The man who rescued a Frank Lloyd Wright gem

Jacobs House is now on World Heritage List
The man who rescued a Frank Lloyd Wright gem
Photo courtesy of Jim Dennis
Jim Dennis in the doorway of his Madison home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Jacobs House.

When I read earlier this month in the New York Times that eight major works by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright have been recognized by the United Nations as among the world’s most significant cultural and natural sites, I thought immediately of my friend Jim Dennis.

Dennis owns one of those major works. How that came to pass is an interesting tale.

First, the new honor. It was bestowed by UNESCO — the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization — which added the eight Wright works on its World Heritage List. The list includes famous Wright buildings like Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and Taliesin in Spring Green.

It also includes a home at 441 Toepfer Ave., in Madison’s Westmorland neighborhood. Wright’s followers refer to it as the Jacobs House. Since 1982, it has been owned by James M. Dennis, a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus art history professor.

Dennis is an Ohio native who came to Madison to study art history and started teaching the subject at UW-Madison in 1964. Dennis had some early interest in Wright. Years later he would recall an aunt who had challenged Wright after hearing the architect give a speech in which he disparaged historical houses (like the one the aunt owned).

Arriving in Madison in the late 1950s, Dennis got a chance to personally hear Wright speak at the Memorial Union. The subject: The design of UW-Madison. Wright’s verdict: Completely backward. Why have so many buildings facing away from the lake?

In 1975, with the architect 16 years deceased, Dennis went to hear a talk at the Wright-designed Unitarian Meeting House in Madison. The speaker was Herb Jacobs, a former Capital Times reporter who in the 1930s had engaged Wright to design a home that could be built for $5,000.

“He was superb,” Jim later told me. He loved the stories Jacobs told about working with Wright on what they called a “Usonian” home, with its open feeling and clean lines free of European trappings.

Jacobs and his wife, Katherine, lived in the house for five years, then moved, in 1942, to the country. Over the next four decades the Toepfer house had several owners.

In 1982 — seven years after hearing Jacobs speak — Dennis was talking with one of his UW students, a young man interested in architecture. Wright’s name came up. Dennis asked the student — Brad Lynch, today an architect in Chicago — if he’d ever seen the Jacobs House. Lynch had not. The two drove to Toepfer Avenue.

Two things stood out: First, the house’s appalling condition, overgrown by vegetation, and the carport in disrepair. Second, staked in the yard, was a “for sale” sign.

In a moment of inspired lunacy, Dennis decided to buy it. “It was crazy,” he told me later.

It put him in debt. Restoring it was a big job, requiring the help of friends, family and students. It was three years before Dennis could move in.

I first met Dennis in 2011, when he published a terrific book called “The Strike,” the name of a painting by Robert Koehler that was rediscovered after being stored away for decades.

We sat in his house on Toepfer Avenue to talk about the book and later he invited me to bring my wife by for a drink. Inevitably, the story of the Jacobs House emerged.

It was in 2015 that Jim first mentioned to me that the Wright-designed buildings, including his home, had been nominated for consideration as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. I emailed Jim recently when I heard they’d been added to the World Heritage List.

He replied that “while recognizing its honor to Madison and the community,” he had some “cautionary concern” that “it will turn the house into an all-too-public attraction.” Jim added, “It remains after and above all a private residence!”

Jim pointed out that it wasn’t him, but rather Herb and Katherine Jacobs’ daughter, Susan Jacobs, who was on point to have the house included.

Jim noted, “I have been more or less a bystander in the whole procedure.”

Still, I’m pretty sure on some level he’s pleased. Jim rescued the house from decay. No one would have dared think that 37 years later it would share space on a list of treasures with the Roman Colosseum and the Great Wall of China.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.