LIFE IS SHORT, BUT ART IS LONG
My grandparents were married over sixty years and spent almost all of them in a house bestowed with landmark status by the Milwaukee County Historical Society. The house is part of a national registry. My grandfather commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build it after my grandmother read about Wright in LIFE magazine.
The Albert B. and Edith Adelman house is the longest house I’ve ever seen. It’s built around an extended cinder-block passageway with small high windows. Each one of the windows opens with a latch.
It is not uncommon for people to cruise up the long red driveway and then turn around after having a peek. My grandparents, as custodians of a house designed by an architect who was famous, were gracious to people who wanted to see it. They would never consider getting a gate, and they granted tours of the house to anyone who asked.
The house that resembles a train is smaller than its original plan. My grandfather was on a budget, so Frank Lloyd Wright decided that instead of cutting anything, he would shrink it and scaled everything back 8 percent. Even the roof’s massive overhangs, which were meant to create shade in hot summer months and form massive icicles in winter, were a bit too small. My grandfather’s shoulder caught rain when he walked from the garage to the house.
My grandfather told the story of knocking on Wright’s door and convincing the architect to design a home for his family. He had the habit of telling the same story to the same audience.
“Ollie!” my grandmother would say with the exasperation only years of marriage could produce. “That’s enough!” Eventually, she was able to drop the “That’s enough!” because the way she called his name said it all.
What my grandfather had going for him was his persistence—that and my grandmother. He ran a laundry business that his father started. He told stories of things he still mourned, like even though he was accepted, his inability to go to Dartmouth because of the Great Depression. He had gone to Northwestern instead, where he’d played tennis. He added a tennis court, way down at the end of the driveway. I remember he’d pull his car over onto the grass to say hello if people were playing.
My dad grew up in the house with the open-style living room—unusual for its day—where my grandmother spent many of her days reading in the natural light. In the evenings she pulled the drapes against the fierce Wisconsin winter nights.
My dad was fifteen years old when Wright died. Years later, my father bought a house down the street. When he and his brothers visited his parents on Sundays, they’d often walk to the end of the lane, cross a bridge, and admire Lake Michigan over gold, yellow, and red treetops in autumn.
In January, when my grandfather died, ice lined the shores of the lake. My brother read the newspaper obituary to my dad and me over dinner the night before the funeral. It was all about the house.
“I want to hear more about the man, Ollie Adelman, and less about the house,” someone commented.
There would be more about the house, its famous architect vastly more important than my grandfather ever was.
As the renovation began, the red drive was obscured by large pieces of wood to protect it from the construction vehicle traffic. Cinder blocks and cypress had to be cleaned, replaced, and refinished. A skylight—a feature that had been skipped—would be installed in the foyer.
A geothermal system would replace the old heated water pipes that had warmed the floor I used to lie on while talking to my grandmother. The hand-split cedar shingles would be replaced, and copper would be added to the chimneys. My father planned to put in that swimming pool from the original design. Not only did he do that, but he built a pool house too.
The name of the house, “Adelman,” would remain the same.
My brother relocated from Connecticut with his family to a house down the street. The bridge at the end of the lane, long closed, would be repaired with newly raised funds. Soon, everything would be restored to better-than-original state.
Inside the house, the interior wall of the hallway is lined with cypress and was filled with pictures of important things: children, grandchildren, Golda Meir, who was a friend of my grandfather, and invitations to the White House from when my grandfather was active with the United Jewish Appeal during the Nixon administration.
My parents lived with my grandparents when they were first married. It was on the narrow hallway’s heated red concrete floors that my grandmother heard the flurry of footsteps hurrying to the hospital. I was about to be born. Years later, when my parents got divorced, my mother’s picture was eventually removed from the wall. Now all pictures were removed from the “fame wall.”
The hallway made a slick thoroughfare for me and my cousin to scoot down on small-wheeled ottomans which were part of the Frank Lloyd Wright furniture collection. We left no picture frame on the lower tier untilted. The house was not a museum—children were also allowed to climb the rafters. My brother’s kids were doing it the last time I visited.
After a forty-year break from living in the house, my dad’s renovation was fully completed in time for what would have been Wright’s 150th birthday. The house was a piece of art that my father owned. A tour was scheduled.
The Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Calatrava Art Museum in Milwaukee did not include our house, but I was struck by all the plans for skyscrapers and cities that did not get built. I was proud to come from a family who got things done.