An ambitious and visionary couple have reclaimed a substantial Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home that nearly succumbed to abandonment and the very forces of nature that surround it.

For several years, Dorri Steinhoff and Joe Kuspan have been fully invested in restoring a ravine house in Blacklick that narrowly escaped demolition. Once on Columbus Landmark’s Most Endangered Sitesthe property has become both a soothing and invigorating home.

Built in 1940 from cypress trees and locally quarried stone, the mid-20th century Modernist home exemplifies Wright’s organic design principles, intended to unite people, homes, and nature. It sits on 2.5 acres next to a tributary of Blacklick Creek, a few hundred feet from a busy 50-mile-per-hour road, yet still feels like it’s miles from the modern chaos. Its walls are made of glass and stone to bring its inhabitants closer to the natural beauty that surrounds it.

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The house was designed by Wright’s three early disciples: Tony Smith, Ted van Fossen and Laurence Cuneo. Van Fossen, who was 18 at the time, received an order from Ted and Mary Gunning, a young bohemian couple looking for a one-of-a-kind home. The design trio dubbed the house Gunning Glenbrow. Van Fossen then designed furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Suntop Homes project in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and later designed Rush Creek Village in Worthington, a community of approximately 50 modern organic homes. Smith rose to prominence as a minimalist sculptor, and Cuneo became the artistic director for the first season of the show I Love Lucy.

When Steinhoff spotted the house during a chance run in 2013, the dwelling and its surrounding property had been abandoned for eight years and were in disrepair. She and Kuspan, an architect, were about to undertake another Wright-era renovation, but opted to buy Glenbrow and save it from destruction as suburban development approached. “A lot of people were interested in the house but were ultimately too scared of the unknown,” Steinhoff recalls. “We had the expertise—this is the fifth house we’ve restored.”

But Glenbrow is by far the largest and most complex project the couple have undertaken. Outside, the house was nearly engulfed in chest-deep weeds, dead trees and decaying vegetation that took the equivalent of an archaeological dig to reveal what lay below. The couple pulled up poison ivy, removed dead ash trees and dug up rock gardens and a frog pond.

As for the house itself, “everything had to go,” Steinhoff says, including the roof, the heated concrete floor and the exterior cladding. The amount of demolition required was staggering. Says Steinhoff, “You know you have something major going on when there’s a backhoe in your living room.”

The couple did most of the hard work themselves, almost tearing down the house and reusing everything they could. All exterior cypress plank and batten siding was removed, sanded and stained, then reinstalled. Jackhammers turned the concrete floor into rubble before laying new underfloor heating.

A chest of drawers made by owner Joe Kuspan to reflect Glenbrow's modernist and mid-century design

The projects went far beyond bricks – or in this case, stone – and mortar, as Steinhoff and Kuspan customized the historic home. Thoughtful and unique touches abound, including the little music boxes Joe built for the couple’s two daughters inside a narrow wall between the kitchen and dining room. With tiny cranks, each plays a different Beatles song. From leftover birch plywood used for wall panels, he crafted custom cabinets, furniture, and stereo fixtures.

The kitchen features rows of horizontal clerestory windows at the top of the walls, typical of the mid-century style. Dark soapstone countertops are accented by an Italian metal and glass light fixture, created by Lucifero, above the island. Open shelves are filled with colorful Fiestaware, pottery, sculpture, and Italian glass. Most of the artwork displayed throughout the house has sentimental value. the couple purchased a collection of Lucifero luminaries for their 20th wedding anniversary.

The kitchen dining area

One of the most spectacular areas of Glenbrow is the cantilevered room, which they call the ‘point room’, where two walls of glass meet, offering a moving view of the ravine and rocky stream below.

Sightlines are integral to Glenbrow form and function. With no doors to separate the bedrooms and bathrooms from the main living areas, stone walls were erected to create a sense of privacy, but also to maintain a sense of openness throughout the house to a floor. The home’s 7-foot ceilings, low by today’s standards, exemplify another Wright design principle of building spaces on a human scale. A low, built-in sofa is another Wright-inspired feature and is positioned alongside a wall of glass and stone that seamlessly connects inside and out.

The Glenbrow House is located above a natural ravine in the Reynoldsburg.

The couple transformed an old carport into a master suite with skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows and a sleek jetted tub where you can immerse yourself in nature. The Steinhoff Zen Garden is just outside. The house’s large windows and alignment along the creek are a great mood lifter, she says. “You see the seasons on a daily basis,” she adds. “Winter is actually a more inviting time because without leaves on the trees there is more light.”

Dave Vottero, Columbus Architectural Design Manager Schooley Caldwell Associates, says Glenbrow found the perfect couple in Steinhoff and Kuspan. “They understood that the house is a living laboratory and an organic architecture. There is an active relationship between the house and the owners. There is an ongoing dialogue,” says Vottero, board member of Columbus Landmarks Association who defended the house when it was in danger of being razed. He calls the house “the most significant modern house in central Ohio”.

As remarkable as the property itself is, so is the amount of painstaking and back-breaking work the couple put in to cultivate it. Steinhoff has built gabion retaining walls with the “mountains of rock” she collected on site, and Kuspan is tackling the renovation of a distinctive tower on the property with the aim of turning it into an Airbnb. The tower was built in 1964 as a studio and office for Rob Gunning, but lacks plumbing, electricity and heating. Joe has experience in this area, having rebuilt the HVAC system in the main house.

Vottero says the scope of work may have worn down other owners, but Steinhoff and Kuspan seem to have been driven by this labor of love. “We don’t go to the gym,” Steinhoff says. “We love projects. The couple also aims to turn an unused tennis court into an art pavilion and entertainment space.

They are grateful for the relationships they formed during the renovation, including Steinhoff’s friendship with one of Gunnings’ children, Nora, who encouraged her to write a book about the experience. Title Red bird against the snowthe book was intended only for her children and future owners, but Nora convinced her that it had a wider audience.

The massive renovation took years of sacrifice, hard work and financial worries, Steinhoff says. “We went over budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars.” However, she is quick to add, “This is our forever home. It’s a work of art…in our restoration we were able to embrace what was here and adapt it to a more modern lifestyle, to our lifestyle.

In her book, she writes, “It was a house designed to inspire and enrich the lives of the people who would inhabit it.”

Mary Gunning, the original owner of the house, expressed a similar sentiment in a letter she wrote to Tony Smith in 1941: “I can never live with the joy of watching and there is always a calm and a peace and yet a deep excitement.”

This story is from the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Home & Garden.