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Downsizing with Frank

It is widely known that Frank Lloyd Wright scorned Greek Revival and Victorian designs, with their small cluttered rooms and halls crammed with thick drapery, cabinets, table and stuffed couches. Indeed, sparsity is the essence and the ethos of the American System Built (House), and especially this Model A203. Frank didn’t want the Elizabeth Murphy House to be filled with junk.

Coincidentally, we landed here in part because of a burning desire to downsize. We had hoped to shrink footprints for some time, and Frank forced the issue.

To start, our previous house was 2,300 square feet. This one is just over 1,200. To wedge ourselves into it, we sold or gave away between 30 and 45% of our possessions, including books, furniture, records, tools, toys, clothes, utensils and trinkets. The work is ongoing.

The Elizabeth Murphy house has four small closets, just enough space in dining and kitchen cabinets, and one small book shelf. Rooms are abundant with windows and passages to invite sunlight and conversation, but lack walls for chests or shelves to hold knick-knacks or collections. Part of organic design, we’re learning, is that spaces are sensory, social and evocative; meant for people, not things.

We’ve observed two new behaviors in response to the Wright way:

1.) We’re highly selective about what we keep and display. Never-to-be-read books don’t make the shelf-space cut, and then, go to a library or used book store. A picture must mean something to get a nail. Sometimes a decision to hang something – like a towel hook, for example – takes weeks.

2.) More interestingly, we’ve begun what a friend recently called “just-in-time” living. Instead of stocking up on staples, or getting more of something that we might need because we’re at the store (like fasteners, soap, mulch, milk), we have learned to carefully estimate our immediate need, and buy only what is required. The result: we spend less, store less, and consume less.

The idea of downsizing seems so contemporary. So Millennial, trendy and mod. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Frank was thinking of it over a hundred years ago.

 

“She thought he was an immoral man”

Today, Kathy Kean of the Shorewood Historical Society kindly introduced us to Dorothy Hoffmann (née Stock), a lifelong Shorewoodian, a member of the Shorewood High School Class of 1942, and sorority sister of Teddy (Virginia) Kibbie, whose family first occupied this home.

This was an opportunity for Dorothy to see the house and share her memories of it and the neighborhood.

We learned, for example, that classmate William Rehnquist (later Chief Justice Rehnquist) had asked Dorothy on a date to see the first showing of Gone With The Wind at Palace Theatre in Milwaukee. He also asked Dorothy to the prom, but she said no, having already committed to Ed Hoffmann, whom she would eventually marry.  When Ed returned from WWII, he and Dorothy raised two children near here.

Dorothy and Teddy Kibbie were lifelong friends, though Teddy had not once invited Dorothy into this house, so this was Dorothy’s first tour. Dorothy recalled discussing the house in Shorewood by the famous architect during high school. Dorothy wished that Teddy was still around to see it, though she doubted Teddy would’ve come. Teddy “hated this house.” There seem to have been three issues:

  1. It was different. The neighbors lived in houses with distinct rooms and front doors.
  2. Teddy shared a tiny 10 x 11 foot bedroom with her sister Mary and their frail grandmother.
  3. Teddy had read all about Frank Lloyd Wright, and thought he was an immoral man.

In fact, much later in life, Dorothy and Teddy and their husbands were traveling together in Pennsylvania and had a chance to visit Falling Water. Teddy refused to go in and sat in the car.

Details of this place’s history are starting to fill in and correspond with what is known about Wright’s life. By 1917, when this home was completed, Wright was 50, and had risen to fame and then fallen in popularity over reports of infidelity. The murders and fire at Taliesin happened about the same time that Wright was sending the ASBH A203 drawings to the builder who would construct this home. Wright would see credit for this home’s design, but he also had to fight for his commission, and, it seems, his reputation. His prospects would rise again, but this was a tense and painful time.

There is tension built into the details of the house; little corners cut by carpenters awaiting paychecks, for example. But now it seems to be breathing out. Releasing. The genius of Wright’s design is that one can find respite and solace in it even when times are tough.

