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?
“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: