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Emphasizing the horizontal

‘The horizontal line is the line of domesticity.’

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Horizontal lines are everywhere in this home. They guide your eye, contain your thoughts, and quiet your mind.

They are found in the trim, the eaves, the flower box, the banding, the shelves, between windows and in the overhangs. Layers of horizontal lines stack like cherished books on a nightstand, one upon the next.

After a year of living here, we stumbled upon more horizontal lines in a subtle, but historically significant place: the masonry of our small fireplace.

We learned, while touring the Gordon house in Oregon (a Usonian house designed in the late 50’s and built after Frank’s death), that Frank often insisted that grout in the vertical seams of a brick wall be smoothed to the brick surface, while grout in the horizontal seams be inset, creating an effect of horizontal stripes, as opposed to stacked cubes. It’s a common feature of Usonian homes, which are between 20-40 years younger than this home.

Often, Usonian brickwork is of large-form cinder block and is painted, like this wall of the Gordon House. (Here, he went so far as to extend seams between layers of brick into the trim between wood siding; calling your eyes to trace an unbroken horizontal line until they land, gently, on the nearby trees and shrubs.)

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The same treatment is found in the Elizabeth Murphy House too, but it is so subtle that it is easily missed. First, the bricks are small and there are only a few of them. Then, the idea is executed in two different ways:

  1. Within the narrow columns beside the fire-box, vertical seams are grout-filled to de-emphasize the vertical, while…
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  2. … in the wall of brick above the firebox, the bring is tightly spaced, leaving no room for grout. The brick-to-brick seams are smooth on their own and the horizontal pops.
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We wonder: were these two approaches combined experimentally? Or was “smooth” specified by the architect and then executed in different ways by the construction team?

Either way, we’re looking at Frank’s fingerprints in the grout. He seems to be toying with an idea that would move in and out of his work for another 50 years.

Art glass during art class

Fourth graders from nearby Atwater School have been visiting this week. Mrs. Hayes, their Art Teacher, is collaborating with The Madison Children’s Museum and experts from Taliesin to create an expeditionary curriculum that includes field trips to the museum and into Shorewood neighborhoods to study organic architecture and compare it with other traditions. After their trips, the kids will fashion facades from clay. Their work will be displayed in the school and some may be featured in the district ‘art night’ later this school year.

So most afternoons this week, students, teachers and parent chaperones have taken a winding path through Shorewood to find and catalog architectural details like spires and gables, to see nearby houses by Wright’s apprentice Russell Barr-Williamson, and finally, to tour and learn about this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed American System Built House. It’s a privilege to have them visit.

We’ve heard many comments:

“It feels modern in here.”

“It smells like Lasagna.”

“Where’s the door?”

“The windows look like roses.”

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For Frank: function followed form

A proud wide chimney adorns the roof on the Elizabeth Murphy House. Up close, it is a thing of beauty: large hand-soldered copper panels tie a massive superstructure to cream city bricks. You can see the copper panels from space. As with other prairie-influenced designs, the chimney sets the tone for the rest of the house. It is intentionally dramatic, like Frank’s fine pork pie fedora. It is also a fake. A facade.

It took a visit to the attic to uncover the dirty secret. That, incidentally, was no mean feat. While the house would get an inflated chimney, it wasn’t designed to have an attic at all.

This American System Built House (A203) was one in a family of designs with similar footprints that had either a flat roof (A201), a gabled roof (A202), or a hip roof (A203).  The design drawings below show the concepts as drawn by Mr. Wright, but flipped, to allow for an optional left side front door.

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Key is the fact that a flat roof might be available at all, squeezing out any attic. So Frank didn’t draw an attic door. But this hip-roofed version has a space above the ceiling, so a door was added, perhaps by the builder as an afterthought. (The builder’s stamp is on the back of said door, as if to claim it as his own.) The door is buried high in a tiny coat closet.

We had done a structural inspection of the attic space while looking at the house before buying it, but today’s visit was to uncover more clues about the house. Most interesting: proof that the chimney is all talk and almost no action. It is 480 cubic feet of theatrics surrounding a measly 24 inch brick flue. All form, almost no function. Why?

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Frank’s vision for the American System Build Houses was affordable beauty, and this chimney is exactly that: an effort to minimize material and labor costs while making something different, desirable and timeless.

We think that the house would not be the same without its big, fake chimney.

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What do you think?

 

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”