Sixteen Russell Barr Williamson designs less than one mile from FLW’s Murphy House

We had the privilege of visiting with Dorothy Hoffman again, the lifelong friend of Teddy Kibbie, who grew up in our Elizabeth Murphy House. Dorothy visited a little over a year ago with Kathy Kean, from the Shorewood Historical Society.

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With this visit, we hoped to explore other relationships in the neighborhood when the Elizabeth Murphy House was new.

For example, Dorothy’s parents, who lived on the 4200 block of Ardmore, were friends with Russell Barr Williamson, the noted architect who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and Arthur L Richards on the construction of the Bogk House and the Munkwitz Apartments before going into business for himself. Russell Barr (as he was fondly called by family and friends) didn’t work on the Elizabeth Murphy house, since it was built after he left Wright’s employment and moved temporarily to Kansas City in 1917 to 1918*. A year later, Williamson returned to the neighborhood to build his own home and studio about 10 blocks from here, earned his Wisconsin architect’s license, and then designed the 1921 Eggers Cottage and the 1922 Richards Bungalow, both within a few hundred feet of here.

Importantly, Wright’s former assistant Williamson would play a large role in shaping the aesthetic of Village of Shorewood.

In total, Russell Barr Williamson designed 16 homes within the 1 square mile that is Shorewood Wisconsin. As of today, just one has been dismantled and the rest are private residences. Here they are, organize by year constructed and proximity to this Elizabeth Murphy House, which is designated with a white star and the year 1918 in the southeast quadrant.

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Dorothy recalls Mr. Williamson visiting her family home when she was a child. She said he was a big, friendly man who consumed large quantities of her father’s sandwiches and beer and who had a “lot of money” — not surprising given his booming local business.

Every morning we wake to this view of Williamson’s lovely Egger’s Cottage, a cinder-bock Prairie Design. This photo was taken from our front window. and are reminded that it is a small neighborhood with a big history.

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* Barr Williamson Jr., Russell, Russell Barr Williamson Architect – A Collection, 2000, The Barr Brand.

The System within the System

Wright and his team at Taliesin delivered over 900 drawings to contractors to support the construction of about thirty American System Built Homes (ASBH) built between 1915 and 1918, including this home. Many of the drawings are in the Avery collection at Columbia University. Others are at the Getty Museum.

Citing this vast body of work, ASBH historians have called the ASBH project the largest single design effort by Frank Lloyd Wright. We’re finding evidence to suggest that Wright  and Arthur L. Richards, his marketing partner, may have seen the heavy lift as a necessity.

Specifically, it was not economic or practical for Wright to visit or send an assistant to ASBH job sites, which could be anywhere and happen concurrently. Lacking architectural supervision, a builder needed as much clear instruction as could be delivered remotely. So no matter how small the home to be built, each project would require in-depth plans, including drawings, detailed bills of materials with a complex numbering system, inventory management and instructions for assembly. Thus, over 900 drawings.

As evidence, see the part numbering system, along with quantities and sequencing stamped and drawn on the back of a section of trim in the image below.

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Presumably, 350 feet of milled lumber of the part number 60-455 would be assembled as the 54th step. The stamp was used at the lumber yard to control stock of a specific geometry. The colored pencil explained what was required to build a specific model of home. Historians with evidence to support or refine this interpretation are invited to comment or email.

Finally, so dependent on instructions like these were Richards and his subcontractors that Richards pleaded to Wright sometime in 1917, when Wright had gone to Japan to design and build the Imperial Hotel:

“every minute of your time is needed here… …you can make more money making plans”

Shortly after reading these words, Wright terminated his agreement with Richards to design ASBHs. The Elizabeth Murphy House was among the last in the program to be started, and was certainly the last to be finished. More on that in future posts.

Beauty in an imperfect system

A legendary local cabinet maker walked into the kitchen, gazed upon the original upper cabinets and exclaimed “magnificent!” They are simple boxes, built in place one hundred years ago and still housing plates and cups and carrying the prints and patina from  thousands of oily fingers opening and closing the doors. As seen above, the deeper cabinets get less attention than those handier to the person needing a bowl.

The carpentry is basic. Butt and mitre joints are held fast with nails; no glue. One cabinet is deeper than another. Shelves are held up by stepped bevelled supports and can be adjusted up or down.

These American System-Built Homes were part of a “system” conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright and his project partner Arthur L. Richards, whose job it was to sell and supply materials to independent contractors who would assemble the pre-cut kits on site.

In our case, a carpenter named Herman Krause contracted to build the house but didn’t finish it. Instead, he walked from the job-site after 18 months and sued the buyers for back payments. There had been material shortages and cost overruns. We’re reminded of these tense times every time we get a coffee cup. As Krause was hurriedly installing kitchen cabinets just before walking away, he used the last imperfect scraps of birch to make this door, leaving deep milling scars from Richard’s lumberyard saw-blade for all to see. It’s something a cabinet-maker would never do, unless he wanted to make a point.

The “system” wasn’t working.

