Disability Won’t Bring Him Down

Forty years ago John Frazer executed a Zen-like landscape that his art professor at Yale, the legendary Bernard Chaet, published in a textbook with a caption, “This wash drawing makes us detached observers of a calm, panoramic scene.” The painting, an early hint of Frazer’s lifelong interest in Japanese design and culture, suggests a predisposition for living in the moment.

Today Frazer, a tenured professor of art at Wesleyan University, spends much time in a scenic panorama of his own making in Middletown, Connecticut. But here the peacefulness is his aggressive response to a health crisis and reward for mindful planning for the future. Frazer became disabled when a two-inch tumor was discovered on his spine in the mid-1980s. Although the growth was benign, his sense of balance and mobility were both permanently compromised after an operation.

Widowed within a few years, he sold the three-story family house and designed a modern, more user-friendly dwelling on a small plot carved out of his old backyard, in collaboration with a colleague, architect John Martin. Martin faced a daunting brief: small, odd-shaped lot, limited vertical expansion, a minimum of three bedrooms, universal design requirements, a finite budget, and close proximity to neighbors. By 1995 Frazer had moved into a 2,680-square-foot house that is best described as a model of universal home design.

Although Frazer now shares his house with a partner, David Sanders, it is fully outfitted for his own independence. “The house,” Frazer says, “was built to be usable by a handicapped person without looking like it, so there are no visible exterior ramps, but once you cross the threshold everything I need is on one level. There are no interior obstacles and I foot-tested every surface for traction. We also made sure that all doorways are at least three feet wide.”

Frazer limps, but he is able to walk; he can still negotiate the stairs leading up to his small guest quarters and down to the cellar, as long as they are left uncarpeted to help him avoid tripping. Nonetheless, he and Martin designed the house to accommodate wheelchairs or walkers should either be needed in the future. An entrance leading from the covered garage, for instance, is ramped, and the main living areas flow into each other without thresholds, allowing a generous amount of maneuvering space.

The fringe benefit of this interior plan is a sense of openness often absent in much larger suburban homes. Universal home design requires special attention to bathrooms and kitchens. Frazer’s ample bathroom, one of three in the house, and part of the master bedroom suite “zone,” includes a large tub with jacuzzi fixture surrounded by wood and plants that impart the atmosphere of a Japanese sanctuary. An adjacent shower stall could be outfitted later with a seat; plumbing under the sink was routed to the side to allow wheelchair clearance. Frazer was adamant about avoiding a clinical look by reducing the number of grab bars and keeping the stall threshold low to contain water since it could be modified later.

As in the bathrooms, all the hardware in the kitchen was chosen to be functional as well as appealing to modernist tastes. Martin considered the main food preparation area’s ergonomics as carefully as a workstation: Frazer can move from sink to refrigerator to stove with a minimum of steps. For convenience he has the option of both gas and electric ranges, and a particularly appealing feature is a retractable air vent system built into the center island.

Although Frazer’s original intent was to breakfast in a nook at the kitchen’s north end, this little space has evolved into computer center and home office. Adjoining the kitchen are dining and living room spaces that meet at a front entry washed with light. Frazer, who taught cinematography for many years, prefers a high level of ambient light directed through skylights and bounce fixtures. Not only is this recommended for reducing glare on the tiled floors but it also keeps a profusion of plants healthy in the nearby “winter garden.” Martin had most of the skylights built as a more economical alternative to off-the-shelf products. Thus far the house has met all expectations and is remarkably glitch-free except for a minor crack that occurred after the structure settled, a little water damage on a brick face awaiting a wood stove, and a medicine cabinet installed so that the door won’t fully open.

In spite of his achievement in universal design, Martin succeeded equally in conceiving a haven for an artist with a discerning eye and a need for privacy. All window views are carefully controlled to emphasize the uninterrupted landscape, including what Frazer calls his “Japanese-American” garden. The house also features the artist’s first home painting studio, a personal playpen filled with north light where he works on still-life studies and undoubtedly the occasional calm, panoramic scene.

Considering that his mobility may decline in the future, the more appropriate question is, “But will it continue to work?” All signs indicate that Frazer has nothing to worry about.

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