Home and Lifestyle

A Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home in Sunset Hills

Couple appreciates style of the famed architect

Bob and Tammy Downing are Frank Lloyd Wright-o-philes.

That’s what they call people who have a strong affinity and appreciation for the architecture and style of Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-renowned architect who called Wisconsin home.

The Downings’ home of 15 years in the Sunset Hills neighborhood of Hoyt Park was built in 1968 by two Frank Lloyd Wright apprentices, Herbert Fritz Jr. and Herb DeLevie. Wright, who designed more than 1,000 structures in his lifetime, was a teacher and mentor to many. Wright’s apprentices learned from him at his Taliesin estate in Spring Green and went on to build houses and other edifices that have carried on the architect’s legacy.

Sunset Hills is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Downings’ home isn’t the only apprentice-built house on the block. Former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and his wife, Sara, live down the way in a 1956 apprentice-built home, one of the 103 houses in the neighborhood. The Hoyt Park area between Regent Street and University Avenue is a somewhat hidden hotbed of historic homes owned by a slew of faithful stewards who have preserved many architectural details and much of the midcentury modern décor of the original houses.

The Downings are two such homeowners. The floor plan of the multilevel home is an architectural beauty and curiosity with spacious rooms at every turn. A labyrinth-like path of steps leads you to the heart of the home, a living room featuring a bookmatched rosewood corner fireplace, stacked brick feature walls, a two-story window and a view of the upstairs hallway that’s open to the living room below.

Many pieces in the house are from the first owners, including walnut cabinetry, impeccably sustained grasscloth wallpaper, Marimekko curtains in an upstairs bedroom, a stunning dining room ceiling fixture and custom-made 1968 Lane furniture pieces that the Downings bought back from the original owners’ children.

The Downings’ midcentury modern and retro furniture collection abounds — they have a white Saarinen side table and a vintage 1972 womb chair in the front room, an octagonal table made of olive wood in the bedroom and other geometric lamps and sculptures throughout the house.

Bob, a landscape architect, was a garage sale and thrift store fiend before shopping at St. Vincent de Paul was cool. “There’s a lot of vintage pieces mixed in with some really expensive pieces,” he says. Some items he finds on the curb — others he doesn’t, he says.

But his curb shopping is a little different than the Hippie Christmas that happens on moving day near the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus.

Downing picked up a Milo Baughman chair that came out of another Fritz-designed house in the Sherwood neighborhood. “If you had to buy this chair now on eBay or 1stdibs, it’d probably cost you $3,000 to $4,000,” he says.

Bob, a UW–Madison art graduate, and Tammy, who runs the dental hygiene program at Madison College, are also art fanatics. Paintings and prints can be found in every room, including works by Wisconsin artists Lee Weiss, Georgene Pomplun, Sarah Aslakson, Aaron Bohrod, Warrington Colescott and Bill Wege, to name a few. But they don’t confine their love of art to the big name attached. The colorful floral painting in the hallway off the living room was a St. Vinny’s Dig & Save find for $1, Downing says.

The Downings often host home tours for national and local groups, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy out of Chicago. Bob often finds himself in awe of the people he hosts in his home, including one group from Israel. He also hosted Roland Reisley, who built the Roland Reisley House in Pleasantville, New York. The home had an addition by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956. “When he’s in your living room, your heart starts to palpitate,” says Downing. “He actually knew Frank Lloyd Wright.”

While the arrangement of the house is intentional in every way, it’s no mausoleum. “This house is a party house,” says Downing. He and Tammy resurrected the block party tradition in the neighborhood when they moved in 15 years ago with their then 6-month-old, Ava. “We had a cocktail party and 100 people came,” Downing remembers.

And their cockapoo Jazz also helps bring life and a little chaos to the household. He enjoys shredding toys into dozens of small pieces and scattering them throughout the house — his own form of decorating, perhaps.

It’s possible Wright, who once designed a doghouse at the request of a 12-year-old boy, would be charmed. 

Andrea Behling is editor of Madison Magazine.


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