Elizabeth Murphy’s Wiki Page

A condensed history of the Elizabeth Murphy House is now available at Wikipedia. Highlights include the story of her construction, transitions and adaptations, when her architectural pedigree as a Frank Lloyd Wright Designed American System-Built Home was lost, and how it was found again.

Expert contributors are invited to add resources and details.

 

“According to Plans, Specification and Drawings made by Frank Lloyd Wright”

Court Case records available at the Milwaukee County Historical Society offer more clues to why Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t mention this house after sending plans to Elizabeth Murphy (via the Richards Company) to build it. Elizabeth, wife of Loan Broker Lawrence Murphy, would act as General Contractor, and hired a Carpenter, Herman Krause Jr, to construct the house. Quickly, the project was mired in payment disputes, liens and work stoppages that would take years to unravel in court.

Murphy agreed to pay Krause $3400 to build the house in 1917 and before it was complete, sold it to Arthur Kibbie for just over $5000 in 1919. Krause walked from the job before it was finished. The Kibbies bought an incomplete home from Elizabeth Murphy.

Moreover, knowing that the Murphys, speculators, paid something for the land, it wasn’t much of a return on investment. It is unclear if Wright was paid at all.

These must not have been good signals for the American System Built Homes project.

This will be the subject of another, longer post and a talk that we will give at the upcoming Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy Annual Conference, in October 2018.

Milwaukee Country Circuit Court Case No. 56129 is on file in the Historical Society’s Research Library.

 

 

Pause, don’t Dash

* Featured image by Sara Stathas, for the Wall Street Journal.

We’ve adopted a new method when visitors visit: instead of dashing through the Sleeping Porch, we’re now closing the porch door and pausing in the space to consider the Pebble-Dash. It’s worth taking the time to take it in.

It is said that Wright first saw and appreciated Pebble-Dash (also called RoughCast) on a visit to San Diego and thought it might work well for the exteriors of American System Built Homes. The method was popular in maritime climes and praised for low cost, good looks, and uniform durability.  Pebble-Dash starts with plaster applied to brick or lath, and while wet, multi-colored Pebbles are Dashed onto the surface. Colors are what you happen to get from the quarry at the time. Here, we see grey, tan and black quartzite, granite and sparkly biotite.

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It isn’t clear that Pebble-Dash was a good idea for frame construction in Wisconsin. Experts tell us that the exteriors of the houses on the Burnham Block were all recovered within 20 years of construction and there is photographic evidence that this house had shingles over the original surface by about 1935 (fourteen short years after the first owners moved in), presumably due to rapid deterioration. One might surmise that Pebble-Dash over brick becomes a uniformly mineral-based wall, contracting and expanding at about the same pace, and therefore, staying together. However, Pebble Dash over wood lath might crumble in freezing winters since wood and rock don’t dance well together. Wright may have specified Byrkit Lath to try to prevent trouble, but it doesn’t appear he was successful.

Regardless, the unpainted Pebble-Dash in the Elizabeth Murphy House may be the last perfect example of the original exterior of an American System Built House, anywhere. This sleeping porch — once open to the outside — was converted to an enclosed and heated space (probably in the 30’s) and the Pebble-Dash in it has been preserved in almost original condition. The ceiling is spectacular:

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Starry night

Thus, the deliberate pause to take it in. When you’re in this space, you’re in history. A history of trial and error and experimentation that would’ve been lost and forgotten, if the clocks had not been paused about 80 years ago.

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”