Forensics reveal tiny details to restore in Wright-designed ASBH kitchen

On the journey to restore our living space to reflect Wright’s plans:

  1. We peel back the layers to see what is original and what is not. Our rule is not to touch original elements apart from triage and then long term preservation.
  2. Then, we look for clues to explain what has been lost or removed over the years. Since detailed construction drawings of this space have not been found, we rely on physical evidence, like scars in the plaster or original surfaces buried under paint or furniture.
  3. Finally, we try to recreate Wright’s ideas, while adhering to modern codes and usability.

For example, in a prior post about an earlier phase of work on the kitchen, we describe how we restored a Wright sight-line by restructuring refrigeration.

In the latest phase of the kitchen restoration (executed over the last three weekends), our goal was to rid the room of inappropriate laminate counter surfaces and tie together the old and new cabinets while upgrading worn fixtures and appliances. But we found some lost details worth restoration.

The main working space in the kitchen is a U-shaped counter with cabinets above and below on the sides. Wright’s original layout had the sink at the center of the U and smaller, shallower lower cabinets than are here now. In the early 90s, the then-owner – the late Dr. Lowell Bahe, a professor at UW Milwaukee – removed and disposed of the lowers which were too small for modern appliances (like a stove and dishwasher) and had them replaced with appliance-depth cabinets and counters. We have since learned that Dr. Bahe was certain that the home was designed by Wright, despite a pedigree blurred by cover-ups and missed clues over the years. Still, he wanted to do well by the architect’s themes, so his new cabinets were built from birch with doors and windows matching the materials in the rest of the home. And his contractor/designer may have visited to inspect the original lower cabinets before they were removed. They took care to space the sections to create vertical symmetry and to match important details, like overlapping drawer fronts.

But the 1990s work was more an attempt at sensitive modernization (for the time) than historic restoration, so some key details were lost. First, modern finishes on the new cabinets could only approximate the colors and tones of the original cabinet surfaces. The cabinet maker’s polyurethane would never match the organic depth and character of amber shellac in the rest of the house. And formica might last longer than Wright’s wooden countertops, but seams, curves and caulk cheapened the overall experience and made the space seem conventional – like a doctor’s office or a three star motel. Most importantly the tacky back-splash fitted onsite by the countertop supplier covered the evidence of the detailed prairie banding that had anchored and defined the space. Unpainted sections of plaster exposed during our demolition told us where to rebuild and place these vital elements. Now, every nook is properly framed as it was in 1918. Most exciting was the discovery that birch panels had once connected the lower cabinets with the uppers on one end. These panels, while decorative, serve four purposes:

  1. They continue the theme of solid wood surfaces found in the breakfast nook and living room.
  2. They book-end the kitchen space, hugging the people in it while making it seem richer and larger.
  3. They create a curious illusion of cantilevering (uppers float up and away), drawing your attention to the quality of the design and workmanship.
  4. They anchor all the furniture to the floor, grounding the space and the people in it.

Here is that all-important panel on the left end of the north cabinet, and a few more shots.

For those keeping track, this project included:

  • The making of new solid wood countertops (as was specified by Wright for ASBHs). We chose maple for durability and contrast and finished it with six coats of H2OLox.
  • The installation of a new, smaller high quality stove/oven.
  • The installation of an under-counter sink.
  • Plaster repair and repainting all around.
  • Stripping, staining and refinishing the lower cabinets in two coats of amber shellac.
  • Milling, finishing and installing birch banding and panels in locations determined by forensics.

Here are the before and after shots.

About this blog: The Elizabeth Murphy House is a 104 year-old American System-Built Home and the protagonist in the book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House.”

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