Go ahead: (Insert Leaky Roof Jokes Here…)

Our roof – designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915 and seen (on the right) a year after it was completed in 1918 – does not leak.

It didn’t leak when we moved in, and since our 2019 tear-off renovation, the house below remains as dry as a bone. But a hundred years ago, when Wright’s reputation was at risk for many reasons, the roof on the Elizabeth Murphy house leaked. Imagine that.

We now know why and how it was corrected.

When our good friend and next-door neighbor Claudia posted this tattered image of her family’s lovely Milwaukee Victorian (and showing the south west corner of our house) on social media a while back, we could not imagine our luck. We were in the midst of book research and filling in gaps in an historical timeline.

Her picture was taken in 1919, just as the first owners were moving in to Shorewood’s only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed dwelling. It confirms many details:

  • The original roof was laid with cedar-shake shingles – exactly as Wright’s American System-Built Homes specifications directed (for gabled and hip-roofs)*
  • The gutters were made of 1/2 round painted galvanized iron – again, exactly as Wright specified*
  • The pebble dash stucco – not called out explicitly by Wright but preferred by Arthur Richards, his development partner – covered the entire exterior of the home, wrapping around walls and corners and into window frames; coated the soffits and the facia, and, importantly, covered the chimney belvedere**

The sparkly, stippled, all-stone exterior would have been avant-garde – a head-turner – in 1918. However, in another photo taken just ten years later in 1929, the belvedere had been covered in asbestos shingles as part of a complete re-roofing. The cover up caused the all-stucco house to become a partially-stucco house, taking on an eclectic fairy-tale cottage look. Wright would not have approved.

Frank Lloyd Wright-designed American System Built Home Model A203, the Elizabeth Murphy House in 1929. Image credit: Shorewood Historical Society, donated by Dorothy Hoffmann.

Why did this happen so early? Go ahead, say it……the……roof……leaked.

A 1919 lawsuit between the buyer and the builder reveals that water had come into the brand new house in 1918.*** During a recent visit to the attic, we confirmed the incursion evidenced by water stains found at the intersection of the roof joists and the chimney box. The casework says “owing to defective workmanship or materials, water, during rains, has leaked at several places…”

And Claudia’s century-old snapshot helped us find some of the cause.

Wright’s statement chimney was meant to welcome a visitor like a smoke signal emerging from the heart of the house and saying, “we’re home, it’s warm in here, and you’re invited.” There was to be no line separating this vital element from the rest of the facade – so no “flashing” was drawn or specified. In fact, Wright is said to have frowned on flashing, so none was added. Water therefore caught on and ran down the pebble dash and then underneath the shingles, and the roof leaked. (It should be said that had construction instructions suggesting flashing under the pebble dash and over the first hidden course of cedar shake, the first roof might have held. Today, the seam appears seamless and properly camouflaged flashing keeps us dry.)

Front Facade of American System-Built Model A203. American System-Built (Ready-Cut) houses for The Richards Company, Floor Plan, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives: architectural drawings, ca. 1885–1959. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) 1506.296

So this is it; your best opportunity to make a leaky-roof joke about Frank Lloyd Wright. (I’m sure we haven’t heard all of them yet.) Comments enabled below.


* “Specifications of Materials and Labor Required for the American Model ____ in Accordance with Drawings Prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect,” FLWFA Specs Box 2, 1112–1903, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, Museum of Modern Art, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York.

** “Belvedere” is the name given to the oversized flat-topped ventilated chimney box on some American System-Built Home drawings, as seen in Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, 1506.970.

*** Herman F. Krause, Jr., Plaintiff v. Elizabeth Murphy, et al., Defendants, Case 56124, Answer of Defendant, November 11, 1919, State of Wisconsin, Milwaukee County, Milwaukee County Historical Society.


About this blog: The Elizabeth Murphy House is a 103 year-old American System-Built Home and the protagonist in the book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House, published by University of Wisconsin Press, and available for pre-order now.

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