Largely unheralded, this Kansas City masterwork of modernism deserves its place in the pantheon of great American houses.
Perched on a soft rise in the Country Club District of Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the remarkable architectural and design landmarks of the 1930s-the Bixby House (Figs. 2, 6). It is much less well known than the other great American houses of that decade, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater or Richard Neutra's VDL Research House, yet it may express as much as any work of the period about the fortunes of American architecture and design. The Bixby House's look drew in part from European precedents, but it was-and remains-a compelling testament of the ways in which an architect and an interior designer working in America sought to express the unique features of the country's lifestyle and outlook.
The imposing, 15,200-square-foot house was built as the residence of insurance executive Walter E. Bixby Sr. (1896-1972), who in 1935 commissioned local architect Edward W. Tanner to oversee the design. Bixby, born in Champaign, Illinois, had come to Kansas City in the early 1920s and joined the Kansas City Life Insurance Company as a clerk. After his marriage in 1923 to Angeline Reynolds, daughter of J. B. Reynolds, chairman of the company, he rose swiftly through its ranks, ultimately ascending to the chairmanship and playing a central role in establishing Kansas City Life as one of the nation's leading insurance firms.1
Bixby knew from the outset that he wanted a modern house-something different from the many other stately homes that framed State Line Road.2 Tanner was an unlikely choice for such a task. Upon arriving in Kansas City in the late 1910s (after earning one of the first degrees in architecture from Kansas University and serving briefly in the army), he had joined the J. C. Nichols development company. Over the next decade and a half he designed hundreds of houses and small commercial structures, all of them in traditional styles.3 His most celebrated works included the Crestwood Shops (1922) and a portion of Country Club Plaza (begun 1922), the Spanish revival commercial center that is still among Kansas City's most important landmarks. Aside from its ample plazas and gracious forms, what distinguished the complex was that it was the nation's first shopping area built to accommodate automobiles-a far-seeing idea in a time when car culture was in its infancy.4 Tanner's grasp on the stylistic language of modernism, however, was far less secure. He had traveled in England and France in the late 1920s and had almost certainly seen examples of the new architecture, but he had no experience designing modernist buildings.
That may well have been the reason he decided to collaborate with noted Los Angeles designer Kem Weber. Tanner and Bixby decided that Tanner would design the house itself, but they needed someone who had expertise with modern interiors. Weber had a national reputation at the time as one of the country's foremost interior and industrial designers and as a leading advocate for modernism. And Weber brought an added asset to the project: unlike most of the leading New York designers, he had been trained as an architect and had designed and built several modern houses. He could assist-or at least advise-Tanner on the house's design.
Weber also brought another important qualification: he was at the cutting edge of the effort to forge a distinctly American modernism. Although neither American by birth nor training (he was a native German and had been educated in Berlin), he had lived and practiced in California for more than two decades, and he was deeply committed to the idea of making an American modernist style distinctly different from that of the European avant-garde. He was especially interested in developing a casual, relaxed modernism that stressed comfort and practicality over mere appearance.5