and platted it. Over the course of four decades, he served as the master planner and architect, with Richard as the contractor and Martha as a design assistant-meets-salesperson. Van Fossen designed dozens of homes in the 42-acre community, nestled in a wooded area off South Street, which grew primarily through word of mouth and interest from university professors, intellectuals and artists.

For each new home, the process was the same: Interested parties would first purchase the right to build on the land and, after van Fossen finished the design, building would commence. Because the land wasn’t bulldozed to make way for homes, concrete block was used to set homes into the landscape. Materials primarily included glass, concrete, cedar and cypress, while built-in furniture was used to take advantage of limited space.

“If you think, in comparison to the other housing that was being built in the 1950s—during that postwar time—it’s such a dramatic difference,” says Barb Powers of the Ohio Historical Society. “Rush Creek Village took the Usonian idea, the contemporary concepts of the time, Modernism … and now we have this entire totally integrated neighborhood. It expresses big architectural ideas.”

Rush Creek Village grew to become what Pepinsky says is the nation’s largest collection of homes based on the principles of Wright’s organic style of architecture. In 2003, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

HOME AGAIN

Sitting in the light-drenched living room of his home, Pepinsky enthusiastically details the story of Rush Creek Village.

“Ted envisioned all of this,” he says, pointing out his large window to the neighborhood beyond. “Though it was Martha who really drove the whole thing—to get the map done and to create one of the largest organically planned communities in the world.”

Pepinsky knows better than most how the community began, grew and evolved—his family was among the first “settlers,” as he calls them, when they moved into their home in 1957. Now, after decades of living away (Pepinsky, who taught at Indiana University, most recently lived in Southern Indiana), he once again calls the community home. He and wife Dr. Jill Bystydzienski returned to the 1,300-square-foot home on Evergreen Drive in 2011 after his mother moved to a nursing home.

Pepinsky’s home was designed, as all homes in Rush Creek Village were, for its inhabitants. Over the course of two years, his parents met with van Fossen to discuss every inch of their plan, determining how to best meet their needs while fitting in with their surroundings.

“We sat down with Ted with at least three sets of plans, at a little kitchen table in our apartment,” says Pepinsky, who was in elementary school at the time. “And he’d say things like, ‘Well, Harold, what do you want in your room?’ We moved things around until we got the final plan.”

Richard Wakefield even built for Pepinsky, a “Hardy Boys” fan as a child, a secret panel in his downstairs bedroom.

“Everything essentially was, and had to be, custom made,” he says, “much of it on site.”

Organic architecture requires homes to adapt to the natural contours of the land, using the surroundings to inspire the overall design and materials used. Underlying patterns and themes are common in all the homes; the round stones used in Pepinsky’s guest house, for example, mirror the look of the neighborhood’s famous Round House, the anchor for this portion of the community.

The homes are also planned, Pepinsky adds, to fit precisely into the plot sketched in van Fossen’s original site map. There’s a notch in Pepinsky’s door that was cut when Richard realized the home was set too far north by 18 inches. There were four ash trees in the way, and to save the trees, they cut the notch.

“That was kind of how it worked,” Pepinsky says. “Ted would talk to [Richard] and say, ‘Well, what are we going to do? Cut a notch!’ It was that kind of relationship.”

Though Pepinsky is enormously proud of his home—and of the community’s role in architectural history—he admits to hesitating before making the move back to Rush Creek Village.

“Jill actually had to persuade me,” he says. “My first reaction was, ‘This is a museum.’ Now that I’m in it, though, it is my pleasure to be keeping a museum.”

Highlights of the home include the guest house (the only one in the community), for which Pepinsky helped mix mortar when he was a child. It features all the comforts of home—save the stove.

“There’s no wasted space anywhere,” Pepinsky says. “People complained Ted was so slow, but just look at the details he paid attention to.

“It’s just beginning to sink in, layer by layer, how incredible the place is,” he continues.

“Everything that I understand and feel about this house now, I’ve learned and noticed since I came back.”

FINISHING THE PUZZLE

Brian Seitz, architect and owner of Ten Penny Design, knows all too well the complexities of Rush Creek Village.

At his office in Downtown Columbus, he has van Fossen’s 1961 map of Rush Creek Village, sketched out in pencil and faded with the years. On it you’ll see the Round House, Pepinsky’s home and more. The Tower House, the notable 5-story home near the entrance of the neighborhood, had yet to be completed, though there’s a faint rectangle drawn in its designated location. There are several of these outlines across the map, illustrating how the architect painstakingly planned out the entire community years before many of the homes came to fruition. Also on the map are two boxes sketched in at the eastern edge of the community.

The right to build on these lots was owned by brothers Herndon and George Harding, medical professionals whose grandfather opened nearby Harding Hospital. In Rush Creek Village fashion, the Hardings had purchased only the “permission slips” to build on the land, Seitz says.

“They go do their thing, 50 years go by and they still literally just hold the permission slips,” he says.

Seitz and wife Elizabeth owned two homes in the community before deciding—at the persuasion of friend and neighbor Randy James—to purchase one of the empty lots from the Hardings. James purchased the other.

Seitz set out to design new Rush Creek-style homes for the properties but was immediately stalled by the community’s board of trustees, who raised concerns about new builds in a community that hadn’t grown in years—and had always been planned and designed by van Fossen. (The homes have deed restrictions requiring Rush Creek’s trustees to approve any additions or exterior changes.)

All new plans and designs have to be approved by the community’s plan review committee (PRC), which didn’t include an architect or designer at the time. Seitz and James’ solution was to bring in two outside consultants—Marcia Conrad, an architect who teaches a course on Rush Creek architecture at Ohio State, and Cynthia Hayes, an architect and friend of Martha Wakefield.

“That was the smartest thing any of us could have done,” Seitz says. “Nothing we put in front of them would have been good enough, so having intermediate people there was really beneficial.” Though the land was purchased in 2006, it wasn’t until 2008 that Seitz submitted to the committee plans for the two new homes.

First, Seitz and James traveled to Pennsylvania to meet with van Fossen.

“We went and met with Ted and tried to get him involved as much as we could,” Seitz says. “Randy and I were fortunate enough to drive over together to meet him and ultimately get his nod of approval.

“We presented him floor plans and elevations and asked, ‘What do you think?’ ” Seitz continues. “He told us that, at the end of the day, they’re our homes. He said, ‘Build something you want.’ I thought that was beautiful.”

In 2010, after years of “back-and-forth legal stuff” with the PRC, Seitz, who designed both homes, received approval to build. His family moved into the home on South Street in late 2012.

“We weren’t trying to be revolutionary—we were trying to be evolutionary,” Seitz says of his home’s design. “I put a lot of thought into what Frank would do if he was building houses today. How would a Usonian home be built today? He’d make smarter choices, I think.”

The Seitz home is LEED-certified, “because that would have been important to Wright,” he adds.

Many in the community, including Pepinsky, have noted the additions are larger than traditional Rush Creek Village builds.

“The first home we restored here was 1,300 square feet. The second was 2,100 square feet, and this house is almost 3,000 square feet,” Seitz says. “Everything got a little bit bigger, but the basic design philosophy still exists in these two new homes.”

The Seitz home even serves as a bookend to the community—Brian and Elizabeth always envisioned a tower on the house, so they drew a line from their home to the highest point of the Tower House at the opposite end of the neighborhood, aligning them.

“Everything in Rush Creek is connected, and that’s why we laid out the homes like we did,” he says.

“I’ve never heard any complaints, though I doubt I would,” he continues. “I think the addition of the final homes brought notoriety to the neighborhood—some may be thankful for that; others might be tired of it.”