Carpentry Improv in Frank Lloyd Wright’s ASB Homes

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.)

To learn more about this home and our renovations, please follow our Instagram page.

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.

4 thoughts on “Carpentry Improv in Frank Lloyd Wright’s ASB Homes

  1. So, the next question is, how was that piece of floor shoe (Wright’s version of the typical quarter-round molding added to the bottom of the room baseboard, to close the almost inevitable gap between the baseboard and the finish flooring) was attached to the bottom of the shelf. Is there any sign of fasteners going through the shelf from above ? Could that stiffener (sometimes referred to as a strongback) play a part in preventing the drawer from “dumping” when it is more than half-way open ?

    1. Hi Stephen – The “stiffener” is attached with three short nails that don’t make it through the shelf above. It seems more about joining than stiffening, since the 3/4 thick shelves are only 24 inches inches wide unsupported. It doesn’t act as a drawer stop. It’s too short. Thanks for helping this novice with tighter vocabulary!

  2. I’m very interested in that shoe that Mr Wright started using early on; its horizontality speaks to the Prairie aesthetic, certainly ? It can be found in work as late as the Willey house, I believe . . .

    1. I’ve written a bunch about that piece in both blogs and the book. First, it’s a very complex geometry. Second, the exact profile doesn’t appear in the Burnham Block homes (or didn’t survive.) Most importantly, its shape was confusing to the installers. The trim is clearly shown on drawing 1506.656 as part number B-11 to be installed long edge down. But this drawing rarely (if ever) made it into construction sets, so the trim was often installed long edge up, which may have been more intuitive. The fact that this error happened frequently helped us see that profiles were milled at the factory but cut to length on site, since ready-cut lengths would have prevented the confusion. (But also would have been impossibly finicky.)

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