Usonian Utopia

Even architectural novices likely have heard of Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest American building designer, but most people probably aren’t familiar with Ted van Fossen. In 1956, the latter took Wright’s concept of Usonia, a word popularized by Wright that predates his usage, and began designing middle-class homes in his Usonian style – single-story houses that fit organically into the natural surroundings and feature carports, flat roofs, and lots of windows for natural lighting. Van Fossen eventually created the largest communal ode to Usonian technique tucked into a wooded glen in Worthington.

The project began when Richard and Martha Wakefield, who had become enamored with Wright’s architecture and visited him at his Taliesin West studio in Scottsdale, decided to build their Usonian model home just blocks from Downtown Worthington. With Richard serving as the contractor, the couple hired van Fossen, a former laborer under Wright in the 1930s, to design it. After theirs was complete, they continued building house after house until a neighborhood sprang into existence, with van Fossen serving as master architect for the entire community.

Today there are 45 homes on the Rush Creek roster, all of them integrated through a unified vision, with furniture, storage, and scenic vistas built directly into the design of the houses, yet each one offering privacy and a close connection to its natural surroundings. It’s a singular neighborhood, in Columbus or anywhere else.

Hal & Jill Pepinsky
519 Evergreen Circle

Hal Pepinsky’s parents built this house in 1957 and were among the original Rush Creek residents; as a 12-year-old, Hal helped construct the guest house in 1959. His mother was a muse of sorts for van Fossen, and the two collaborated on the home’s interior design. It’s “thoroughly Ted” throughout, down to the table lamps and rug in the living room.

Hal and his wife Jill moved back from Indiana and into the house in 2009, while his mother was still living there. It has been restored to its 1957 condition with the help of Bruce Rice, another Rush Creek resident. Hal meditates in the home, accompanied by the sounds of nature surrounding him.

“It’s only 1,300 square feet in the main house, but you’re really drawn to the outside, and it feels as though you’re really a part of something enormous.”

Scott & Celia Conlon
510 Evergreen Circle

Across the street from the Pepinsky’s sits Scott and Celia Conlon’s home, the “Round House.” The circular structure was completed in 1958 and was planned by van Fossen as the center of the community. Scott and Celia have been living in Rush Creek since 1996 but just moved into the Round House two years ago, drawn by the open floor plan, quirky design, and the abundance of glass windows.

The community has no sidewalks, no streetlights, no fences, no visible property lines, and plenty of open green space, creating a park-like feel for the whole neighborhood, according to Scott. There are challenges to living in a place with such unique designs – the flat roofs, for example – but the residents share knowledge about how to overcome them, binding them together as neighbors.

“It’s like living in the best vacation house you could imagine,” he said. “We can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Julie Johnson
509 Pincherry Lane

Julie Johnson and her husband Bruce were another of the original set of residents and moved into their house in 1958. The couple loved modern architecture, especially Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bruce completed all the interior work.

“The house is special to me because my husband really did design everything in it,” she said.

Her mother, Verona Johnston, moved into an upstairs apartment in the home when she was 98 years old, and Bruce outfitted a board between her bedroom and the bathroom to keep her from falling when her balance faltered after she reached 112. She resided there until her death at 114 – making her the oldest American at the time – and she never fell. Julie also wants to stay in the home as long as she can.

“I don’t know how to say it any other way: I hope they carry me out someday.” She’s currently 91.