“Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
When visiting the Shoals area, or anywhere in Alabama for that matter, you should take time to visit the Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama. Nestled among otherwise ordinary Southern homes, this gem of craftsmanship and architecture is a perfect example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style of design and is the only home he built in Alabama. Constructed nearly 60 years ago, the house was inhabited by the Rosenbaums (the home’s sole occupants) until 1999, when the family donated the property to the city of Florence. The home has been completely restored to look exactly as it did when the Rosenbaums lived there. Walking through it, you can feel the life and love that seeps from it still.
In 1938, Stanley Rosenbaum, a young Harvard College graduate who lived in Florence and worked in his family’s movie theater business, married New York fashion model Mildred Bookholtz and brought her home to Alabama. As a wedding gift, Stanley’s parents gave the newlyweds two acres of land and a small sum of money with which to build a home. The couple optimistically turned to world famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, known for his innovative design approach and affordability. The Rosenbaums asked Wright to build them a home with three bedrooms, two baths, a large kitchen, a study, a living room large enough to accommodate Mildred’s piano, and all for the sum of $7,500. To their surprise, Wright agreed.
At this point in his career, Wright was enamored with the idea of “The American Dream” and began designing Usonian homes, specifically tailored to help middle-income families fulfill the goal of home ownership. His plan was to build practical and affordable housing on a large scale by focusing on single story structures and omitting attics, basements, and unnecessary adornments to reduce cost. Usonian homes were tailor-made to his clients, their individual needs, and the location’s specific building site; they were constructed using native materials and natural light whenever possible. His primary goal was that nature be included in every aspect of the homes he built. Alvin Rosenbaum, son to Stanley and Mildred, described growing up in the home in this way: “…the sensation of living in a Usonian house was that of living in the country without being part of it, of living close to the ground, but in comfort, not in the rough.”
Just two miles from the Tennessee River, the Rosenbaum House is not simply a house on a piece of land, but a dwelling that extends from the land it sits on. As Wright stated, “I always flattered myself that what I represented was built from the ground up.” In the Rosenbaum Home, Wright achieved this by blending traditional building materials with new and inexpensive products such as concrete block and plywood. Like other Usonian homes, this Wright masterpiece is built with a flat roof made out of 2x4s, one on top of the other, toenailed together to hold the pitch that weatherproofs it. The rest of the home is built of Cypress wood, both inside and out. Cypress is abundant in the Shoals area, and because it grows in standing water, it is extremely resistant to water and termites.
The structure is strongly horizontal and was intentionally designed with few windows in the front of the home to reduce noise pollution. Its back faces the river and welcomes the nature that flows from it. The floor-to-ceiling windows in nearly every room highlight and integrate a luscious Japanese garden while the many skylights throughout the house provide beautiful light and an additional connection to the surrounding environment.
Wright embraced this organic style of architecture and furniture, which he felt was an extension of the home. He constructed furniture for each home he designed, frequently including built-in features like tables and beds, to maintain harmony throughout the space. As you walk from room to room in the Rosenbaum house, there are many treasures to find, but perhaps the most moving designs were not made by Wright, but by Mrs. Rosenbaum. Mildred Rosenbaum was an expert weaver, seamstress and embroiderer, and many of items she created are displayed throughout the home.
Next time you find yourself in or near Florence, Alabama, take the opportunity to explore the jewel of architecture known as the Rosenbaum House. Take in its simple, everyman design and understand what Wright meant when he said, “If I had another 15 years to work, I could rebuild this entire country. I could change the nation.”
601 Riverview Drive
Florence, AL 35630