John deKoven Hill and the Corbett House

J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett House

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

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

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 (1960)

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 featuring Corbett House (February 1960)

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