John deKoven Hill and the Corbett House

July 5, 2018

J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett House, Grandin Road, Hyde Park, Cincinnati, OH, by John deKoven Hill; Landscaping by Henry F. Kinney, 1958-60.  Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer, 2008.  From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

 

 

John deKoven Hill (1920-96), a Frank Lloyd Wright pupil and Taliesin Fellow, designed a major house for J. Ralph Corbett and his wife Patricia in Cincinnati.  Hill's family was from Cleveland and Chicago.  He entered Taliesin in 1938 and remained for the rest of his life, except for a decade in New York City, from 1953-64, as an editor at House Beautiful magazine, an "assignment" given him by Wright.  Hill was a rare, openly gay apprentice (others were more secretive about their sexuality) and though Wright certainly never discussed this, he recognized it at some intuitive level, ironically putting Hill in charge of his (Wright’s) clothes and closet and of arranging flowers in his personal rooms at Taliesin.

 

Photograph of John deKoven Hill.  From Roger  Friedland and Harold Zellman,  The Fellowship : The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship:  Regan Books, 2006.

 

 

Wright cultivated Hill’s talent for interior design and used him to assist with many of his best interiors.  While at House Beautiful, Hill served as Wright’s advocate and mouthpiece and oversaw the publishing of many of Wright's designs in the magazine.  House Beautiful chief editor Elizabeth Gordon controversially opposed the International Style as “foreign,” “socialist,” and even “communist,” and championed Wright’s “American Modernism."  She could be a formidable character and chased away some of her male architectural editors but Hill, perhaps because he was gay, seemed comfortable working for this powerful and outspoken woman.  

 

Portrait drawing of Elizabeth Gordon. From Monica Penick. Tastemaker : Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home:  Yale University Press, 2017.

 

 

In 1946, Gordon initiated the “House Beautiful  Pace-Setter House of the Year” program, devoting an annual issue of the magazine to a custom-designed “dream” house that featured materials and products from the magazine’s advertisers.  One advertiser, J. Ralph Corbett, owned the “NuTone” corporation, a Cincinnati household electronics firm.  He and his wife Patricia, a professional musician and music patron, decided in 1957 to participate in the “Pace-Setter” program.

 

 NuTone advertisement in House Beautiful, February 1960, featuring futuristic electronics in the Corbett House kitchen

 

 

This was late in Wright’s career, or Elizabeth Gordon might have asked him to design the Corbett’s Cincinnati house.  Instead, John deKoven Hill designed it.  Hill knew Cincinnati, having assisted with the interiors of Wright's Tonkens House. Completed shortly after Wright’s death in 1959, the Corbett House became Hill's major, independent architectural commission.  It featured as the House Beautiful 1960 Pace-Setter House (February and March issues).  

 

Cover of House Beautiful, February 1960, featuring the Corbett House.  The living area and Patricia Corbett's musical "stage" appear on the front of the magazine.    

 

 

While elaborately Wrightian-organic in appearance, the Corbett House served as a vehicle for the magazine's advertisers—including NuTone products.  Both the kitchen and Patricia Corbett’s combined living room-musical performance area seethed with the latest electronics.  Hill and Gordon cheerfully adapted Wright’s Organic Modernism as a showcase for product-placement.  The house also served as the Corbett's "stage" for constructing a role in Cincinnati society:  Jewish and not originally from Cincinnati, they were classic "outsiders."  In fact, the house presented multiple “stages”:  it had an actual stage area for Patricia Corbett’s musical performances and those of her visiting musicians; it acted as a “stage” for Ralph Corbett’s NuTone products and those of Elizabeth Gordon’s other advertisers; and it was the Corbett’s “stage” for performing their artistic and philanthropic role in Cincinnati society. 

 

Corbett House from the north-east, with entry drive from Grandin Road and the Ohio River Valley in the background.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. From House Beautiful, February 1960

Corbett House terraces, looking southeast, with Ohio River in background.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. From House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

Like Taliesin itself, the Corbett House is sited over the brow of a hill.  It sits below Grandin Road in Cincinnati with dramatic views of the Ohio River Valley.  Unlike Taliesin, it is mostly one-story and ground-hugging, but large and luxurious, similar to some of Wright's earlier 20th-century residences.  Its stone exterior and low, hipped roofs conform to Wright's Prairie Style, though its Alcoa Aluminum roof and molded plastic bubble skylights give it a futuristic appearance.  

 

Corbett House, swimming pool wing, looking south.  Photograph by Alice Weston. ca. 1990s. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

 

 

The Corbett House plan echoes Wright's early Prairie Style houses:  it is a cruciform with an additional L-wing, the multiple wings "zoned" for various functions.  An entrance drive curves down from Grandin Road and through the lower level of the L-wing in the form of a porte-cochere; it then passes through a service court and back up to the road.  The L-wing, occupying the northern, uphill portion of the site, contains a partially open carport below and two children's' rooms above that could double as guest rooms.  This wing is the only two-story portion of the house.

 

Corbett House:  floor plan (above; north is up) and axonometric drawing (below; north is down).  House Beautiful, February 1960

Corbett House from the northeast:  port-cochere and main entry, beneath the children's bedroom / guest room wing.  Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

 

 

The cross-wings of the cruciform contain the Corbetts' separate bed and bath rooms while the extremities of the long, main axis contain a kitchen on the west and a lavish, enclosed swimming pool on the east, surrounded by glass doors opening onto surrounding terraces.  

