Design Profession: Architect
Building Types: Residential
Yuzuru “LeRoy” Kawahara (1924-2004) was born in Alviso, California, near San Jose, and attended Los Gatos High School and the California Polytechnic State University. He became interested in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture as a student, after encountering Wright’s work in his Los Gatos High School’s library. Kawahara vowed to ask Wright, if ever able to meet him, where he should be educated, in hopes of joining the Taliesin fellowship. Only months later, in 1942 in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kawahara and his family were displaced and confined to the Japanese-American internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. After a year’s detainment, Kawahara was given a job as kitchen help in an Episcopalian seminary near Milwaukee. This job was convenient in its proximity to Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. In an interview with Indira Berndston at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Kawahara explained that he went to Taliesin in the winter of 1944 unannounced to ask Wright what education he needed in order to be considered for the Taliesin Fellowship. According to Kawahara, Wright thought for a moment and then responded “I don’t believe in accepting students from college; it’s four years that I have to undo…why don’t you come here instead?” Kawahara, overjoyed, gathered funds for tuition and moved to Taliesin in the spring of 1944.
Kawahara was drafted into the military only a few months after arriving at Taliesin. In his interview, Kawahara described this as “a threat to the fact that I’d finally found a life that was something that was so unique and good.” When he finished basic training and was asked if he was ready to go overseas and fight, Kawahara responded that he did not think he could kill anyone; consequently he was discharged only a few months later. When he was released from duty, Kawahara was stationed near Lakeland, Florida, where Frank Lloyd Wright had designed several buildings for Florida Southern College. He visited the college and saw that many of Wright’s buildings were in disrepair. After speaking with Dr. Ludd Spivey, the president of the college, Kawahara agreed to work on repairing some of the structures in exchange for housing and food. While there, Kawahara also worked under the architect Alfred Browning Parker, a Modernist architect in Miami, of whose work Wright approved. In the interview, Kawahara explained that he exchanged a few ideas with Parker, helped him with drafting and assisted Parker in finishing a few things at the house that Parker had designed for himself.
After returning to Taliesin, Kawahara helped Wright to create the models for the Vigo Sundt residence in Madison and the Guggenheim Museum, and he aided in the construction of the Midway Barn at Taliesin and several structures at Taliesin West, including the Water Tower, Light Tower and gate. Kawahara was at Taliesin from 1944 through 1948, intermittently. At one point, Wright asked him to go to Rochester, Minnesota, where he had recently designed the Keys, Bulbulian and McBean houses. He wanted Kawahara to help assist in their construction.
After traveling throughout the Midwest and aiding other ex-apprentices in their work, Kawahara came to Battle Creek, Michigan, to help Taliesin ex-apprentice Will Willsey build structures in Southwest Michigan. It was while working in Battle Creek that Lee Kawahara met Frank Ward.
Lee Kawahara went on to work as the architect and Vice President of Barry Swenson Builders in his hometown of San Jose, California. He was prolific in designing commercial structures with Barry Swenson Builders, such as the Stanford University Hospital in Stanford, California. Kawahara did not design any residential structures while in California. The Ward House is the only proven residence by Lee Kawahara, although one more may exist in the Battle Creek, Michigan, area. Lee Kawahara was fully employed at Barry Swenson Builders until the day he passed away, at the age of 80.