Prototypes and their progeny are never the same

Byrkit Brochure

We’ve written about Byrkit Lath before. A quick reminder, Byrkit was a patented sheathing lath designed to simplify and improve plaster work, and was specifically called out to be used in American System-Built Homes by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. So the existence of Byrkit has been used, among other evidence, to build ASBH provenance in rediscovered homes, like this one.

It can seem strange to think of a Frank Lloyd Wright dwelling as a standard product – something that could be built with interchangeable parts and pieces – but American System-Built Homes were exactly that. Wright was explicit in calling out key features across his catalog of home designs like the electric fixtures, the milling shapes and profiles, and the windows. He credited “Machines” for making this possible and organized two key systems: (1) a supply chain of common parts in order to meet price targets, and (2) lines of machines in factories set up to make those parts. Recall, ASBH homes were being designed and built as Henry Ford’s production lines were reshaping economies and economics everywhere.

And Byrkit Lath was popular in its time; used in 5000 buildings including the Grand Hotel on the Island of Mackinac, in Michigan. The inventor (not Wright) had secured the patent in 1885 and then sold machines and the rights to produce his profiles to lumber yards all over the Midwest. Wright specified that Byrkit was to be used in ASBH homes on both sides of the studs – supporting the plaster in the interior and the plaster and stucco on the exterior walls.

So when we visit other ASBHs, we look for and compare the Byrkit. Since it’s typically (literally) buried under stone, it can be hard to find. During a visit to the Burnham Block before Covid, an open wall in a duplex model JC undergoing renovation provided a glimpse, but also created more questions.

The Byrkit in the Burnham Block duplex does not match the Byrkit in the Elizabeth Murphy House, and the differences are hard to miss. Unlike Elizabeth Murphy’s Byrkit, which is a close match to the inventor’s drawings, the Burnham Byrkit is rougher. Differences include the locations of kerf cuts, angles of mating surfaces and, importantly, the shape of the slots meant to receive plaster, which at Burnham are less trapezoidal and more oblong and irregular. Why?

Perhaps the Burnham block builders made their own faux-Byrkit to test the concept; something that would have been frowned upon by the patent holder. Or, perhaps different factory machine operators set up their machines using the bits and the tooling that they had, thinking approximate shapes would do similar duty.

The key points:

1.) This was a time of transition and invention.

2.) The Burnham Block was a test bed – a place for Wright and his team to trial and demonstrate ideas. Burnham homes are prototypes built a year before most production ASBH homes and before there was a commercial contract to sell ASBHs according to Wright’s finalized specification.

3.) Prototypes and their progeny are never the same.

4.) We’re lucky to have both, since together, they provide an opportunity to see Wright’s design evolution in action.

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