A lifelong love affair with modern architecture leads to an iconic prairie village home.
A Searing Desire for Something Different
Paul Searing was raised by his art-teacher mother to be creative and artistic. Unfortunately, he was unable to achieve his lifelong desire to become an architect because he was stricken with a nervous disorder that made drawing and drafting impossible.
After graduating from Southwest High School and UMKC, he attended graduate school in Arizona to be near Taliesin West, the winter architectural compound of Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples. Searing was particularly enthralled by Wright’s book The Natural House, his manifesto on building a small, inexpensive house that’s at one with nature. He visited Taliesin quite frequently, interacting with many of the young architects and apprentices there, which stimulated a desire to someday build a house based on Wright’s organic Usonian philosophy.
When he to returned to Kansas City after graduation, Searing realized that Bruce Goff, one of the architects repeatedly spoken about at Taliesin as the “new king of extreme architecture,” now shared an office with an architect friend down the hall from Searing’s father’s law office in the New York Life Building. The moment he was able to build his own house, Searing summoned the nerve to approach the famous, radical design guru located in his dad’s building.
The Boy Wonder
Bruce Goff was a child prodigy, born in Alton, Kansas, and apprenticed with an architectural firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the age of 12. Mostly self-taught, as a teenager he designed the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa, widely recognized as one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the country.
Goff was also an artist and music composer, but his fame came from the more than five hundred architectural designs he created, most of which were residential. His style was outrageously creative, influenced by Louis Sullivan, Antoni Gaudí, Erich Mendelsohn, Erte, Gustav Klimt, Claude Debussy and most importantly, his friend Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright advised him not to study at an architecture school because he might “risk losing what made him Bruce Goff in the first place.”
His unconventional, flamboyant, organic and almost hallucinogenic approach to design made him a fearless and rare architect in the traditional times of the 1930s and ’40s. Although Goff remained classically unschooled and his style undisciplined, he was so respected artistically that he became dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma from the mid-1940s through the mid-50s. After leaving OU, Goff moved his office to the Price Tower, a Frank LLoyd Wright building in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It was during this period and into the 1960s that Goff produced some of his most famous designs, including the Bavinger and Ledbetter Houses, both near Norman, as well as other noted Oklahoma residences and buildings. Goff left the state under controversial circumstances and arrived in Kansas City in 1964, sharing an office with well-known local architect Ted Seligson. When Paul Searing approached the “master of extremism” and organic design, it was the perfect match of architect and client.
The Third Time’s the Charm
The two men’s early discussions highlighted a shared organic-based architectural vernacular as Searing recalled Goff telling him “seems like you want a Wright-inspired Usonian house a la Bruce Goff.”
Goff designed a small, triangular house with floor-to-ceiling glass on all sides and interior walls that folded open to a three-sided fireplace in the center. Searing was thrilled with the result: a small, Usonian-inspired house with open views that blended the house with nature.
His joy was immediately quashed when the developer, after seeing Goff’s plans, decided the house would be “too dangerous for the neighborhood,” gave Searing his money back and asked them to leave the development.
After quickly buying another lot in a different neighborhood, the same thing happened again—a refund and orders to leave because of the “dangerous design.”
The two men had almost given up when Goff had an idea: acquire a lot with a title free and clear from any design restrictions or approval from the developer. Searing found a lot in Prairie Village that fit those requirements. And after being turned down by many builders, he hired a bold contractor who was also building two other Goff houses.
During construction, J.C. Nichols, the developer of a nearby neighborhood, tried to shut down construction by arresting the workers after deciding the design was again too radical. However this time the developer had no design approval rights and made a huge error by arresting the carpenters. Their union threatened to go on strike at his Oak Park Mall project if he didn’t allow the construction of the house to continue. Searing and Goff finally prevailed and completed the open, three-sided glass-walled house. This lot required the house to be cantilevered over a basement garage and sloping lot, similar to Wright’s Fallingwater. The open, multifaced fireplace faces every room. White and sea-foam green stucco forms the home’s exterior, paired with stained oak that has whimsical points with painted metal cornices and weather vanes on top.
The unconventional, eclectic Searing house hovers above garage and earth like a triangular spaceship about to land in Prairie Village.
Goff was one of the most inventive and iconoclastic architects of the 20th century, and his legacy of expressionism influenced new stars such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman. He continued to teach and lecture into his 70s. His last commission was the Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which he completed with the assistance of his student and protégé Bart Prince, in 1982. Goff designed three singular modern houses in Kansas City. And the collaboration with Paul Searing was a “dangerous” battle with a triumph that truly benefitted our town.