A Midcentury Blacklick Home Rescued by Local Architect and Wife
Once on Columbus Landmark’s Most Endangered Sites, the property has become a home that both calms and invigorates.
An ambitious and visionary couple has reclaimed an important Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home that nearly succumbed to abandonment and the very forces of nature that surround it.
For the past several years, Dorri Steinhoff and Joe Kuspan have been entirely invested in the restoration of a ravine home in Blacklick that narrowly escaped demolition. Once on Columbus Landmark’s Most Endangered Sites, the property has become a home that both calms and invigorates.
Built in 1940 of cypress and stone quarried on site, the mid-20th Century modernist house exemplifies Wright’s principles of organic design—intended to unite people, dwellings and nature. It sits on 2.5 acres beside a tributary of Blacklick Creek, a few hundred feet from a busy, 50-mile-an-hour road, yet feeling as if it is miles removed from modern mayhem. Its walls are made of glass and stone to bring its inhabitants close to the natural beauty that surrounds it.
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The house was designed by three early Wright disciples—Tony Smith, Ted van Fossen and Laurence Cuneo. Van Fossen, who was 18 at the time, received a commission from Ted and Mary Gunning, a young, Bohemian couple seeking a one-of-a-kind home. The design trio nicknamed the Gunning house Glenbrow. Van Fossen later designed furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Suntop Homes project in Ardmore, Pa., and then designed Rush Creek Village in Worthington, a community of about 50 modern organic homes. Smith earned fame as a minimalist sculptor and Cuneo went on to become the art director for the first season of the I Love Lucy show.
When Steinhoff spotted the house while on a chance errand in 2013, the dwelling and its surrounding property had been abandoned for eight years and were in dire condition. She and Kuspan, an architect, were about to take on another Wright-era renovation but chose to buy Glenbrow and save it from destruction as suburban development drew nearer. “A lot of people were interested in the house but ultimately were too afraid of the unknowns,” Steinhoff recalls. “We had the expertise—this is the fifth home we’ve restored.”
But Glenbrow is by far the largest and most complex project the couple has undertaken. Outside, the home was nearly swallowed by chest-high weeds, dead trees and decaying vegetation that required the equivalent of an archaeological dig to reveal what lay beneath. The couple pulled poison ivy, removed dead ash trees, and unearthed boulder gardens and a frog pond.
As for the house itself, “everything had to go,” Steinhoff says, including the roof, heated concrete flooring and exterior siding. The amount of demolition required was staggering. Says Steinhoff, “You know you’ve got something major going on when there’s a backhoe in your living room.”
The couple did most of the hard work themselves, nearly deconstructing the house and reusing whatever they could. The entire exterior of board and batten cypress siding was removed, sanded and stained, then re-installed. Jackhammers turned concrete flooring into rubble before new heated flooring was put down.
Projects went far beyond bricks—or in this case, stone—and mortar as Steinhoff and Kuspan personalized the historic home. Thoughtful and unique touches abound, including small music boxes that Joe built for the couple’s two daughters inside a narrow wall between the kitchen and dining room. With tiny wind-up cranks, each plays a different Beatles song. From leftover birch plywood used to panel walls, he crafted custom stereo cabinetry, furniture and light fixtures.
The kitchen features rows of horizontal clerestory windows at the top of the walls, typical of midcentury style. Dark soapstone countertops are accented by a metal and glass, Italian light fixture, created by Lucifero, over the island. Open shelves are filled with colorful Fiestaware, pottery, sculpture and Italian glass. Most of the art on display throughout the house holds sentimental value; the couple purchased a collection of the Lucifero fixtures for their 20th wedding anniversary.
One of the most dramatic areas of Glenbrow is the cantilevered room, which they call the “point room,” where two walls of glass meet, offering a stirring view of the ravine and bedrock creek below.
Lines of sight are integral to the form and function of Glenbrow. With no doors to separate bed and bath areas from the main living spaces, stone walls were erected to achieve a sense of privacy but also maintain a sense of openness throughout the one-story home. The home’s 7-foot ceilings, low by today’s standards, illustrate another Wright design principle of building spaces on a human scale. A low, built-in sofa is another Wright-inspired feature and is positioned adjacent to a wall of glass and stone that seamlessly connects inside and outside.
The couple transformed a former carport into a master suite with skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows and a sleek, jetted tub where one can immerse themself in nature. Steinhoff’s Zen garden lies just outside. The home’s expansive windows and alignment along the creek is a great mood elevator, she says. “You see the seasons on a daily basis,” she adds. “Winter is actually a more inviting time because without leaves on the trees, there is more light.”
Dave Vottero, director of architectural design for Columbus-based Schooley Caldwell Associates, says Glenbrow found the perfect couple in Steinhoff and Kuspan. “They picked up on the fact that the house is a living laboratory and an organic piece of architecture. There is an active relationship between the house and the owners. There’s an ongoing dialogue,” says Vottero, a board member of the Columbus Landmarks Association who advocated for the house when it was in danger of being razed. He calls the home “the most important modern house in Central Ohio.”
As remarkable as the property is itself, so is the amount of painstaking and backbreaking work the couple has done to cultivate it. Steinhoff built gabion retaining walls with the “mountains of rocks” she collected onsite, and Kuspan is tackling renovation of a distinctive tower on the property with the aim of turning it into an Airbnb. The tower was built in 1964 as a studio and office for Rob Gunning, but lacks plumbing, electricity and heat. Joe has experience in that area, having rebuilt the HVAC system for the main house.
Vottero says the extent of work may have depleted other owners, but Steinhoff and Kuspan appear to have been enlivened by this labor of love. “We don’t go to the gym,” Steinhoff says. “We like projects.” The couple also has set their sights on turning an unused tennis court into an art pavilion and entertaining space.
They are grateful for the relationships they’ve made over the course of the renovation, including Steinhoff’s friendship with one of Gunnings’ children, Nora, who encouraged her to write a book about the experience. Titled Red Bird Against the Snow, the book was intended for only her children and future owners, but Nora convinced her it had a wider audience.
The massive renovation took years of sacrifice, hard work and financial worry, Steinhoff says. “We went hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget.” However, she is quick to add, “This is our forever home. It’s a work of art … in our restoration, we were able to embrace what was here and adapt it to a more modern lifestyle, to our lifestyle.”
In her book she writes, “This was a home that was designed to inspire and enrich the lives of the people who would inhabit it.”
Mary Gunning, the home’s original owner, expressed a similar sentiment in a letter she wrote to Tony Smith in 1941: “I never get through with the joy of looking and there is always a quiet and a peace and yet deep excitement.”
This story is from the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Home & Garden.