If you want to own a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Minnesota, we’ll tell you Howe.
That’s John Howe, who spent more than 25 years as the literal right-hand man of the 20th-century architectural giant — then, after Wright’s death, opened an office in Minneapolis and built more than 120 Wright-inspired commissions, mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Catering largely to an elite, moneyed clientele, Howe (who died in 1997) never advertised and kept a low profile. His contemporary, Ralph Rapson, was frequently in the public eye and also nurtured generations of acolytes in three decades as head of the University of Minnesota architecture school.
But Howe may climb out of Rapson’s shadow with the publication of a gorgeous new book, “John H. Howe: From Taliesin Apprentice to Master of Organic Design” (University of Minnesota Press).
Written by Edina historian Jane King Hession and Minneapolis architect Tim Quigley, and lavishly illustrated, the book is a revelation, tracing Howe’s rise from raw teenager to superbly accomplished designer.
“John Howe has been under the radar for a very long time. A lot of people don’t know who he is,” Hession said, noting that Howe’s works weren’t in the curriculum when she studied architecture at the U. “Even insiders don’t know who he really is. So it’s nice that he’s getting his due.”
Howe, who grew up in Evanston, Ill., joined Wright in 1932 as a 19-year-old high school graduate. He was one of the original fellows at Taliesin, the Wisconsin studio and commune Wright created in the depths of the Depression — both to train young architects and to sustain himself at a time when his commissions had dried up.
Howe quickly established himself as Wright’s master draftsman, sharing a drawing board with his mentor and bringing Wright’s designs to life in meticulous, vivid, hand-drawn color renderings.
After Wright died in 1959, Howe established his own practice, first in the western United States and then, in 1967, in Minnesota. He had developed a connection to the state in an unusual way: serving three years in the federal prison at Sandstone, Minn., as a conscientious objector during World War II.
Hession and Quigley make the case that Howe’s prison term was crucial in his professional development. Severed from Wright and Taliesin, with plenty of time and no budget or client constraints, he sketched freely and stretched the bounds of his creativity.
When Howe moved to Minnesota for good, he quickly established himself as a favorite architect of
Lake Minnetonka money, building dramatic yet intimate homes for doctors and Daytons. Although almost all his designs were residential, including his own home, dubbed Sankaku, in Burnsville, Howe built a dramatic church in New Brighton.
While his designs are definitely in the Wright mold, Hession said it would be unfair to suggest that Howe didn’t bring his own unique sensibility to the work.
“He carried on Wright’s tradition, but he also had architectural principles of his own,” she said. “His architecture became very Minnesotan. It was designed for the specificity of this landscape and this climate, and some of the harsh realities of it.
“It has been said that Howe houses tend to be more light-filled than Wright houses,” Hession said. “Howe said that Minnesota was not a place for dark houses.”
Of the land, not on it
Howe’s guiding principle was this: The land is the beginning of architecture. He refused to change the natural contours of a building site. He wouldn’t begin a design until he’d walked the land, and he made extensive use of topographical maps in creating his plans. A visit to an Edina home designed by Howe vividly illustrates how he put those principles into practice.
There are many homes on the shores of Arrowhead Lake, a body of water ringed by dramatic hills and deep ravines. But while other homes perch on top of the hills, the Weston House seems to emerge from them.
“A lot of Howe homes feel as if they’ve grown out of the landscape,” Hession said, and the Weston House certainly does. The Howe design, built in 1980, greets visitors with low, horizontal limestone walls and rooflines that nearly touch the ground. As one steps down to enter the house, Howe’s plan becomes clear.
The rear of the house opens onto a wooded vista. A large hearth provides an emotional center, and built-in furnishings and shelves are a typical Wrightian touch.
The entire home exemplifies what Hession called “compression and release,” the interplay between contrasting forces. A low-ceilinged entry gives way to a higher-ceilinged living area. Narrow hallways open onto interior rooms. The siting of the home provides a sense of both refuge and prospect, nestling into the hill while embracing the lake and the oak-filled lot.
Most of Howe’s homes survive, but Hession voiced concern about the future.
“When Howe was building many of these homes, he was fortunate to have clients who possessed spectacular building lots,” she said. “But property can be more valuable than the house that stands on it. I’m not entirely comfortable with the future of some of these homes.”