The Rosenbaum House, a Florence, Alabama Usonian Landmark
Sneaking out of the house as a kid to walk to downtown Florence, Alabama, was unwittingly one of the sweet pleasures of growing up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. “Every room had access to the outdoors,” says Alvin Rosenbaum, whose parents worked with the then 72-year-old master architect to design the 1940 Usonian structure and its 1948 addition at Grove and Riverview.
“It was always special to me,” remembers Alvin, author of “Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design for America.”
“We had both privacy and freedom,” continues the third of four sons born and raised in the Rosenbaum House, blocks from McFarland Park on the banks of the Tennessee River overlooking the bridge to Muscle Shoals.
The extension, an upshot of a growing family, was the only one ever designed personally by Wright, a visionary of the first order. With back-facing doors and windows, characteristic of Usonian design, it’s understandable to see why a precocious youngster might want to head, in the words of Tom Petty, “Into the great wide open.”
The father of American modernism, Wright identified a need for modestly priced housing in the post-Depression, wartime, and post-wartime era that marked the 1930s and 1940s. With several Usonian models for the choosing, the affordable houses were both a departure from traditional Cape Cod, Tudor, and Revivalist architecture of the day and representative of the advent of California Ranch style.
A precursor to the “open space concept” bandied about on HGTV, Usonian kitchens almost always open to the home’s living space. Other notable distinctions are the L-shaped single-story structure, frequent use of clerestory windows, radiant floor heat, no front porches, no basements and, instead of garages, there are carports—a Wright concept. The cantilevered porte-cochère at the Rosenbaum house is one of Wright’s most dramatic. Using materials sympathetic to the surrounding natural environment, Wright’s architecture was intended to be,he wrote, “a companion to the horizon.”
Louis and Anna Rosenbaum’s wedding gift to their only child Stanley and his bride Mildred was a parcel of land across from their house and a $7,500 construction budget. A graduate of Harvard University, Stanley worked for his father who owned and operated Princess-brand movie houses in Wyoming, Arkansas, and northwestern Alabama, including the Shoals Theater, which sat 1,344 when it opened in 1948. Avid readers, the younger Rosenbaum’s library evolved to 5,000 books strong, and their magazine subscriptions kept them au courant with architecture and design trends of particular interest.
“The house made us feel special,” recalls Jonathan Rosenbaum, older brother of Alvin, film critic, and also a book author.
Travel to the Land of the Rising Sun informed Wright’s Japanese-inspired architecture and design as evidenced specifically in the scale and minimalism of the Rosenbaum interiors. A serene meditative Japanese garden tucked close to the house planted later by Mildred serves to accentuate the sweeping lawn behind it.
Jonathan reminisces, “There’s a certain coziness I associate with Japanese architecture.”
Acknowledging his former youthful obliviousness, he says, “I took it for granted.”
“There is no other example of a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was lived in as a residence by the people who commissioned it,” says the youngest child, Michael Rosenbaum, about the family’s 60 years there. He asserts that Wright said, “The Rosenbaum family is my favorite.”
Mildred, or Mimi as her sons call her, served as resident curator and tour guide up to 1999 when, at 82, she moved out, and the house, which had fallen into disrepair, was sold to the City of Florence.
In a wistful nod to her childhood home and upbringing in Iran, filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, documents life in the Rosenbaum house in her 2020 documentary, “A House is Not a Home: Wright or Wrong.” In addition to footage of the construction of the house, we see snapshots of the young family and watch the three living Rosenbaum sons expand on their personal experiences. It’s a candid glimpse of a family’s life in a house made famous because of its architect, and confirmation that we never know what goes on behind closed doors—even 17-inch-wide Frank Lloyd Wright doors.
Visiting the Rosenbaum House:
601 Riverview Drive
Florence, Alabama 35630
Tuesday through Saturday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday: 1 to 4 p.m.
Admission: Adults $10; Seniors/Students $5
Warmly received at private screenings, check the availability of “A House is Not a Home: Wright or Wrong” by contacting Ms. Saeed-Vafa at email@example.com