Mother Earth Living

Long House on the Prairie: A Modern Midwest Home

In Kansas, a modernist house strives for beauty while treading lightly on its sensitive grassland site.
By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
March/April 2005
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The kitchen, which opens up to the living room, is detailed with birch Ikea cabinets, handmade concrete countertops, and stainless-steel appliances.
Photos by Michael Shopenn

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What kind of a guy leaves a house in glamorous Bel Air and a promising start in the movie biz for a house with a sod roof on the plains of Kansas?

A smart one, to hear Jon O’Neal tell it.

“I walked into this house when it was just a shell, as it was being built, and said, ‘This is where I want to live,’” says the Harvard-trained physician, who recently earned an MFA in filmmaking screenwriting from UCLA. “All my friends in L.A. were saying, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ But none of them have been here to see this place yet. It’ll be a big challenge to get them out here, but once they’re here, they’ll get it.”

Indeed they will. Jon’s 2,600-square-foot home, designed by locally famous (and sometimes controversial) Lawrence, Kansas, architect Dan Rockhill, is a sublime combination of traditional vernacular and smart modernism, a playful take on Nordic and Native American longhouses with sweeping views of prairie earth and sky. The house is a testament to sound design with a flexible, open floorplan; banks of twelve-foot-high windows taking in the southern sun; and sleek Ikea cabinets buffering the long north wall. Kansas limestone sheaths the exterior; a swath of native natural fescue grass on the roof provides insulation and tucks the house visually into the landscape.

“When you drive onto the site, the house kind of rises up from the grade,” Rockhill explains. “That’s actually something we spent a lot of time developing. We paid a little bit more to push the house down to the lower level and make it so it’s barely visible on approach. That’s part of the experience—you turn your back on the blacktop and the world behind it.”

The home’s union with the grassland surrounding it was the clincher for Jon, a native son who never lost his affinity for Kansas’s wide-open skies and rolling prairies—even when he lived in L.A. “I can sit in my office, writing and overlooking these incredible plains, trees, and farmland,” says Jon, who has already penned three screenplays based in his home state. “Yet I’m ten minutes from the filling station and the grocery store and forty-five minutes from Kansas City. You know, it took me fifteen minutes to get to a gas station from my house in L.A.”

While Jon found his dream home, Rockhill found his dream buyer in Jon. In exchange for restoring a historic stone farmhouse, Rockhill’s firm had received fifteen acres of agricultural bottomland—an old homestead—in rural Doug­las County. He parceled out an 8.37-acre site on the western boundary, then designed and built an ambitious spec house. Built for about $150 per square foot (not including Rockhill’s time and land value), the modernist house was a risky venture because it didn’t fit locals’ traditional expectations.

“We advertised for six weeks in the Topeka and Lawrence newspapers, and only one ­couple came out to look. It was discouraging.”

Then one day Jon showed up in Rockhill’s office to talk about designing a home in Law­rence. Rockhill took him out to the house in the country, and he was immediately smitten. Jon bought the home for $385,000 and has never looked back. “For the cost of a mass-produced Tudor from hell in Lawrence or half the price of a 1,200-square-foot shack in L.A., I have this handcrafted piece of art,” he marvels.

For Rockhill, the beauty of this house goes even deeper. “As houses spread across the open plains of America—the agricultural lands that feed us—the habitats that support the diversity of life and the resources that fuel our modern lives are being consumed with a sense of im­punity,” he says. “This sprawl seems inevit­able, but the way these houses interact with the land can change. This design represents a three- bedroom house with large rooms and the ex­pected amenities in a unique building that strives for beauty while treading lightly on its sensitive grassland site.”

What makes this home green?

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