Bertrand and Mary Adams

PRAIRIE ARK - 1013 ADAMS STREET

For decades many north Ames residents have been curious about the modernistic Adams home rising from the gently sloping lawn at the intersection of Adams and Calhoun streets.   Although the owners lead fairly private lives, close friends and special groups enjoyed the house through the years. Patients of Dr. Adams, an osteopath, were familiar with the home since his office was located on the lower level.  Ames Area Amateur Astronomers knew the place from attending stargazing parties using the telescope in the backyard observatory.  Local artists such as Christian Petersen were well acquainted with the high-ceilinged living room where so many stimulating conversations were held.

BEQUEST

Dr. Adams passed away in 1994, and his wife, Mary, died in April, 2005, with no immediate survivors.  The couple strongly desired to protect their real estate from development and preserve their unique home for posterity.   In their will the property was left to the City of Ames to assure protection of the land and house.  The contents of the dwelling were donated to the Ames Historical Society (AHS) to assure preservation of the art, antiques and 1950s medical office.  This constituted the largest gift of historical materials yet received by that organization.  Household goods not retained by AHS were sold at auction to raise funds to help preserve the Adams bequest.   Bert and Mary were both savers.  Consequently, quantities of prime archival materials and artifacts are preserved.  These include historical regional artwork (Grant Wood, “Ding” Darling, Christian Petersen, Arnold Pyle, Harry Jones, Roscoe Lorenz); archival material (correspondence, documentation for building the house, photos, audio tapes); eclectic medical library; vintage therapy devices (Raylax table, Medcolator, Novafon, Acu-U-Meter, Electro-Acuscope); and intact medical office.

Dr. Bertrand R. Adams (1907-1994), was an osteopathic physician who practiced in Ames from 1944 until his retirement in 1991.  Born on Meadow View Farm five miles south of Webster City, he was expected to continue his father’s business of raising Poland-China hogs and Percheron horses.  Instead he became fascinated with art and enrolled, after graduating from high school, in an art correspondence course offered by the Federal School of Commercial Designing.  Based in Minneapolis, this was the premier art correspondence school in the nation.  Bert persisted with the course for seven years and received his diploma in 1932.  He graduated from the University of Iowa that same year with a degree in art and economics.  Famed Iowa regionalist, Grant Wood, selected Bert as one of his 14 assistants to help paint a set of murals in the Iowa State College Library in 1934.  Later he did two murals of his own design: “Early Settlers of Dubuque” (1937) for the Dubuque Post Office, and “Lumbering in Arkansas”  (1940) for the post office in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.  Bert is listed in “Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years,” and has been written up in the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, and Architectural Record.  At one time Bert traveled to California, intending to seek work as an animator at the Walt Disney studios.  Persuaded by friends to pursue a career in medicine rather than art, he studied at the Des Moines Still College of Osteopathy and obtained his license in 1943.  He set up practice at 213 ½ Main Street in 1944, eventually moving his office to the home he was building.

Although nominally an osteopathic physician, Bert pursued a holistic approach to health and promoted “wellness” before it became fashionable.  Weight control was another of his specialties.  He was interested in a broad spectrum of areas such as diet, exercise, nutrition, and organic food, and explored fringe areas of medicine like auriculo-therapy, acupuncture, reflexology, and electronic medicine.  Bert also illustrated positive “town and gown” cooperation in Ames when he consulted with Jack Lathrop, technician with the ISU Physics Department, in constructing his Faraday cage for electromagnetic wave therapy.

Beyond medicine and art his wide-ranging interests included hypnosis, auras, psychic phenomena, graphology, phrenology, astronomy, astrology, world religions, music, building and gardening.  He “always had his head in a book” according to his wife.  Bert was a member of Collegiate United Methodist Church, Ames Area Amateur Astronomers, Ames Lions Club, Pi Gamma Alpha fraternity, American Osteopathic Association, International Academy of Preventative Medicine, a charter member and past president of the Town and College Toastmaster’s Club, and past vice-president of the American Federation of Astrology.

Mary E. Beymer Adams (1909-2005) was an accomplished artist in her own right.  She grew up in Des Moines where her father was owner and operator of Beymer Company, an electrical business, from 1909 until the 1940s.  Mary enjoyed a privileged childhood taking piano, dance and riding lessons.  After graduating from North High School in 1927, she attended Capital City Commercial College (now A.I.B.), followed by two years at Drake University.  In 1931 she transferred to the University of Iowa where she graduated the following year with a degree in art.  Mary then taught for awhile as a substitute middle school teacher in the Des Moines School District.  She also worked at a photographer’s studio hand-tinting photographs before the days of color photography.  From 1935-1956 she was employed as cashier and later as secretary at the Des Moines Water Works business office at 10th and Locust.  There she got to know Arie den Boer, the Dutchman for whom the Water Works arboretum is named.

Mary continued her artistic interests by taking classes at the Des Moines Art Center and studying with Eliot O’Hara in Laguna Beach, California.  She especially loved to travel, riding a bus to Mexico, flying to Hawaii, and sailing to Europe on the Queen Mary for the “grand tour.”  As testimony to Mary’s enduring patience, she married classmate Bertrand Adams after waiting 25 years for him to “pop the question.”  They finally wed in Des Moines in 1956, at which time Mary moved into Prairie Ark in Ames.  The couple enjoyed many trips together – Hawaii (again) for a honeymoon, much of the U.S. while traveling to medical meetings, Stone City for the annual Grant Wood reunions, and a tour of the Holy Land in 1970.  Although the couple had no children, they helped raise Mary’s nephew, William Wolters.  Bill followed in Bert and Mary’s footsteps, graduating from the University of Iowa and becoming an accomplished artist and military history buff as well.  His untimely death in 1997 was a severe blow to the couple.

