A vintage wash basin for Frank Lloyd Wright’s water-closet

We’ve written about the bathroom in the Elizabeth Murphy House before. In a nutshell, it was the space in most need of attention when we moved in, so it became a down-to-the-studs renovation and an adventure in architectural archeology.

But our 2017 reconstruction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s water-closet was never truly complete in that it lacked some of the historic pedigree we had hoped to recreate. We had found the proper clawfoot tub (in the image above) and solved systemic plumbing, poor heating and high water vapor problems, but our sink selection wasn’t ideal. It was small, simple and not offensive, but it was also too small and too modern.

And that begs the question: what should be our vintage and pedigree thresholds? How should we make decisions about what belongs and what doesn’t belong in this historic space? We take inspiration from many other stewards of Wright-designed homes that the spaces are to be revered. Most owners live in a place that Wright would want preserved and might even wish to see modernized under appropriate direction (his own, were he here.) In our case, it is unlikely that Wright would weigh in at all, since the American System-Built program was something that he seemed intent on erasing. We are caring for a thing that Wright didn’t care for.

But also, we’re living in a space that he designed that includes many details that he didn’t select or even influence. Our door knobs and back plates, for example, while lovely, and carrying the “Bauer Barff” finish that Wright called out, can also be found in neighboring Arts and Crafts bungalows, so we can deduce that Arthur Richards (Wright’s ASBH partner-developer) was buying and reselling parts and pieces to more than just ASBH job sites1. While Wright probably wished to have had more influence over the details of his American System-Built Homes, he simply hadn’t finished all of the plans by the time the program was underway. He did say that he wanted hardware to “harmonize with the interior designs,” and ours do that.

When Wright did leave instructions, we follow them, as with our gutter restoration in 2019. When we don’t have instructions to follow, we’re left guessing on questions of pedigree, so our focus inevitably turns to vintage. We’ve tried to select “old” things as long as they stack up aesthetically and support Wright’s stated spirit of the ASBH program, which was to deliver simple beauty and utility while remaining affordable and long-lasting. So we are attempting to lean away from modern convenience and more towards an historic experience. In a way, our quest to preserve this tiny home is like time travel. We want to understand what he intended at the time he intended it.

That, it turns out, is not easy. It took four years of searching antique, vintage and salvage shops before we uncovered this beauty from under some boxes in a reseller’s barn near Lake Placid, New York.

The edging, oval bowl and backsplash seemed about right. So we paid $50 to purchase it and $108 to ship it home, then stripped and refinished the underside, touched up the porcelain, restored the hardware, gave it a good scrub and hung and plumbed it.

It turns out, the 21″ width is symbiotic to the 21″ medicine cabinet door above and the matching curvatures of the tub and basin seem planned.

And we’re learning to do things the first family here did a century ago. We plug the drain, mix hot and cold water in the basin, brush, wash or shave in a pool of water, and then unplug the drain. (This is why it is called a “Wash Basin”.) It is not as convenient or fast as a modern sink with an open mixing faucet, but it wastes less water and necessitates a bit of patience.

Vintage, we are learning, is often better.

Here is the before-before, the before, and the after. Click the left and right arrows on the image to view the next and last.

The vintage sink. What do you think?

Here is a complete list of our restoration work since 2016.

About this blog: The Elizabeth Murphy House, an American System-Built Model A203 designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is the protagonist in the new book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House – How an Omission Transformed the Architect’s Legacy“, (University of Wisconsin Press.)

1.) “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.

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