Thank you, Dorothy, for making this clearer. Please visit often.

Frank is in good hands with FLWW

A hearty congratulations and thank you to the organizers, house captains, docents, and countless others behind the scenes at Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin (FLWW) for their flawless execution of the Wright and Like 2017 tour, held today, and commemorating the 150th anniversary of Frank’s birth.

Our part was comparatively easy: we only needed to ready this little house. It took an army of kind and conscientious FLWW volunteers to gently guide us to open our doors  and then to step back as they ushered hundreds smoothly through these little, fragile historic spaces to learn, wonder and be inspired.

We took a little break and visited some stunners: The Albert and Edith Adelman House, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, the Leenhouts Riverwest Residence, and American System Built Home B1, the first cousin to Elizabeth Murphy.

Then we returned home and joined the tour ourselves. Such a treat to share this special place, but only possible due to kindness and generosity of the people at FLWW, who find and share meaning and joy in art, architecture and history.

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“How to build a warm, strong and dry house”

We called a remodeling contractor friend and told him we’d purchased a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and he asked “… should I congratulate or scold you?”

Our experience, so far, belies the popular myth that Wright homes are leaky and cold. This little house is (knock on wood) dry and without a draft. Credit, we think, goes to the use of Byrkit Lath to sheathe both the interior and exterior walls and ceilings.

Patented and marketed starting in 1890, Byrkit was pitched as a stronger, longer lasting, easier to install substrate on which to apply plaster.

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Byrkit Lath in profile.

It’s an ingenious idea: tongue and grooved boards are milled with trapezoidal slots into which wet plaster is pressed, locking the system together, setting and sealing it as it dries. The result is a waterproof wall with incredible strength that is relatively lightweight.

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Void free plaster locks mated Byrkit Lath to form a super-strong wall, or in this case, ceiling.

A modern metaphor is the use of closed-cell foam core materials covered in carbon-fibers impregnated with epoxy in boats, cars and rockets. The hollowness creates lightness. Interlocking fibers create strength. The uniform thin-walled surfaces create stiffness and structural integrity.

By specifying Byrkit Lath in this and other American System-Built Houses, Frank Lloyd Wright may have secured this home’s legacy. In addition to creating a dry, strong and warm space that stands straight and true to this day, he may also have dissuaded major renovation. To drill a hole for a code-required exhaust vent in our new WC required a $26 masonry bit and a $26 diamond saw.

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References: Mike Lilek, 2015, “2106 Newton Avenue Shorewood, Wisconsin, An American System-Built House Model A203, Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect”

A $5,000 house by Frank Lloyd Wright, twice.

Frank Lloyd Wright tried to bring modest, sturdy, but beautiful homes to the working class in two very different programs. His first attempt, the American System Built Houses (ASBH), of which our Elizabeth Murphy House is one, lasted from approximately 1910 to 1916. We think Elizabeth Murphy may have been the final nail ending the ASBH program. He tried again with the “Usonian” houses, starting in 1934 and continuing with homes built even after his death, like the Gordon home in Oregon.

The designs differ architecturally, as one would expect from work done a generation apart. ASBH designs are rooted in Louis Sullivan’s teachings, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Wright’s prairie interpretations. They were groundbreaking at the time. ASBHs were a clear break from the victorian style that dominated neighborhoods; appearing like a sporty two door hatchback among dump trucks.

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From the American System Built House Marketing Brochure

The later Usonian homes are sleek, modern forms built with local materials: mostly stone and wood and a wide range of frugal innovations, like carports and heated floors. They still look futuristic.

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The Gordon House: A Usonian Design Built in 1961

Despite the differences, there is evidence that Wright was shooting at a common target with the ASBH and Usonian programs: affordability.

Alfred and Gladys Kibbie, first owners of the Elizabeth Murphy House, paid $5,000 for it in 1918.