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Subtle things matter

We were lucky to visit another American System Built Home (ASBH) last week. Linda’s loving care is evident in her model AA202. Her house is for sale and we hope it lands in the hands of an equally-compassionate steward.

During the tour, we confirmed that our home and the AA303 share many details, including common millwork, like the base-board shoe trim.

DSC_7339Base trim wood is among most abused in a home; kicked with feet, knocked with chairs and vacuums, and suffering sun, carpet abrasion and inattentive re-finishing. Linda was careful to match the trim in her renovations and maintained it to a very high standard. We have been gradually doing the same. First, we matched the design in rooms where it had been lost, like in the bathroom and under kitchen cabinets.

Now, we’re repairing damaged or marred sections of the original shoe trim. Where we can save the original wood, we do. Where we can’t, we have made exact reproductions using age-appropriate reclaimed birch and the amber shellac finish found throughout the home.

Studying the original milled woodwork reveals the functional brilliance of the design. Specifically, the only 90° angle is on the corner where the trim and wall meet. A 93° angle on the bottom back edge ensures a tight fit on both the wall and floor seams. Importantly, the more acute 87° angle on the top lip ensures a high contrast sun shadow to create a subtle horizontal line at the very base of a wall.

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Subtleties like these come at a price. In order to recreate the geometries, a woodworker must fine-tune a table saw to run three precise subsequent passes in which the blade height, width and angle come together to create a seamless inset 30° angle. A gap or an overshoot can’t be repaired, so mistakes create expensive scrap of priceless wood.

While removing and repairing a section yesterday, we were reminded that we’re not the first to experience this cutting challenge. One hundred years ago, a millworker at the Arthur L Richards Co. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s marketing partner and supplier of pre-cut lumber for ASBHs) made sure to take credit for his/her work with an ink imprint – complete with typo – on the back of one board. It has been cleaned up and nailed back in place, securing the story for a future steward to rediscover.

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Compress, release, repeat.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed experiences for the people who entered his spaces. One of his most famous experiential tools is called “compression and release.” By creating a deliberately small space through which one must pass before reaching a larger space, he caused a temporary sense of tension, followed by the feeling of freedom. Call it manipulative, but we have seen that it can be powerful. Guests who succeed in finding our front door tend to hesitate before entering the narrow passage to knock. When we answer the door, we often find them wondering if they are in the right place and looking claustrophobic.

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The tiny Elizabeth Murphy House boasts two waves of compression and release. The first comes at the porch entryway and porch door leading to the sleeping porch (propped open in this image), and the second comes after passing through the original main door (closed ahead) and through a narrow passageway to the living room and the heart of the house in front of the hearth.

The waves are unmistakable and can be quantified by measuring the space around the person making the journey from the front to the middle of the house.

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For the above chart, we measured the changing field of view of a person taking 42 steps from the front outside sidewalk to the indoor fireplace, near the center of the house. For visual simplicity, we’ve summed the space from floor to ceiling, left to right and in front (the range of vision) to show how a visitor’s perspective changes rapidly from large, to small, to large, to small again, and finally, to very large when they stand under a high ceiling with views out windows facing south, north, east and west. The sense of release is most dramatic at the very heart of the house. That, too, was a stroke of Wright design genius and lives today in all who feel it.

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By adding a garage, a previous owner saved this Frank Lloyd Wright house

In the life of a house, owners must make modifications to keep up with wear and tear. In the life of a historically-significant house, changes are judged on how well they balance preservation with necessity. While this house remains remarkably preserved in terms of footprint, original equipment, trim and interior surfaces, it has seen three significant changes since it was built a hundred years ago.

  1. The external stucco was covered in the 1930s with cedar shake.
  2. The single-pane windows were replaced with double panes in stages between the 1950s and the 90s.
  3. Since the house had no drive, garage or carport, a garage was added under the sleeping porch in 1976.

Purists might view the garage addition as lamentable; a “significant alteration.” Cosmetically, they would be right. The front facade is very different from Wright’s vision, since below grade is now exposed. It’s akin to that teenage trick where an eyelid is folded back and sticks. There is also a philosophical problem: Wright hated garages. He thought they were places to collect junk.

So in 2017, we began to gradually deemphasize the visual impact of the change. We removed aging veneers, fixtures and faux surfaces, replaced the garage doors, and painted all in muted colors. We’re not done.

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Yet, we are massively thankful to the previous owner who built the garage.

Structural evaluation shows that without it, the house may not be standing today. Original plans (below) reveal footings on two elevations: deep enough for a full basement under the main house and shallow under the porch (and front flower box).

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Over the years, as water moved and soil shifted, the shallower footings were quicker to move than the deeper ones, which had more surface area and were connected to concrete floors. The porch began to sag. It moved at least 3/8 of an inch in comparison with the main space.

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By adding a garage, the owner lifted and supported the porch before the problem became serious. Today, the whole house rests solidly on equally-deep footings and the foundation is integrated and sound.

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Something to give thanks for. – 11/22/2018.

PS: Mark Hertzberg: do you have that AMC Pacer image?