Arthur Dennis Stevens

September 5, 2018

“What A Man Does…. That He Has”

By Norris Krueger

Photos Kimberlee Miller

Mantra of the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Etched on a beam over the great room at Wright’s design HQ, Taliesin. His innovations have become so ingrained in building design that we often forget his genius. One Boisean has a vested interest in keeping FLW’s flame alive and for good reason. Arthur Dennis Stevens is the last working apprentice of Wright. Dennis may be 87 but he’s still working on houses here in Boise. I had the marvelous opportunity to sit down with him and his two sons, Sean and Michael.

So many great stories, way too many for here but a few are of great relevance to builders, designers and architects of today.

He was organic before organic was cool! Another Wright mantra that Arthur Dennis Stevens has embraced: “Make great design affordable” Again, it is striking how prescient FLW was in his approach.

“A house should be of the land, not on the land.”

Context matters. It clearly drives Dennis nuts to see how few houses take advantage of natural land contours, instead we scrape them flat. Even with cookie-cutter house designs, we could readily tweak them to profit esthetically and functionally from even the slightest “imperfections” in the lot. Using local materials is not just hip and trendy; it’s a powerful way to bond the design to the land, to the community. Using beautiful features that also save energy like wider eaves. FLW thought a lot about harmony, effortless harmony. Embrace external elements of nature – think FLW’s famed Fallingwater (built over a waterfall). His fondness for skylights. Embrace the people – most architects get to know the clients, FLW elevated that to an art form. And that voice is still here in Boise. His sons intend to keep the legacy and the lessons going, meanwhile Dennis is still here, still building houses.

“What A Man Does…. That He Has”

This is how Dennis learned to design. Today, we’d call it experiential learning. It involves a social context (peer support and counsel), situated learning (in a real setting), considerable personal and peer reflection, and expert mentoring. Any trained educator would happily recognize the power of this. As Dennis put it, maybe he learned about the nuts and bolts of design, but the real education was learning to think like a great architect, like a great designer.

More of being “of the land”: Local knowledge, local history. Dennis got drafted and sent to Vicenza, Italy to help build the new base. Soft dirt and very heavy tanks are a bad combo. Dennis asked a local stone mason finishing a wall; he pointed to the old Roman iter – a stone road that had “only” lasted 2000 years. Almost overnight, Dennis built a great tank parking lot.

So many more delightful stories. Did you know that Wright’s son invented Lincoln Logs? That Dennis designed a major US pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair? And that “architect” means “master builder”?

And how did a shy 17-year-old persuade the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright to pick him over 100 others? Dennis had learned how to craft isometric house drawings in high school and dared to show Wright. It went from “that’s nice” to “can you start tomorrow?”

Dennis and his sons want to share the lessons and the ethos of design that Wright started, and Dennis continues so joyously.

Who would be interested in a class where participants would get to start designing a house?? After all, when asked what his favorite house was, Dennis looked baffled and said, “Why the next one!” Who’s in?