 

Corbett House:  Left, floor plan of cross-wing containing the Corbetts' bedrooms and baths; right,  photograph of Mrs. Corbett's bathroom.  Both from House Beautiful, February 1960.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto

Left:  Mrs. Corbett's bathroom.  Photograph by  Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February 1960.  Right:  Mrs. Corbett's bathroom now  Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008.  From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Corbett House, swimming pool wing from south.  Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Corbett House, interior of swimming pool wing. Photographs by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February, March 1960

 

 

The entry sequence of the Corbett House is reminiscent of Wright's Johnson Wax Corporate Headquarters at Racine, Wisconsin:  guests arrive by automobile under the porte-cochere and enter a deep, darkened entry.  Next comes a dramatic "sky tower," a vertical, light-flooded space with sculpted stone walls capped by a molded plastic bubble skylight.  

 

Corbett House:  entry, "sky tower," and skylight.  Photographs by  Ezra Stoller ©Esto.  Lower left:  sectional perspective drawing, cut from north to south, of port-cochere, with bedroom above, and sky tower.  All from House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

At the heart of the house are its open, living-dining areas where a stone fireplace chimney abuts the "sky tower" on the west while on the east is a raised "entertainment" stage, with two pianos, built-in stereos, record storage, and electronic sound equipment. These entertaining spaces open through widely-set stone piers and floor-to-ceiling glass doors onto stepped terraces that spill downhill to the south.

 

Corbett House.  Left:  Living Area.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto.  House Beautiful, February 1960.  Right:  Living area and entertaining stage.  Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer, 2008.  From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

 

Corbett House living areas and terraces from south.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February 1960

 

Cincinnati landscape architect Henry Fletcher Kinney consulted on the surrounding gardens. The terraces were originally made of variegated, blue tile; Hill's relentless use of it indicates its manufacturer, American Olean, as a major House Beautiful advertiser.  The tile did not hold up well outdoors.  Deep, overhanging eaves on the south are pierced with square openings that, combined with the terraces, planting beds, and pools below, suggest Japanese garden design.  

 

Corbett House, open eaves and terraces on the south.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

While the southern, downhill side of the house is dramatically open, its northern, entrance front is made opaque by "closets."  North of Patricia Corbett's bedroom is her huge, blank-walled, walk-in closet ("dress storage") that protrudes beyond the hipped roof of the cross-wing.  Because the Corbetts needed to store portions of their large art collection, Hill placed smaller, protruding "art closets" between the stone piers of the north front. On the exterior they appear as a row of opaque, stuccoed, box-like bays, while on the interior, canted wooden doors with shelves create display surfaces for paintings and prints.  Hill may have been humorously rethinking the idea of the "closet."  His closets at the Corbett House are exposed on the exterior while concealed on the interior.  

 

Corbett House from the north, or entrance front, with John deKoven Hill's innovative "closets" that exhibit themselves on the exterior.   Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Corbett House, northern interior wall with "art closets" and canted wood doors that simultaneously allow for art storage  behind and display in front.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

Sunlight is modulated inside the house by aluminum screens with circle-and-cruciform motifs that shade windows and clerestories and create permeable walls. The motif, invented by Hill, recalled designs of Wright's master Louis Sullivan and predicted a future direction for Wright's successor firm, Taliesin Associated Architects, which sometimes employed similar screens on the exteriors of buildings.  

 

Corbett House, detail of aluminum screen motif.  Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer, 2008.  From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

 

 

The kitchen is the most dramatic but least Wrightian space of the house.  Wright's later kitchens tended to be small "work spaces," but the Corbett's kitchen is a vast, blue, Formica-clad space with sloped ceilings, skylights, and the latest electronics (cook-tops, waste disposals, can openers, freezers, dishwashers, ice-makers, and more). It is the technological "showcase" of the house and Ralph Corbett's major advertisement for NuTone products.  

 

Corbett House kitchen. Photographs by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

The kitchen is treated as equal to the public spaces of the house; perhaps the Corbetts sometimes used it themselves, but during entertainments it probably remained private, staffed by cooks, maids, and servers. Despite its contradictions, however, the Corbett House kitchen is a precursor of today's lavish "entertaining kitchens."

 

The Corbett House, as featured in House Beautiful, offered middle class readers voyeuristic views into the Corbetts' upper-class lifestyle, enhanced by Hill's sophisticated spatial layering and Ezra Stoller's alluring photographs. 

 

Corbett House, kitchen plan with electronic appliances called out.  House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

Wright's school at Taliesin continued the 19th-century tradition of architectural education by apprenticeship.  John deKoven Hill epitomized the "loyal apprentice" who, with the exception of his "assignment" at House Beautiful magazine, remained a part of the Taliesin team for his entire career.  The Corbett House is the single, independent commission where his architectural "voice" is evident in a complete building.

 

Corbett House, south terraces with deteriorating American Olean tile.  Photograph by Alice Weston. ca. 1990s From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

 

 

Cincinnati architect Thomas Landise, Jr. supervised construction of the Corbett House and later returned to make modifications, including an enlargement of the dining room.  Patricia Corbett lived in the house until her death in 2008, after which it was sold and remodeled. Chuck Lohre (an owner of Wright's Boulter House) rescued the futuristic kitchen, which remains in storage. 

 

The Corbett House is unique:  a  luxurious, Wrightian-style, organic residence designed by Taliesin protege John deKoven Hill to accommodate multiple and complex programmatic requirements.  It served Elizabeth Gordon as a product-placement haven for House Beautiful advertisers;  it served J. Ralph Corbett as a showcase for NuTone electronics;  it served Patricia Corbett as an entertaining center for advancing her musical ambitions and her philanthropic role in Cincinnati; it allowed the Corbetts to simultaneously display and store their extensive art collections; it functioned as a home on a day-to-day basis; and its effective spatial layering made for brilliant publication photographs.   At the Corbett House, John deKoven Hill gave everyone involved with it everything that they desired.  

 

Corbett House.  Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. House Beautiful, February 1960

 

 

 

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