At first glance, the west wall of the breakfast nook in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elizabeth Murphy House is a stunning piece of small-home design, a modular multi-purpose social space that can adapt to the dimensions of the moment. Need to feed two kids? The stove is steps away, so hot pancakes are assured. Need to make room for a bright holiday banquet? Expand the table into the living area and every guest has a view of nature.
A deeper look reveals the clear evidence that the “System” that was the American System-Built Homes was failing. The person making this space was trying to follow Wright’s instructions, but punted when the instructions were incomplete or unclear.
A key element of The System in American System-Built Homes was that the homes would be able to be built by a carpenter as the main contractor/tradesperson. It was expected that this would save time and money. Masonry was de-emphasized. Electric, heating and plumbing systems were uncomplicated and explained in detail. Carpenters were easier and cheaper to find and hire.
To support the carpenter, all of the woodwork was semi-automated. As we have described in other posts and the book, Wright designed the milling profiles for every section of lumber that would be used in both the exterior and interior, had those sections milled at Arthur Richard’s factory and shipped the proper quantity (lengths) of unfinished stock to the job-site for the carpenter to cut and fashion into a home.
But he didn’t tell the carpenter exactly how to craft an American System-Built cabinet, so oftentimes, the carpenter improvised.
For example, in our northern-most cabinet, the carpenter elected to strap a shelf butt joint using a scrap of
toe shoe trim, nailed on the vertical, presumably to minimize warping. It is not a bad solution to the need to tie two pieces of wood together, and it’s hidden and held up, but it doesn’t qualify as fine carpentry. It looks more like a let’s-get-this-over-with solution.
In the following Instagram post (click to see all the images), we show the cabinet with drawers removed and focus on the improvisational strapping. But we also highlight one of the many factory stamps left on sections of wood in the Elizabeth Murphy House. It reads, “Richards, Inc. Milwaukee, WIS”, where the wood was milled.
For those interested in exploring the subtler details of the Wright’s American System-Built Homes, we can confirm another Wrightian ASB design strategy in this cabinet: Wood shipped from Richard’s factory mill was unfinished and finishes were to be applied by the carpenter after assembly. This is consistent with Wright’s instructions, which said: “All wood finish shall be stained and given two coats of wax finish except in the bath room1” (where the wood was to be painted with lead paint – presumably to minimize moisture penetration, molding, and warping.)
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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.