'I Spent the Pandemic in a Frank Lloyd Wright House'

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957, the Usonian-style Carl Schultz residence in St. Joseph, Michigan needed serious attention when my architect-husband, Doug, and I discovered it 12 years ago.

Our only child had just graduated from college, leaving us with an empty nest in suburban Detroit. At the time, we were shopping for a small beach house near Lake Michigan—a low-maintenance place to coast us through our pending retirement.

That's when the Carl Schultz house "found us," as our real estate agent put it. Located on a wooded bluff overlooking the St. Joseph River, it wasn't the carefree beach house on our bucket list—but it needed our help. It was a rare opportunity to preserve a small part of architectural history, since the house was Wright's final mark in western Michigan before his death in 1959.

The two of us were always drawn to houses with a past. But it was the natural beauty of the site that convinced us to invest our cash and countless hours of elbow grease.

Like many flat-roofed Wright homes, the Schultz house had so many leaks that I nicknamed it Running Water whenever Doug climbed a ladder to patch the ceiling. In 2013, we hired a construction crew to help restore the damaged foundation, concrete floors, and wood fascias to their original condition.

Driving back and forth from our primary residence in Detroit, we spent our free weekends sweeping construction dust at what had become our family "workation house."

But it took the COVID-19 pandemic to transform what had become a mini Wright museum into a real home.

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The Carl Schultz House by Frank Lloyd Wright in St Joseph, Michigan. Courtesy/Doug La Ferle

Doug and I were in Detroit when a national emergency was declared last year in March. Terrified, I tracked the daily COVID death tolls on cable news and rarely ventured outside. By early April, the Motor City and its suburbs had taken a huge hit from the virus.

And so, not long after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted the ban on traveling to vacation homes in Michigan, we packed the car and headed across the state to St. Joseph. Our workation house was waiting—with new lessons to teach.

For starters, we discovered that the rigors of sheltering in place are enough to put any historic residence to the test.

Before the pandemic, we'd rarely used the 1960s kitchen at the Schultz house for anything more than brewing coffee and storing snacks. But given the statewide restrictions on restaurant dining, I had to make friends with our vintage countertops and outdated appliances.

In the process, I found that kitchen work structured my days with a sense of order and purpose. I organized cramped cupboards and scrubbed neglected cookware. Every night, I set the dining room table with the dinnerware we'd purchased especially for the house but rarely used.

Preparing meals, I often recalled my Scottish-immigrant grandmother, who boasted that she never wasted a scrap of food during the Great Depression. Thanks to the pandemic, grocery shopping had become a COVID stealth mission. Given limited storage space in our typical Wright kitchen, I conserved what I had, whether it was a carton of free-range eggs or my last roll of paper towels.

Before long, the rhythm of domestic routines had eased my anxiety.

Instead of watching TV news after dinner—our nightly ritual in Detroit—we found respite in the seasonal beauty surrounding the Schultz house, just as Frank Lloyd Wright intended when he designed the place. Sited on three acres at the end of a cul-de-sac, the front of the house faces a residential neighborhood, while the cantilevered terrace in back overlooks a wooded ravine that slopes down to the St. Joseph River.

On summer nights, we'd relax on the back terrace and watch the boats return home on the river, their lights flashing on the waves and competing for attention with the fireflies circling the bluff.

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The Carl Schultz house in St. Joseph, Michigan. Courtesy/Doug La Ferle

In the fall, wild geese announced another season. Sometimes we'd spot an eagle gliding overhead, or a red fox scurrying through the woods below. In moments like those, I'd recall a favorite line from Thoreau's Walden: "I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself."

While Thoreau would have argued that solitude is a refuge, I believe it takes a small village of friendly humans to make any neighborhood feel like a home.

During our DIY renovation stints, Doug and I rarely stayed at our Wright house for more than a weekend at a time. In those days, we'd wave at our nearest neighbors from a distance, or send a text to thank them for bringing our trashcans to the carport after we returned to Detroit.

The pandemic changed that, too.

Last year, we made an effort to befriend our neighbors. In turn, they reached out to us, leaving corn from local farm markets and peach pies on our doorstep. We were often invited to their homes for socially distanced "drinks in the driveway"—invitations we rarely refused.

One evening, it was our turn to host an outdoor gathering at our house with two couples from the neighborhood.

As we chatted through nightfall, it occurred to me that our long months of isolation—unsettling as they were—had revived a few elemental pleasures, including impromptu porch gatherings. How often had we done this before "social distancing" became part of our national vocabulary? How often had we paused to appreciate the present moment?

Later that night, a summer storm rolled in. Our neighbors weren't ready to return home, so we moved the candles out of the rain and pushed our chairs under the eaves. By the time we parted, our knees were soaked from the downpour, but we'd deepened our new friendship with a few hours of good talk.

The next morning, I asked Doug if we could delay our return trip to Detroit and stay another week in St. Joseph. The workation house we'd spent so many years repairing was restoring me this time.

Cindy La Ferle is author of an essay collection, Writing Home. Her features and columns have appeared in The Detroit Free Press, Writer's Digest, Better Homes & Gardens, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other national magazines and newspapers.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.