The Gutter Myth and Wright’s Frugal Side

Gutters on Frank Lloyd Wight's Elizabeth Murphy House

Before the Wright and Like tour a few years ago, we teamed with historians to prepare snippets of stories to share with visitors as they walked around and through the Elizabeth Murphy House. For example, we pointed out an original Arts and Crafts-style light fixture that was likely purchased in 1917 at a local hardware store to be installed by the builder Herman Krause. Historic details like this would be sprinkled throughout the visitor’s experience.

The folks at Wright in Wisconsin put together a wonderful program and in the end, over 600 people inspected our tiny house on one Saturday afternoon. It was a heavy lift requiring dozens of volunteers working in shifts at just this one location.

We were new to the process, having just moved into this Wright-designed home, and eagerly accepted the offer to tour other Wright and Like sites, like the First Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, the Adelman House and the lovely Leenhouts cottage designed by our friend Robin Leenhouts’ parents Willis and Lillian, while visitors visited the Elizabeth Murphy House in our absence.

With an hour left before the end of touring, we decided to come home, and, since different docents were in the lead, we secretly joined the last group as if we were visitors too. We loved being ushered through our own home listening to the experts talk about it. As we neared the end of the tour, someone heard us whispering about dust-bunnies in a corner and figured it out, and we all had a great laugh.

But some of the stories had shifted as docents handed them forward, like batons in a relay race, one to the next. The Arts and Crafts light was now an original Frank Lloyd Wright design (which it isn’t), though tour-goers “oohed and aahed” when they heard it.

This is how myths are created. There is no malice in myths – only a shifting vocabulary and lost context as stories pass from one mind to the next.

And today, there are many myths about Wright; some more persistent than others. For example, in every presentation about “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House” we are asked about the gutters on our home, which, according to the questioner, “can’t be appropriate,” since “Wright didn’t like gutters.”

While it may be true that Wright didn’t like gutters, that doesn’t mean he didn’t specify gutters when they were appropriate to the task. For example, here are the gutters on Wright’s own Oak Park Illinois home and studio:

Original gutters are also seen on American System-Built Homes like the cottage on Layton and Burnham Street at the Burnham Block in Milwaukee.

This makes sense, since Wright’s American System-Built Home specifications were clear that the builder will “Provide galvanized iron gutters and down spouts wherever and as indicated on drawings*.”

The drawings for Wright’s model A203 (The Elizabeth Murphy House) show those downspouts as circles located in the inside corner near the sleeping porch and on the back wall near the larger of the two bedrooms.

Model A203 (drawing reversed from built version). American System-Built (Ready-Cut) houses for The Richards Company, Floor Plan, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, 1506.301.

As newcomers to the exploration of Wright’s work and way of thinking, we are struck not only by his design genius and willingness to try new things, but also his practicality and frugality. This side of Wright is especially visible in his American System-System Built Homes, which were both beautiful and “just enough” to do the job of housing working class Americans, even if that job required gutters.

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 HouseWhat are readers saying?

* Specifications of Materials and Labor Required for the American Model ____ in Accordance with Drawings Prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright, Archi- tect,” 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.

6 thoughts on “The Gutter Myth and Wright’s Frugal Side

  1. And during that Wright & Like Tour is how I discovered your home. One of my absolute favorites. Looking forward to being able to revisit in the future!

    1. His American Systems Built homes were affordable housing he designed for the average person to be able to afford one his homes at a lower cost. He didnt care for downspouts, and in his homes he developed a rain collection system that brought the rain to the basement and out a channel to the storm sewer or collected in a drain on the yard. But of course, due to cost, the ABS homes would have downspouts.

  2. Hey Nick, I can’t read the long dimension on that plan. The short dimension of the rectangle is 24ft.
    What’s the length dimension of your house?

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