Compress, release, repeat.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed experiences for the people who entered his spaces. One of his most famous experiential tools is called “compression and release.” By creating a deliberately small space through which one must pass before reaching a larger space, he caused a temporary sense of tension, followed by the feeling of freedom. Call it manipulative, but we have seen that it can be powerful. Guests who succeed in finding our front door tend to hesitate before entering the narrow passage to knock. When we answer the door, we often find them wondering if they are in the right place and looking claustrophobic.

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The tiny Elizabeth Murphy House boasts two waves of compression and release. The first comes at the porch entryway and porch door leading to the sleeping porch (propped open in this image), and the second comes after passing through the original main door (closed ahead) and through a narrow passageway to the living room and the heart of the house in front of the hearth.

The waves are unmistakable and can be quantified by measuring the space around the person making the journey from the front to the middle of the house.

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For the above chart, we measured the changing field of view of a person taking 42 steps from the front outside sidewalk to the indoor fireplace, near the center of the house. For visual simplicity, we’ve summed the space from floor to ceiling, left to right and in front (the range of vision) to show how a visitor’s perspective changes rapidly from large, to small, to large, to small again, and finally, to very large when they stand under a high ceiling with views out windows facing south, north, east and west. The sense of release is most dramatic at the very heart of the house. That, too, was a stroke of Wright design genius and lives today in all who feel it.

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What is it like to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright House?

Many words come to mind.

It is Captivating. We feel an Obligation; the need to be Vigilant, Attentive, Protective and Careful. But three words best describe living in this place. Those words are Surprise, Wonder and Gratitude.

Surprise.

The Elizabeth Murphy House is located in the heart of the most densely populated square mile in the state of Wisconsin, but you’d never know it. Guest’s eyes widen when they enter, as if they have come upon deer grazing an unmarked clearing while on a north woods walk. They will remark that the space is serene – more like a campfire made in that clearing than a city house – lifting its occupants physically and spiritually with quiet, warmth, color and places for conversation and meditation.

Living here is both practical and magical at the same time. You can get your work done, but only in between surprises. For example, as you go about a morning routine – pouring coffee, dressing and making the bed – you might be called to watch new sunlight marching through the house. In spring, the light is bright and white and bounces floor to ceiling. But in the fall, when the low sun and oak leaves shift the spectrum towards orange, contrasts sharpen, colors pop and the house feels and looks warmer. It is telling you that winter is near, but all will be well. Can that have been planned?

Wonder.

On a recent October morning, a yellow sunbeam caught the mantel for three minutes; no more. It had not happened before and has not happened since. This slice of light lit the artwork of a young and talented sketcher, Mr. John O’Neill Jr., who visited last year with his family. A few days after their visit, we received a lovely hand-made thank you card which has been on the mantel since. His choice of gold to color the sky and windows was confirmed on this morning by the sun. John’s art reminds us that gratitude is something best shared.

Gratitude.

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Sharing Secrets

It was a joy and a privilege to share secrets from the Elizabeth Murphy House at the Annual Conference of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Look for excerpts from the talk here soon. In the meantime, take in this lovely lecture hall and kind folks at Madison’s Monona Terrace, where the conference was held.

Oh, and the owner’s dinner was a hoot. These folks are on the front lines of historical preservation and we’re grateful to meet and learn from them.

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FLW Architectural Tiles

After fourth graders from Atwater School visited the Elizabeth Murphy House, they returned to Mrs. Hayes’ Art Class to create Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architectural tiles, and added their own flare. Two fine examples are on display at the Shorewood Library, in the Shorewood School District Art Show, which continues ’til mid-week.

We’re impressed with some of the important details. Here, a bank of windows creates a wall of light:

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…and in this piece, horizontal lines are key elements, and the door is hard to find:

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Frank continues to inspire.

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 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.

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.

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?