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


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:


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.


How Wright Learned to Separate Art and Automation

Save the date!

The Elizabeth Murphy House will be featured in a presentative at the 2018 Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy Conference: “Preserving Wright’s Legacy in Wisconsin” on the morning of Saturday Oct 13, 2018, between 9-11:30am.

The talk, entitled “How Wright Learned to Separate Art and Automation” will be part of the conference Education Series. From the abstract:

We will suggest, using new photographs of details, original
drawings, evidence collected during deconstruction in and around the house,
and historic references and timelines, that Wright orphaned the house and
left the ASBH program to preserve reputation and to buy time to think about
whether art and mass-production could coexist at all.

We hope to see you in Madison in the fall!



“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.

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”

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.


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.


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.


The new, old water closet

At this time of these images, there were still a few details to complete (we were awaiting a sink faucet which was on backorder), but the bath is complete and as close to Wright’s vision as we could make it.

The 68″ x 72″ space was the weak spot in the house when we bought it, and we had plans to quickly make it right.

Here it was before the work:

The demolition phase confirmed what we suspected: years of steam and overflows had done damage, and the damage was covered up. We learned that the room was originally painted plaster and trim in yellows and oranges, unlike a bath in one of the Burnham model F duplexes, – which features varnished trim. However, we’re not convinced that paint was in Wright’s plans. Since we didn’t see evidence of a clawfoot, we wonder if the builder veered from the drawings and went right to a built-in tub, and thought that paint would survive moisture. We do know that sometime in the 50’s a tub was replaced, some plaster was removed to tile for a shower, and the original maple floor which had stained and warped was covered in linoleum. Subsequent layers of tile, flooring and paint covered subsequent damage. The space seemed to close in on you and the squishy floor was an inch too high.

IMG_3277 copyWe demoed to the studs where necessary and to the Byrkit Lath where we could, and then started fresh. We stabilized the floor starting at the joists and built a new sub-floor. We replaced all the old plumbing. We ran circuits, outlets and added a fan, new fixtures, and in-floor radiant heat to replace a 1950’s radiator. With cues from B1 and other parts of our house, we elected to return to plaster all around, a clawfoot tub, and hand-rubbed shellac finishes on the all birch trim. We recovered and reclaimed birch woodwork and the door by refinishing, and then milled and finished over 1500 new linear feet of rail and decorative trim to replace what was missing. The new floor is tile, but in a wood finish pattern. This allows for the radiant heat and won’t warp or stain the first time someone splashes in the tub.

We were lucky to have found Peter Halper of Passerine Home Remodeling to help. Peter’s talents are both broad and deep: he can plumb, wire, tile and plaster. More importantly, he was willing to work with us as we uncovered clues, made mistakes, shifted our thinking, and added our own time and effort to remain within budget and on time. His true specialty is in listening, working very hard, and kindly collaborating.

And finally, a note on the door. The original plans show that it was hung to open in and into the knees of a toilet sitter, making for a much smaller, already small space. We had a hard time believing that Wright meant to do this, but, alas, other homes, including the Usonian Gordon Home in Oregon, share the painful inconvenience. We decided to break with the architect on this, while preserving the views he wanted in the rest of the house. Now the door still turns in, but into a wall, not into someone’s knees.

Here is the after:

What about that stucco?

We’ve written about the pebble-dash stucco before. Experts have said that it might not just be in the sleeping porch, but also outside, under the cedar shake. We guessed that the material might not have held up well in Wisconsin winters, and needed to be removed and replaced mid-life.

Then, a strange twist: the recently shared image of the home in 1933 told us that the house was covered with cedar shingles before 1933, a scant 16 years after it was built. Might it have always been sided? No – it’s in the porch. Did the stucco fail that fast? It’s still fresh in the porch too. Well, relatively fresh. It’s 100.

Or, did the Kibbies not like the pebble-dash and cover it for aesthetic reasons only, thereby protecting it for 90 years?

The ongoing bathroom remodel offered an opportunity to learn more. While drilling from inside-out for a required ventilation fan, we ran into concrete. Then, this weekend, we uncovered a small section of an outside wall and found the original pebble dash, in seemingly decent shape (it’s a mightly small sample.)

Here is said sample, along with the shake that covered it in the first and last colors.


So what next for the exterior? This architectural archeological dig has just begun.