New colors, roof, gutters and a forensic report

With every plan to repair something on this old house comes an urgency to study and document what is learned in the process. We took a good portion of the month August to replace an out-of-date roof and leaky listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing photos since.

Sidebar: the project went without a hitch – on time and under budget – in good part due to the skill and care offered by Peter Halper and Aaron Stark; two fine and patient craftsmen who are willing to work alongside handy homeowners. Highly recommended.

Along the way, we confirmed a few things and learned a few more.

1.) We knew that the pebble-dash stucco on the exterior walls had been covered by cedar shake sometime in the 1930s. We were unsure, however, if that stucco might be salvageable one day, and this project would answer that question. We would expose it on at least three surfaces to inspect. Unfortunately, the stucco seems too far gone for restoration, but as much from nails as from weathering. When nailing strips and shingles were fastened to the surface, it was as if the house was thrown into a battlefield line of fire and the pebble dash is now riddled with holes. A restoration would take months if not years, and never result in a uniform and sound surface.

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2.) A 1929 photograph showed the chimney covered in diamond-shaped shingles only ten years after original construction. We wondered if that was evidence that it the chimney had never been surfaced with stucco, despite Wright calling for it in his specifications and drawings.

Indeed, deconstruction exposed pebble dash and confirmed that it was the original chimney surface.

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Coincidentally, a very early photograph appeared just as the project was happening and combined with the physical evidence confirmed both a pebble dash chimney and cedar shake as the first roofing material. With these pieces of evidence, we can conclude that the builder was taking care to adhere to specifications written by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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(Photo courtesy: Claudia Reinhardt Johnson)

3.) Sometime in the 1970s, the soffits and fascia were clumsily covered with tin flashing and over the years, it had warped and worn poorly. We expected to find something worse underneath, like dry-rotted wood. Instead, we were pleased to find that shingles and tongue-and-grooved bead board had been used tastefully when the home was re-sheathed in the 1930s, and that it was both serviceable and attractive. So ninety-year-old materials have been reclaimed and today, look as new.

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Tracking the restoration and preservation of a 101-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright house

So as not to lose track, we’ve started a list of projects completed at the Elizabeth Murphy House since late 2016 and we will link to before-and-after photos and posts as they become available.

  1. Removed faux brick from kitchen alcove and re-plastered and painted
  2. Leveled concrete walk slabs and replaced front steps
  3. Removed secondary walk and steps and planted grass
  4. Removed and replaced wrought iron with red cedar railing
  5. Removed carpet and parquet floor from sleeping porch, repaired, conducted forensics on materials and paints, and repainted in original color
  6. Removed carpet from bedroom floors and refinished
  7. Removed linoleum from kitchen floor, hallway floor and basement steps and refinished
  8. Replaced kitchen appliances (stove, fridge, dishwasher)
  9. Repainted basement room floor, doors and walls
  10. Removed out-of-code wiring on walls and in closets and removed ceiling fans in bedrooms
  11. Removed two window air conditioners, repaired window frames and replaced glass
  12. Removed 1970s front door and screen and replaced with restored unused door and new wood screen
  13. Removed window air condition from entry way ceiling and converted to glass/screen window
  14. Repaired Pebble-Dash damaged by air conditioner installation (1990s)
  15. Removed and replaced warped kitchen and breakfast-nook cabinet shelves
  16. Removed all galvanized supply plumbing in the house and re-plumbed with copper
  17. Patched and repainted every interior wall
  18. Repaired cracked basement floor
  19. Removed over-sized radiator in kitchen
  20. Gutted bathroom to the studs and joists, completed period-appropriate renovation including re-framing, plumbing, electrical, ventilation, plaster, fixtures, trim, finishes, medicine cabinet, lights, tile, and heated floor
  21. Replicated interior finishing technique to refinished and reverse WC door
  22. Repaired, restored and replaced shoe trim as required
  23. Added floor drain, shower stall, toiled and exhaust fan in basement utility room
  24. Added hanging cabinets in basement utility room
  25. Removed faux eyebrow roof over garage, replaced trim and parged concrete
  26. Removed ornate stucco decoration and parged foundation all around
  27. Removed exterior electric outlets
  28. Replaced driveway lights
  29. Replaced damaged garage door
  30. Added accent lighting for sleeping room ceiling
  31. Replaced all ungrounded outlets with grounded devices
  32. Add ground-fault protection as required by code and best practices
  33. Replaced breakfast nook light fixture
  34. Replaced kitchen light fixtures
  35. Added drain tile, repaired foundation and improved grading around crawl-space
  36. Removed overgrown vegetation and invasive weeks and trees and replanted front and back gardens
  37. Repaired and replaced exterior trim in appropriate material
  38. Added flower-box cantilevers 
  39. Added light grid American System-Built ornamentation on front facade
  40. Repaired glazing in all exterior windows
  41. Replaced missing lead work on front windows
  42. Reroofed (tore off and replaced.)
  43. Built replica breakfast nook table
  44. Removed aluminum soffit and fascia covers, restored, replaced and repainted 1930s wood bead-board and trim
  45. Removed warped gutters and downspouts and replaced with period-appropriate, Wright-specified hanging gutters
  46. Repainted and re-stained exterior: from gray with white trim to goldenrod with brown trim
  47. Removed weathered cedar shake from chimney and replaced with new and re-stained

To learn more about the house and its history, attend a free presentation at the Shorewood Public Library a 7pm on September 17th.

