Window Renovation Begins

Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes were a study in light enabled by the generous application of windows, often in long arrays. Our tiny model A203, for example, boasts 32 windows in three standard heights: 32 inches, 48 inches, and 68 inches high. The south facing wall of the home is two-thirds glass, an exotic feature for a modest home designed over a century ago. We can go for weeks without turning on a light in the daytime.

The trade-off, however, was heat for light. Double-paned windows would not be invented for another thirty years, so Wright specified what was available at the time: single panes (with a sprinkling of abstract art in lead-work) built into standard-sized casements that would open to the outside on simple hinges and close as tight as possible with a graduated latch.

Sometime in the 1970s (perhaps during an energy crisis) a prior owner removed twenty five of the exterior single-pane frames and installed frame-less double-panes and an assortment of crank-to-open hinged double-pane pre-made casements. (Luckily, five of the original windows remain between the sleeping porch and living space, as shown above.) Some of the 25 replacements are now starting to fog as the argon gas leaks, so it is time to renovate windows and also an opportunity for reproduction.

Our goal is to mix historic-appropriateness with modern energy efficiency. We’re going back to Wright’s design, but will allow for double-paned glass and proper weatherstripping. We will make the stiles, rails and beads in Cypress – the hardy wood specified by Wright for American System-Built Homes. And in the spirit of the craftsmanship that Wright hoped would come from the yards and the carpenters who would supply and assemble these homes, we have organized a shop in which to mill, fit and assemble the windows in batches.

We’re also collaborating with other American System-Built Homeowners to source materials and hardware, compare original designs, and will repair and replace failed units on other homes as part of the effort. And we’re in contact with the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to ensure proper interpretation of drawings. The first prototypes (in cedar) and jig models are complete. You’ll see an improper tenon below needing a shim – prototyping is doing what prototyping should: reveal mistakes in advance.

I expect it will take us at least a year, and perhaps two, to finish the 25 windows that need replacement on the Elizabeth Murphy House, in part due to the time to build and install but also since the materials will be pricey. We’ll share progress here and appreciate expert eyes on our work in the comments section, below.

All of our preservation and renovation projects are tallied here.

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