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ROCKFORD — The newest addition to Rockford’s museum community may have the most international reach.
In 1948, Ken and Phyllis Laurent commissioned world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a home for them on Spring Brook Road. Ken was a paraplegic after spinal surgery in 1946 and Phyllis thought Wright’s architectural style would suit his needs.
The Laurents lived in the home for 60 years, making sure all improvements and additions were completed in the Wright style.
In 2012, a group of local Wright enthusiasts formed The Laurent House Foundation and bought the home, Wright’s architectural drawings and furnishings and the family’s personal effects. The Laurent home is the only one the architect of such treasures as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the Guggenheim in New York City and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania designed specifically for a person with disabilities.
The organization opened the home to the public in 2014 and visitors have come from more than 40 states in the United States and five continents.
This year, the Laurent House took another step forward. The organization purchased a home across the street from the Laurent House and turned it into a visitor center.
“That project cost about $750,000,” said Jerry Heinzeroth, a retired design engineer, who is president of The Laurent House Board of Directors. “We were able to get donations and funding for most of it, but we still owe the contractor $140,000.”
Unfortunately, until Friday, no one had been able to visit the Laurent House or see the new visitor center because it was shut down like 85,000 other museums worldwide because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, the Laurent House opens in April and closes in November except for a brief period around Christmas to show off the house with its original Christmas decorations. Already, dozens of potential bus tours, which typically brought in crowds of 40 to 50 people, have been canceled and continued concerns over the virus means most of those won’t be happening in the late spring or fall.
“We’re expecting to be down 50% the whole year,” Heinzeroth said. Last year, staff estimated about 3,000 saw the house.
A survey by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that up to 13% of museums will not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Heinzeroth said although the year will be difficult, the Laurent House is well positioned long-term.
He said the contractor is a museum supporter and is allowing the foundation to work through its obligation.
“We don’t have a lot of money in the bank, but we’re pretty bare bones,” he said. “We don’t have any paid staff.”
His greatest concern this year is his docents. They all fall in the older age range, which is the demographic most at risk from COVID-19.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to bring in as much revenue as possible, but we have to be sensitive to our docents’ concerns,” Heinzeroth said. “We’re letting them set the guidelines.”
For now, the Laurent House will open for tours of no more than four people on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and only by reservation.
“Our board is very positive. They are out there raising money. We’ve met challenges before,” Heinzeroth said. He added that he hopes the pandemic will cause lasting changes in people’s outlooks on what life has to enjoy.
“I can only speak from my own perspective, but I view many things in life differently now,” he said. “I’m going to show my gratitude. There are many things in the world we’ve taken for granted.”
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