Embracing Original Vision

Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic design is still alive and well in Kansas City

Words: Rhiannon Ross
Photos: Jill DiMartino

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Jim Blair reclines on a vibrant orange, Southwestern-print sofa, circa 1980s. On the coffee table, a plastic, lime green tumbler stands among stacks of books and old issues of Architectural Digest.

“I don’t like this couch. It’s not good enough tobe here,” Blair says, almost apologetically. Then helaughs. “But it’s so comfortable!”

Dressed in yellow shorts and a blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt—his brown sandals kicked haphazardly onto the floor—Blair appears serene. He is tan and lean, and sports a trendy haircut, cropped, with long layers on top. Middle-aged, his green eyes look sleepy behind oversized glasses, even though it’s nearly noon. He occasionally yawns as he stretches like a sunning cat. A light breeze blows through the open French doors. Jazz and blues diva, Dinah Washington, croons, “I’m in love with a man who’s not in love with me”—a sentiment, confirmed by our shared grins, we find amusing. Blair’s mellow demeanor epitomizes the spirit of the Sondern-Adler House in Kansas City, MO. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright would surely approve.

Wright design

Wright first designed this “Usonian” house (one of two designed by him in Kansas City) as a standardized, affordable design for the middle class. And as a functional, livable space for families. He also designed the structure to harmonize with its natural environment—a term he coined “organic architecture.” He achieved his vision by incorporating walls of windows in every room, numerous French doors leading to patios, and low ceilings and a flat roof, which give the single-level house an almost cave-like sense of privacy. He also used natural materials in exterior and interior construction, in this case, cypress and brick. Location is an essential component, too. The Sondern-Adler House sits atop a hill in the historic Roanoke neighborhood overlooking tree-lush Roanoke Park. The land also abuts five-and-a-half acres of a neighbor’s private property. Surrounded by so many trees—hackberries, walnuts, pawpaws and ash—to name but a few—also give the feeling of living in a tree house. The iron-gated, winding driveway that leads to the nearly hidden, offroad house is flanked with weeping willows and aromatic pines.

“It is like living in a tree house,” Blair agrees. “It’s pretty relaxing here. We’re in the middle of the city but it’s very secluded.”

Designed by Wright in 1939 and constructed in 1940, the 900 square foot house was built for the Clarence Sondern family. However, when Arnold Adler purchased the house in 1948, he commissioned Wright to design an addition that expanded it to 2,900 square feet because his family loved to entertain. The house now boasts three bedrooms and three baths; a large room with dining terrace, clerestory, and Wright’s signature built-in, wall seating; a living area with a fireplace; and extra carports and a wading pool. The new design also relocated the front door, and connected the patios from the large room to the living area, creating a circular indoor-outdoor flow, ideal for garden parties.

A brush with fate

Blair says his first encounter with the Sondern-Adler house was an “accidental one,” when in 1982 its third owner, multi-millionaire banker and philanthropist Richard Stern, invited him to a party there. Blair, then in his 20s, was a bond trader with Stern Brothers.

“I’d read about Frank Lloyd Wright in school. I knew he was a famous architect,” Blair says. “I became more interested in his designs once I visited this house.”

Little did Blair know he would one day own the house. Stern often traveled for his work and would be away from home for seven to eight months out of the year. A friend of Stern’s lived in the house and cared for it. However, as the friend grew older and became ill, Blair would care for the house in his stead. When the friend died in 1997, Blair moved in. At some point, Stern donated the house to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, but continued to live in it until his death in 2001. Blair purchased the house from the museum.

“I love living here. It’s well-suited for me because it was built as an entertaining house,” Blair says, pointing to the well-stocked, built-in bar behind him. The kitchen countertop holds numerous bottles of wine. And Blair entertains … a lot. He hosted four parties in the month of August alone. His events include intimate gatherings as well as fundraisers for up to 200 guests. One year, he organized a Kentucky Derby party.

“Sometimes, before going out to dinner, friends will meet me at the house for cocktails,” Blair says. (Manhattans in winter; martinis in summer, he adds.)

When guests enter the house they are escorted back to the mid-20th century. Blair plays Big Band, and classic jazz and blues CDs such as Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and, of course, Dinah Washington.

“My guests know when they come here they better like my music because this is all I ever play,” Blair says, flashing a Gatsby smile.

Appropriate furnishings

As for décor, none of the original furniture remains at Sodern-Adler. Most of the mid-20th century furnishings hail from Stern’s residency. Blair has added his own personal touches throughout the years including two Thomas Hart Benton lithographs (the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site is next-door) and a massive, 16-century wooden trunk consuming the space below a window in the foyer.

Blair scouts for mid-century pieces down in the West Bottoms and other antique/vintage shops in town. Two of his favorite stops are Urban Mining (3929 Main St.) and Retro Inferno (1500 Grand Blvd.).

He’s repurposed the smallest bedroom into a cozy den. He primarily used the room for reading but its northerly view provides scant light, so he relocated to the comfy sofa. An avid reader, he’s currently reading a biography on Wright. The kitchen (updated in the 1960s) boasts not one window over the sink but multiple ones. With a dishwasher, it’s doubtful Blair scrubs pots and pans in the sink to enjoy the view. A good view can be had in any room in the house. He shares this haven with a gray feral cat named Stanley who slinks by on the patio to the wading pool.

A good steward

Part of being the owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house is good stewardship, which Blair exhibits throughout the year, says long-time neighbor and friend, Jackson County 1st District Legislator Scott Burnett.

“Jim’s a great neighbor. He served as neighborhood president last year,” Burnett says. “He’s active in our clean-ups and our neighborhood activities.”

Blair, he says, also shies away from modern technology. “He doesn’t use the Internet hardly at all and he has no cell phone. If you want to talk to him, you have to call his office phone.” (He owns a working, old-time, black telephone.)

Burnett says the majority of parties that Blair throws are fundraisers for politicians or for events like the AIDS Walk. Blair also donates the use of his home for auctions, which have raised thousands of dollars for local charities. One year, Burnett organized a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity that included a tour of the Thomas Hart Benton home and studio.

“A 104 people paid $50 each to attend the party and tour both homes,” Burnett says. “The Thomas Hart Benton folks were really pleased to have the people traffic. They depend upon tours for income.”

Recently, Burnett gave a 1st District tour to 40 Gordon Parks Elementary School teachers and when they passed the Sondern-Adler house, he told them, “If you ever want a tour, just walk up the driveway. Jim Blair will be glad to show you around.”

Strangers often call Blair out of the blue and ask to tour his home. If possible, he allows it and he never charges a fee. “I like that people appreciate the house,” he says.

Formerly, Blair served on the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago.

“The goal of the building conservancy is that Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes stay as homes, not turn into museums. If a home is in danger, then a museum is a better alternative than tearing it down,” he says. “I hope this house always will be a single residency,” he adds. Then, unable to maintain his serious demeanor any longer, Blair throws his head back on the cushion of his beloved orange sofa.

“Yeah,” he says, grinning. “It’s pretty cool living here!”

Rhiannon Ross is freelance writer born and raised in the Ozarks. Her 1924 Kansas City apartment, with French doors and a Plaza view, is decorated with an oak Mission desk and chair, a Mid-century gold velvet sofa, and a vintage Remington typewriter. She is the former editor of our sister publication, Discover Vintage America.