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.

| March/April 2005

  • 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
  • Beyond the kitchen, a hallway along the home’s south side leads to a core of rooms detached from the outside walls and the master bedroom at the east end of the house.
  • In one of the guest bedrooms, custom steel partitions open the entire wall to the southern view and the length of the north hall. The flexible space is at the heart of the core area and can be changed immediately from an open studio space to two smaller bedrooms, as needed. 'In our projects, we increasingly provide less definition for what the end use of a room should be,' Rockhill says. 'We provide rough space as opposed to delineating with great specificity where activities should occur.'
  • Freestanding handmade steel lavatories, designed and built by the architects, were placed in the hallways so the homeowner and guests can look out onto the southern view. “It’s such a fantastic landscape—you fall right into it,” Rockhill says. The mirror reflects the private toilet and tub room finished in two-inch mosaic tile.
  • From the north side of the house, the sod roof rises out of the grade on approach.
  • Kansas architect Dan Rockhill, a former mechanic, takes on ­constructing the homes he designs, often using custom items made in his rural workshop.
  • Twenty-eight floor-to-ceiling cabinets from Ikea provide more than 900 cubic feet of storage. Running the entire length of the north corridor, they buffer the colder north side.
  • The north side is clad with two-inch slabs of finely machined Kansas limestone hung using a mortarless system. 'They can cut that stone just like sliced bread,' Rockhill says.
  • A breezeway connecting the garage and the house is a fine place to sit and enjoy the southern view of the cropland.
  • Natural ventilation includes operable windows set high on the north ele­vation. Southern windows are protected from the hot summer sun by continuous louvers. The natural prairie was maintained and reseeded in disrupted areas following construction.
  • 1 Garage 2 Living Room 3 Kitchen 4 Mechanical 5 Bathroom 6 Bedroom 7 Bedroom 8 Shelter 9 Laundry 10 Master Bedroom 11 Master Bath 12 Closet
  • Jon O'Neal, a physician and screenwriter, moved back to Kansas after living in Los Angeles. He's written three screenplays set in his home state.

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.”






Mother Earth News Fair Schedule 2019

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Next: February 16-17 2019
Belton, TX

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on natural health, organic gardening, real food and more!

LEARN MORE