House + Home Q+A

For transplanted Brooklynites, there’s no place like Olathe

Updated: 2013-07-21T01:15:43Z


The Kansas City Star

He’s an architect who grew up in Chicago and trained at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. She’s a landscape designer who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They met and married in New York, and for the last 14 years they’ve lived in a five-story “dream house” they built in Brooklyn. In April, the couple broke ground on a new dream house — in Olathe.

From Brooklyn to Olathe. How did that happen?

A year ago we took a monthlong driving trip focusing on the architecture of Arkansas-based architect Fay Jones. Near the end of the trip, we arrived in Kansas City, and we both thought that the terrain was beautiful. The other place we liked was Denver.

Because New York is becoming a regulatory impossibility for our professional projects, we decided to investigate both cities. We took trips and looked at property and this one won. We sold our Brooklyn house, and we’re on an adventure.

John, the building is your design?

It’s an octagonal house with two secondary structures. One is our offices for design, and the other is a library building. It’s the tallest building; the walls are 20 foot high. We have nearly 10,000 volumes.

The house is centered around a core. It has a folded roof and a central glass cupola containing a spiral staircase that goes up to a walkway on the roof. The floor in the center of the house is glass, to allow the light to flow from the cupola to the basement.

Why an octagon?

It’s a very efficient design. Like the circle, it encloses the maximum amount of space with the minimum amount of material. This house is 4,200 square feet with a cathedral ceiling; the walls go from nine to 16 feet.

What material are you using for the structure?

It’s a concrete building, and it will be able to handle an E-5 tornado. The shape is inherently stronger, and concrete is the strongest material you can use. The coloration will be a golden sunshine yellow. It’s similar to the limestone rocks we dug up. The house is all concrete, including the interior walls, with rigid insulation, like a sandwich.

And the floor plan?

The large living room has three sections. One is oriented to the fireplace, there’s an entertainment area with the television and a third section with the dining table. Next comes the kitchen and master bedroom, another bedroom and a laundry/utility room.

Cynthia, tell me about your plans for the landscape.

I’m doing a stroll garden with two pergolas — covered with wisteria, of course. I’m English-trained. In English gardens, you do rooms. In a Kansas garden, I didn’t want rooms; I wanted it open, although there are separate sections.

I’ve designed a woodland walk, a grass meadow, an orchard and flowering meadow, and a winter garden you can see from the house. It will have shrub dogwoods with red and yellow stems, Sparkleberry holly and miscanthus grass. The miscanthus grass and red Sparkleberries bring you to your knees.

The winter garden is on the south side of the house, and the winter sun will shine through the plants.

In the area along the creek, I’m restoring native plants: cottonwood, red cedar and red bud. I’m placing a lone American elm in the lawn area because our property is just off Lone Elm Road.

And you’re incorporating some flower beds?

In the mixed border I’m going to plant 200 bronze fennel and 18 dark yellow roses of the Morning Has Broken variety. I’ve also designed a perennial border and a red border with plants that have red flowers and red leaves. In the blog I’m writing,, one of my posts is about massing plants and the importance of creating spaces with plants.

Tell me about some of the other features of your house and garden plan.

We have an 8- by 10-foot endless current pool in the basement with a skylight. Swimming and not turning is so Zen. I can’t tell you how many gardens I’ve designed on my back.

This is quite a change from Brooklyn.

We wanted more land. I am discovering the sky, the horizon. When I move into this house I’m never going to be in a bad mood again. It should be done by late fall, and I’ll begin planting the shrubs and trees.

One of the things that brought us here is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It’s one of the best museums in the country. We joined before we moved here.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to

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