Preserving Shorewood’s Rich History

County Supervisor Chris Abele’s tone-deaf decision to buy and destroy a historically important lakefront home in Shorewood was so tragic and awful that we hope it costs him his position. A key ingredient of competent governance is enthusiastic stewardship of important local assets: the art, architecture and natural environments that define our culture.

We should all vote against him.

However, it is important that we do not allow our anger to create a system that punishes the very stewardship that most of us agree we want.

Stewardship is not a product of special oversight placed on historic homes. It comes, instead, from a shared commitment to storytelling, passed between generations and among neighbors.

Historic homes begin with a mark against them. As evidence, consider that the Elizabeth Murphy house languished unsold in a hot market once it had been identified as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, precisely because prospective buyers were concerned that they would not be able to afford the basic upkeep, given its significance. They were worried about regulation creating downward pressure on value and upward pressure on upkeep. Their worries were not without merit.

Old homes require special care, time and money to keep them safe and useful. Old historically-important homes, like Abele’s now pulverized Eschweiler-designed mansion, require a deeper level of care: sensitivity to the architectural DNA and the importance of the artifact, a respect for former caretakers, and a willingness to spend the time to understand and share context. Abele didn’t have the patience for any of these things. He just wanted a view.

However, we have seen firsthand that many, if not most village residents understand  that stewardship flourishes in communities that reward the care-taking of all of the homes in a neighborhood.

Shorewoodian families enthusiastically care for homes and apartments ranging from Art Deco to Tudor, Mid-Century-Modern to Prairie, and of course, the Milwaukee-flat and Milwaukee-bungalow, and together, these gems form the priceless portfolio of real estate that is our shared village, a place that many see as a cultural beacon in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

In response to the Abele catastrophe, the village would do well to promote the concept of the preservation easement, which would provide owners and sellers of historic homes with the support to ensure that their important properties are protected by carrying forward both the burden and the benefits of pedigree. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a preservation easement binds future buyers to protect the historic elements and the spirit of the home in return for modest qualified tax relief. There might be fewer buyers of a home that has an easement, but those who are willing begin their shift understanding their role in historic preservation. This is something we plan to do with the Elizabeth Murphy House whether the village steps up or not.

Programs and people who value culture, not reactive ordinances, are what foster a dynamic and sustained environment of care-taking.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elizabeth Murphy House to be featured in 2019 OSHER presentation

Public tours of this private residence are exceedingly rare. However, you can learn more about The Elizabeth Murphy House and its place in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and legacy, by attending a presentation on Friday, June 14, 2019, at 12:30pm at the Hefter Center at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Seats are limited. Registration opens on May 15th. 

The program is part of the summer series at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at UWM’s School of Continuing Education.

Here is the abstract:

How Frank Lloyd Wright Built an Artistic Legacy From a Tiny House

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first foray into affordable housing is frequently overlooked, just as the Elizabeth Murphy House (American System-Built Model A203) was forgotten until rediscovery in 2015. The well-preserved tiny home boasts fundamental Wright design concepts, but also reveals shortcuts and cover-ups – evidence of misunderstandings, overruns and angry buyers – and the markings of an experimental idea stuck on the launchpad that Wright regretted, would downplay, and later, correct. Using photographs, drawings and historic timelines, this presentation clarifies Wright’s decision to orphan the ASBH program and how his subsequent work and legacy would be launched by the experience.

Learn more here: https://uwm.edu/sce/courses/how-frank-lloyd-wright-built-an-artistic-legacy-from-a-tiny-house/

 

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 an inventory 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 the shape called 60-455 would be assembled as the 54th step. (It is interested that Wright’s drawings call this item number B-11. Did Richards and Wright have their own lists?) 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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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?

 

 

Unfinished Business – Wright’s Cantilevers

Elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ASBH Model A203 design either never made it into the Elizabeth Murphy House, or, perhaps, were lost to reconstruction events sometime during her hundred year history. One missing element: decorative flower box cantilevers  shown here in Wright’s drawings:

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The details have been missing from the house since perhaps 1939 (the oldest known image), and certainly since the 1950s. It is unclear if they were included in the original construction.

2106Newton 1933 appraisal card

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In the drawings, the extended flower box crown is important to the flow of the facade, anchoring the main windows of the living area wall while stretching the edges of the built-in garden. The house looks boxy without it. We studied the drawings to find the geometries and proportions and matched the materials of the existing flower box trim (cedar) to construct new (or replacement) cantilevers.

Here is a before picture:

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And an after picture:

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The drawings show simple open extensions of the flower box crown with what appeared to be lateral braces. Were these braces meant for hanging baskets? With the project complete and some time to study its effects, we think that Wright’s main objective was to cast traveling angular shadows, lifting the house out and up, mirroring the louvres and art glass motif, and emphasizing, again, light, nature and the horizontal.

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