Caring for the Forsaken

Frank Lloyd Wright would not approve of these preservation efforts

Apart from a giant stack of drawings – which somehow survived foreclosure, fire, and years of trauma and neglect – Frank Lloyd Wright was deliberate and surgical in excising his American System-Built program from the historic record, leaving historians with no choice but to gloss over what had been a massive undertaking and a key turning point in the architect’s career. First wholly ignored due to Wright’s unwillingness to acknowledge upwards of twenty extant ASBH homes, in recent decades an ad-hoc group of Wright-loving architectural detectives has been searching for possible lost specimens. How many more American System-Built Homes were built? How many still stand? These remain unanswered questions.

The Elizabeth Murphy House is now famous as one of the rare rediscoveries – a tiny bungalow that made national news in 2015 because its occupants didn’t know that they were living in an historic American System-Built Home, Model A203, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In part due to Wright’s cover up, the home’s heritage was lost for almost a half-century.

We bought the home with a plan to restore and care for her and quickly discovered a curious and unexpected form of stewardship. Like nuns in a 19th century orphanage, we find ourselves caring for the forsaken. We are responsible for a place whose designer would prefer did not exist. Why?

Wright’s first effort to design affordable housing was an abject failure. Though the ASBH program began with great optimism and expectation, it lasted barely a year in its commercial form. The plan to sell and supply distinctive Prairie Style homes (with a notable Japanese influence) to be built by unsupervised subcontractors in burgeoning subdivisions fell wildly out of control almost as soon as it started, and Wright quickly recognized the intrinsic flaws in the business, his team, and his products. In 1917 he shut it down and covered his tracks.

So it is often our job to preserve the mistakes, because the mistakes are themselves historic.

For example, during the planning phases of our upcoming window renovation project, we realized that five original art glass windows in the home may have been supplied and installed incorrectly, with the “bead” facing in instead of out as indicated on many of Wright’s drawings. Since these windows serve as the model for our replica sashes, we faced a decision: should we adhere to Wright’s plans, or do we reconstruct the home as it was built – including the errors and interpretations of the builder/contractor?

In consultation with the Engineering Advisory Group of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (John Waters, Dan Nichols and others) we were advised that “…the goal is to replicate what was built…and it is very common to find deviation from the drawings in the as-built conditions of most buildings including Wright’s.” At the same time, if the original interpretation was flawed (and susceptible to leaking or early failure), should the flaw not be corrected?

John wrote:

“I think one of the bigger goals of restoration (and from all your research, clearly you do too) is that it is an opportunity to learn things beyond just what the original/finished product looks like. Here you’ve unearthed some interesting information about a detail that probably nobody’s looked at on the ASBHs before. When you’ve recorded that investigation, regardless of the decision you make the investigation will be of interest.”

So we have agreed that our findings must be documented and shared and that is the purpose of this blog. How do you suggest we proceed with the bead? (Feel free to share your opinion in the comments section below and tell us why.) And subscribe to this blog if you’d like to learn about our progress.

Ironically, Wright would not be pleased with any of this conversation. It seems clear that he would’ve wished all these homes begone and that we all just forget about the ASBHs. We won’t let that happen. We are compelled now to care for the forsaken.

Here are the images shared with the FLWBC to inform our project:

The Elizabeth Murphy House – and the mysteries she has been keeping for a century – is the subject of the new book Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House. Here is what readers are saying.

7 thoughts on “Caring for the Forsaken

  1. I commend the attempts to do right by history, both by individual building owners and by entities such as the FLWBC and the The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It is just such conundra as the one you face that bring the question of “what is right” to the fore, and shine a light on decisions made in good faith that might nevertheless be counterproductive. I here think of the dictum that restoration—and in particular replication—shall be easily distinguishable from original fabric and detailing.

    In re your windows: do two wrongs make a right ? Shall the sins of the fathers be visited upon their descendants ? Would the architect not immediately correct such a flaw, if he were able to do so ? Does not the artistic choice of the maker of the object trump decisions made by bureaucrats in the abstract ?

    So, by all means do I recommend that the windows of A203 be re-installed with their glass stops to the exterior—as in virtually every other Wright building. This detail was chosen by Mr Wright from among the possible solutions to the problem, very early in his career, and once chosen was retained by him to the end—perhaps the single most consistent detail in all of the work.

    One question remains, however: if the sash were originally hung inside-out, what about any beveling to the edges of the sash, especially at the bottom edge ? Also, repairs to the incorrectly mortised hinge locations would presumably have to be made. Assuming that these items do not present further difficulties, I say “proceed.”

  2. Now, what can you tell us about the photograph at the top of this page ? Could the words written in the upper border of the print be the names of owners of the three houses ? Why would the ASBH be Xed out ? Does the year 1952 have significance , do you think ? Where did this photo come from ?

    1. Stephen, Thanks for the wise words. The photo has nothing to do with the story, other than to loosely compliment its theme. It was given to us by a neighbor who found it in an attic box, and yes, the names correspond with the occupants. I liked the unremarkable positioning in the frame (and the evidence of a cover-up in awnings and paint) and added the X to indicate “forsaken”.

  3. To be clear, though I noted in our conversation that mistakes in construction tell a story about the circumstances of bringing a building into being, it was not my intent to suggest that windows being recreated fresh to replace long gone units should necessarily repeat a historical error found elsewhere on the building.

    Wright’s wood glazing bead detail was a near constant throughout his career, despite occasional dalliances in the ’20’s and ’30’s with glazing putty. The room of the Sweeton house in which I’m typing this post has windows with the glazing beads incorrectly placed on the window sash interior rather than the exterior. This is a manifestation of the mill that made the windows mistakenly using superseded drawings which depicted the windows as they were prior to Wright’s mirroring the plan when the house was shifted on its site to reduce cost. This mistake required any “handed” window (windows with sloped tops) to be installed reversed to fit the openings built at the site per the final drawings.

    If I were to replace any of the affected windows, I would consider rebuilding them with the glazing stops where they should be, on the exterior. As it has turned out, the existing windows at the Sweeton house were in very good condition at the time of our restoration, only requiring painting to complete the project (I even left the 4 windows in the workshop with their original 1951 interior paint untouched which was faded but tight). Yes, we are currently living with unweatherstripped, single glazed 1/4″ plate glass in our numerous windows. I’m not opposed to improving house’s energy efficiency, but costs being what they were, we needed to triage efforts.

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