Here is a before-and-after picture from 2016 to today, September 5th, 2019.

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A quality roof by Frank Lloyd Wright

We have started our major project for the year, removing 1970s tin flashing in order to  expose and restore the 1930s cedar soffits and facia. We will paint the entire house in appropriate Prairie colors, replace the 25-year old shingled roof (near the end of its life), and importantly, upgrade the ugly, dysfunctional gutters, which have been flimsy, leaky and sagging and not up to the task. Our new gutters will be period and architecturally appropriate and work better.

Frank Lloyd Wright took special care in specifying the gutters on American System-Built Homes and it paid off. These houses typically did not leak. He wanted the gutters to handle the volume of water and to last a long time; key to a good roof.

He directed that the factory would provide and the contractor would then install “…galvanized iron gutters and down spouts wherever and as indicated on drawings.” 

He was careful to include sufficient flow and a proper destination for the water, specifying the number of down spouts and “connecting same to the drainage system and so installed as to comply with the requirements of the city sanitation department.”

He directed that those gutters and down spouts should be properly treated for long life: “shall be given two coats of lead and oil point to match stained wood work.”

And finally, he wanted the materials to be of the highest quality. He wrote that “lead shall be pure white lead. National Lead, or equal. Oil shall be pure kettle boiled linseed oil. ” 1

We have taken delivery of some 200 feet of half round 6″ gutters and smooth round galvanized downspouts, exactly the shape and size as originally seen on the house (but subsequently removed and replaced with cheapies sometime in the last 70 years.)

The raw metal of our new vintage gutters is to be painted, as Wright directed, to ensure long life. Of course, we won’t be using lead paint. But we’ll come close in terms of performance.

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We started by removing the oil residue left by the factory with dish detergent and then we etched the surface with white vinegar and let it dry. We have applied an oil-based bonding primer, and will finish it with two coats of enamel paint in a color that matches the original exterior trim paint color, still visible in the sunroom, and that will reappear on the whole house again soon. The old gutters will come off on Monday, and the new ones should be installed sometime in the next week or so.

We’ll post more images as the project progresses here and at our Instagram page.

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1.Specification of materials and labor required for the American Model ____ in accordance with drawings prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright Architect, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) FLWFA Specs Box 2 1112-1903 –

Subtle things matter

(March 10, 2019: Conclusions in this post have since been corrected/updated, given new evidence.)

We were lucky to visit another American System Built Home (ASBH) last week. Linda’s loving care is evident in her model AA202. Her house is for sale and we hope it lands in the hands of an equally-compassionate steward.

During the tour, we confirmed that our home and the AA202 share many details, including common millwork, like the base-board shoe trim.

DSC_7339Base trim wood is among most abused in a home; kicked with feet, knocked with chairs and vacuums, and suffering sun, carpet abrasion and inattentive re-finishing. Linda was careful to match the trim in her renovations and maintained it to a very high standard. We have been gradually doing the same. First, we matched the design in rooms where it had been lost, like in the bathroom and under kitchen cabinets.

Now, we’re repairing damaged or marred sections of the original shoe trim. Where we can save the original wood, we do. Where we can’t, we have made exact reproductions using age-appropriate reclaimed birch and the amber shellac finish found throughout the home.

Studying the original milled woodwork reveals the functional brilliance of the design. Specifically, the only 90° angle is on the corner where the trim and wall meet. A 93° angle on the bottom back edge ensures a tight fit on both the wall and floor seams. Importantly, the more acute 87° angle on the top lip ensures a high contrast sun shadow to create a subtle horizontal line at the very base of a wall.

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Subtleties like these come at a price. In order to recreate the geometries, a woodworker must fine-tune a table saw to run three precise subsequent passes in which the blade height, width and angle come together to create a seamless inset 30° angle. A gap or an overshoot can’t be repaired, so mistakes create expensive scrap of priceless wood.

While removing and repairing a section yesterday, we were reminded that we’re not the first to experience this cutting challenge. One hundred years ago, a millworker at the Arthur L Richards Co. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s marketing partner and supplier of pre-cut lumber for ASBHs) made sure to take credit for his/her work with an ink imprint – complete with typo – on the back of one board. It has been cleaned up and nailed back in place, securing the story for a future steward to rediscover.

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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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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!