Throughout her long life Mary continued to enjoy sketching, painting in oils and watercolor, doing graphic art for the Ames Woman’s Club (AWC), and with Bert, creating their annual Christmas card design.  She also bowled for the AWC and was the oldest member of a Des Moines bridge club she joined in 1933.  A granddaughter of the first mayor of Carlisle, Iowa, she inherited many family heirlooms and historical records which she organized.  Both Bert and Mary were savers, and thus preserved many invaluable records for posterity.

HOUSE

When Bert moved to Ames in 1944 he lived in a rented second floor apartment at 803 Duff owned by Minnie Siverly, the widow of Union Story banker, Clyde Siverly.  Bert had been discussing the dream house he wanted to build ever since he met Mary during their university days in Iowa City.  He finally took action on July 6, 1948 through a contract with Dorothy Hunter to purchase a piece of land for the price of $3500, with $500 down.  Between 1949 and 1958, Bert was engaged in building Prairie Ark on farmland at the north edge of Ames.  A gravel road, later to become Adams Street, first had to be graded from old Highway 69 (now Dawes Drive) to his building site.  For a number of years the address was simply Rural Route 1.

The basement was dug on the site of a previous farmhouse, and the excavated soil was used to create a broad mound to showcase the house.  Prairie Ark was constructed entirely of concrete – a permanent material designed to last well into the next century.  Foundation and walls were blocks, joists were precast I-beams, and floors were poured.  Bricks and glass blocks were also used.  Dr. Adams not only designed his home, but personally oversaw and assisted with much of the construction done by 28 different workmen.  Considerable documentation of the nine-year project exists in the form of drawings, written records, and photographs.

The structure incorporated cutting edge materials and concepts for residential construction at the time.  Features include: vaulted ceiling and clerestory in living room, cantilevered corner windows, frequent use of rounded corners, built-in storage, solid birch doors, parquet and cork flooring, and glassed window wells for plants.  Examples of integrated design include a wall for a 12-foot sofa and an alcove created in the dining room area for a cherry buffet that Bert designed and had made by Krauss Furniture in South Amana.  The lower level was planned for his medical practice, and included a reception room, treatment and therapy rooms, pharmacy, lab room, and office study.  A unique item is the screened-in 6 x 6’ Faraday cage used for therapy.  Prairie Ark is a rare example of a self-designed, home doctor’s office in Ames.  While other doctors have built an addition (Dr. Fausch) or converted a porch (Dr. Walker) for use as an office, Bert designed his as an integral part of the home.  Typical of Ames residents, his fascination with technology and gadgets is reflected throughout the house.

GUESTS

The list of visitors at Prairie Ark through the years is most interesting.  Artists associated with Grant Wood have been guests, in particular Christian Petersen with wife Charlotte and daughter Mary, Lee Allen, and John and Isabel Bloom.  University people such as Don Schuster (Psychology) and Jack Lathrop (Physics) have also been frequent visitors.  At one time Bert taught astrology classes in his home.  Bert’s patient list includes a cross-section of the Ames population.  Former patients recall making unscheduled visits while Bert was engaged in construction, and having him give osteopathic manipulation with tar-stained hands in unfinished rooms or even on the roof in one instance.  As mentioned previously, the local astronomy club delighted in meeting on clear summer nights to use his 10” Astrola telescope.  Petting the sheep, goats, and ponies Bert formerly kept in the fenced pasture was a favorite activity for neighborhood children.  The home represents a wonderful piece of history associated with Ames residents for more than half a century.

ARCHITECTURE - Tom Leslie, AIA.

The Adams Residence is a good, well-preserved example of residential modern architecture.  Its early date (1948, from my understanding) marks it as among the earliest examples in Iowa of its type.  It shows the distinct influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian” houses (in particular the Goetsch-Winkler House in Okemos, MI, of 1939 and the Herbert Jacobs House in Madison, WI, of 1937) on its designer/builder and the house is a unique and, I believe, fairly sophisticated interpretation of Wright’s principles.

In particular, the house adopts Wright’s interest in solar orientation very well.  Its clerestory roof uses sunshading, a light shelf, and a thermally massive interior to achieve an efficient natural illumination scheme.  This is a fairly advanced arrangement for its day, and it anticipates a long and important technical tradition in Iowa architecture that has involved passive solar heating and lighting.  Its use of materials—in particular concrete masonry and steel windows—is likewise innovative for its day.  Modern housing was an important development in postwar America, and while much of this construction occurred on both coasts there was a significant school of modern residential architecture in Iowa.

While much modern housing in Iowa dates from the 1950s, the Adams House is contemporaneous with such postwar developments as the Case Study projects in California and a national solar design competition sponsored by Libbey-Owens-Ford.  As such it is a good example—rare in Iowa—of the innovative techniques and designs that emerged in the late 1940s.  While its most immediate affinity is to Wright’s work, it has some ‘moderne’ features (curved interior walls and corner windows) and other elements that look forward to the more rigorously modernist work of the 1950s.

No one would mistake the Adams House for an actual Wright home, but as an example of the early diffusion of modernist principles throughout the Midwest it certainly demands attention and, I believe, preservation.  Its builder was certainly an amateur, but he was very clearly absorbing many of the interesting experiments and statements being built throughout the country at the time.  The Adams House is worth preserving as a fine—and very early—example of an important tradition in Iowa, that of modern residential construction.