No Place Like Home: Modern Residential Design in Kansas


Chris Fein


Kansas State University, FORWARD Design | Architecture, KCmodern


Regional Spotlight, Kansas
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Plains Modern Part Three
No Place Like Home: Modern Residential Design in Kansas

When one thinks of Kansas, a hotbed of progressive design is likely not the first descriptor that comes to mind. One usually thinks of the Wizard of Oz, figures like Dwight D. Eisenhower, and perhaps the origin of fast food pizza (Pizza Hut). That said, a deeper review of architecture and design brings to the forefront the breadth of modernism that can be found throughout the state.   Major institutions and forward-thinking clients brought many nationally recognized outsiders to design within Kansas. Examples include the elegant 1953 Snower Residence designed by Marcel Breuer (the only Breuer design west of the Mississippi River), two houses by the itinerant Paul Schweikher in Topeka (one now demolished), and an Edward Durell Stone House, one of a few built examples of his Colliers magazine design, in Dodge City, Kansas.  Famously, Buckminster Fuller’s 1946 Dymaxion (“Wichita”) house was prototyped next to a lake just outside of that city, its lightweight design facilitating a 1970s relocation to a spot inside the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit, Michigan.

Homegrown designers built on imported ideas and developed many of their own postwar housing strategies.  One nationally recognized Oklahoma architect, but Kansas son, was Bruce Goff. Goff was born in the small, central town of Alton, Kansas in 1904. In addition to well-known examples of his self-expressive style of modernism such as the (now demolished) Bavinger House in Norman, Oklahoma, Goff built three houses in the Kansas City suburbs as well as residences in remote Dodge City and Sublette, Kansas, all fortunately intact.

In Kansas City, architect David B. Runnels designed many modernist structures. Runnells was a student of Eliel and Eero Saarinen when he studied city planning at Cranbrook, a nexus of modern design education. Other students attending at the time were Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, and Harry Weese. Runnells worked in the office of Saarinen Swansen and Associates during part of World War II and collaborated on competitions with his notable co-workers George Matsumoto and later Case Study House architect Ralph Rapson.

Runnells eventually settled in Kansas City around 1941. He went on to design numerous serially-produced houses as well as custom homes through the 1940-60’s, many of which were built by Kansas City homebuilder Don Drummond. The Revere Homes are his best-known serially-produced designs. These homes were featured in Life magazine and launched Drummond on the path to being the preeminent modern home developer in Prairie Village and Overland Park, Kansas.  

After his work with Runnells, Drummond joined a group of national developers, including Joseph Eichler of Eichler Homes, to build designs by A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons throughout the Kansas City suburbs. This program was known as the “House that ‘Home’ Built” series, emanating from an NBC show “Home” in 1955, that yielded houses by builders in more than twenty cities nationwide. Drummond would later work directly with Jones and Emmons to develop the “Castilian,” the most lavish of Drummond’s designs.

The success of these developments inspired other builders to follow suit. Sam Simons would work with a prefabricated modern home designed by St Louis architects Ralph and Mary Jane Fournier to become one of Drummond’s largest competitors in this market. Houses of this design proliferated in eastern Kansas as well as Missouri and Illinois. Even the famed J. C. Nichols, who notoriously was not a fan of modern architecture, would try his hands in this market when he developed the William Wurster-designed Better Homes & Gardens “IDEA Home of the Year” for 1952, in Mission Hills, Kansas.

Another builder who also designed many of his projects was Robert (Bob) Wendt. His work is in the vein of Wurster’s “everyday modernism.” These homes incorporated large expanses of glass and open living plans with traditional gabled forms.  These forms addressed local climactic conditions such as shade from the intense summer sun and the ability to shed snow.  These features adapted the homes to the local climate better than Drummond’s California Jones and Emmons-adapted designs.  Also the Kansas City firm of Kivett and Meyers, better known for large scale work such as stadiums, produced a regional modernist housing type.  The best example of this is a residence in Mission Hills. Here they also introduced fixed louver sections within large scale fixed windows. This accommodation allowed for larger expanses of glass, while still enabling natural ventilation.

A two-hour drive west, in Manhattan, the husband and wife team of William (Bill) and Pat Eidson designed many examples of modernism in the vein of Marcel Breuer. The use of heavy limestone walls—an abundant local material—punctuated with expanses of floor-to-ceiling glazing, topped with flat roofs defines their work. The best example is an austere design located on Hunting Avenue in Manhattan, a curving street populated with interesting modernist homes.

In the south-central part of the state, architects in Wichita were equally involved in incorporating the Modern Movements tenets in residential architecture. Architect, John Hickman, a Taliesin Fellow, designed a series of homes in a Wrightian vocabulary. Also practicing in Wichita was the firm of Ramey and Himes.  Although known mainly for their work for religious institutions, they also designed numerous residential projects. Like many of the Kansas architects they took a modernist vocabulary and adapted it to the climate of the region. Utilizing steeply pitched roofs and with deep overhangs to provide shade, these houses became well suited to their geography while still maintaining a larger modernist vocabulary.

Although this brief overview is far from conclusive, it illustrates the depth and variation of modern work found within the state.  An infusion of external influences were processed by talented local architects and the resulting design investigations evolved, based on local climate and materials to create a group of projects worthy of national attention, and preservation.



Sachs, David H. and George Ehrlich. Guide to Kansas Architecture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996).

About the Author

Chris Fein is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Kansas State University. Additionally, he is the design director of FORWARD Design | Architecture an award winning  design firm in Kansas City, Mo. Chris is also a board member for KCmodern an organization dedicated to promoting Modern architecture and design through education, preservation and advocacy.

Contributors to this article are Michael Grogan, AIA and Robert McLaughlin.

Plains Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas Vegas and Colorado. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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