Elizabeth Murphy and the End of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Experiment

This article was first featured in the fall 2019 issue of the newsletter of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block.

While the historic Burnham Block represents the optimistic beginning of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first attempt to design modest homes, the Elizabeth Murphy House at 2106 East Newton in Shorewood, Wisconsin, marks the tumultuous end of the American System-Built idea. In fact, the tiny house is the last American System-Built Home to be completed and is the last Wright Prairie design to be built anywhere; both concluding the ASBH program and also marking a Wrightian reinvention.

In 2015, the Burnham Block’s own Mike Lilek and a team of researchers re—revealed the lost Elizabeth Murphy House as a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed American System-Built Model A203; a two bedroom, nine hundred and sixty square-foot single family home featuring a large sleeping porch. Their study uncovered conclusive physical evidence like Byrkit Lath, the company moniker of Wright’s ASBH partner Arthur L. Richards stamped in a cabinet, and drawings and dimensions, but also relied on legal documents found at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

A 1919 lawsuit (Krause Vs. Murphy) tells us that Elizabeth Murphy — for whom the home was constructed — never intended to live in it, but instead, acquired Wright’s drawings and contracted with a builder named Herman F. Krause, Jr. to build the house so that she might sell it at a profit. Though the project was to be completed in just four months, it took twenty-eight months to make ready for sale, so most of the work was done after Wright’s 1918 termination of the American System-Built agreement with Arthur Richards. This unfortunate timing left Krause without any architectural support. Therefore, disputes, shortages and stoppages erased all profit from Murphy’s initial investment.

Furthermore, Gladys and Alfred Kibbie, the home’s first owners, were caught in the conflict via liens and as named co-defendants. As a result, they spent the next twenty years angrily covering up Wrightian features on the outside of their home, like the stucco with shake, the flower box with bushes, and the windows with awnings.

By the time the dust settled, everyone involved in the project wished to forget the experience.

But that is not the story’s end.

The diminutive home has self-selected gentle owners. Until 1992 every occupant knew that they were living in a tiny Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home and gave it deserved respect. And in 1993, when it changed hands in architectural anonymity due to estate issues, the buyers revered the special spaces.

So for a century the home has been preserved by circumstance and luck. The floor plan is unchanged. The original Pebble Dash stucco is preserved in the sleeping porch. The birch trim, cabinets, doors, windows and shelves are where Wright drew them, and, amazingly, still carry Krause’s original amber shellac finish. No wood has been painted or refinished, except for the maple floors which hid protected under carpet and linoleum for decades, and today glow anew in the original color. Also preserved: countless examples of interpretive craftsmanship by workers trying to follow instructions, but lacking answers to questions.

As its newest stewards, we’re working to restore the home to Wright’s vision while preserving the historic evidence: we have removed inappropriate treatments, uncovered, preserved and replaced ASBH ornamentation, documented our forensic work, completed a period-appropriate renovation of the bathroom, and have just replaced the roof, gutters and paint. The gutters, for example, are exactly as original: six inch galvanized half-rounds with smooth downspouts and two coats of oil paint.

While the Elizabeth Murphy House is not open for tours and our neighbors appreciate their quiet street, we welcome dozens of weekly photographers on the village sidewalk and are sharing history, progress and images at www.elizabethmurphyhouse.com and www.instagram.com/elizabethmurphyhouse.

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