Then, in 1934, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs challenged Wright to design a home that could be built for $5,000, and Wright answered with the home called Usonia One, in Madison, Wisconsin, though not without cutting some corners. It is said that Usonia One was constructed with bricks skimmed from the Johnson Wax headquarters, since it was running over budget.

A few weeks ago, while we worked on the facade, a car pulled up and a friendly gentleman emerged. He introduced himself as a Kibbie descendant. His mother Virginia, the youngest Kibbie daughter, had been courted by her high school sweetheart (and this man’s father) on our front steps. We talked for a time about the house and his family history and learned that Alfred and Gladys felt strongly about affordability too. In 1941, the Kibbies sold this house to subsequent owners for the same price they had paid decades years before. Their grandson explained that his grandparents didn’t think it right to profit from a modest, sturdy, but beautiful home designed for the working class.

So while Frank was probably thinking that the magic $5,000 threshold would never be met again, this little home, and its generous caretakers, made it happen for another family.

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What not to miss on your 30 second tour

Let’s be clear. You can see the entire Elizabeth Murphy House in 3o seconds. It’s tiny.

But there are places to pause and things not to miss. Here are a few:

1.) Once you find the door, notice that two people can’t enter the house at the same time. The passage is too narrow and steep. It asks you to be quiet, deliberate, and think about what is coming next.

2.) When you pass through the narrow space and pause in sleeping porch, imagine dozing there on a soft rug looking up at the twinkling stars. The quartzite pebbles in the pebble-dash stucco on the ceiling blink in bright white and rainbow hues all night long.

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3.) When you enter the house from the porch, you’ll be nearing the end of your path of discovery.  As you shed your boots, hat and coat and say hello – something that usually happens in a foyer – you’re standing in the center of the house.

And there you will need to decide: Are you feeling social? Go left, where the spaces are sunlit and soar up and out and you’ll find friends and conversation. Or are you feeling quiet and introspective? Then turn right into the intimate spaces; the bedrooms and bath.

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4.) Stand to the left of the fireplace mantel and spin around slowly. This is the spot where you can see out in all directions. North; a Wisconsin woods. East and West; neighbors and friends. South; an expansive city skyline that connects the house to the street and  you to the community.

Then thank Frank, as we do each day.


* The Elizabeth Murphy House is a private residence in a quiet neighborhood, so tours are  by invitation only, excepting special events. Please respect the privacy of the owners and the neighbors.

The home will be featured on the 2017 Wright and Like Tour. Learn more here.

Honey, I tore off the front of the house.

Elizabeth Murphy must have thought cars were not necessary. The house she had built had no garage or carport. Indeed, in 1917, trolleys ran north, south and west from Shorewood. Frank Lloyd Wright may have assumed that the middle class – for whom American System Built Houses were designed – would always prefer public transportation.

Here is the house from across the street in 1952.

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But in the 1970s, the then owners needed to park a car. They excavated part of the front yard and under the sleeping porch to create a driveway and garage. Thankfully, they did it without disturbing anything in the house above.

In an attempt to tie the garage to the house, an eyebrow roof was added to the facade held up by two large stuccoed columns. Over the years, the columns shifted and the brow sagged, like a lazy eye. Indeed, cracks, angles, and layers of caulk may have caused inspectors to assume that the house’s foundation was compromised, when in fact, the facade was the only thing moving. It’s as if the house was rejecting a transplant.

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In preparation for the Wright and Like 2017 Tour, we hoped to clean it up. I would, at a minimum, grind out and patch the ugliest cracks. As layers came off and the extent of the effort to mask the mess became clear, I decided, instead, to tear it all off. As sledge hammer hit cinder block, you could hear the home breathe a sigh of relief. Angela returned from errands to a bit of a surprise.

So for the rest of the weekend, we poured new concrete, parged walls, and cut and painted matching trim. Today, the Elizabeth Murphy House stands tall and straight, and ready for tour-goers.

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