Misinterpretation or reinterpretation?

In a previous post, we extolled the genius of the shadow-making geometries of Frank Lloyd Wright’s shoe molding design for American System-Built Homes (ASBH).

This post serves as a retraction, an update, and a call to fellow ASBH owners and experts to contribute clues to a new mystery.

In collected conversations with owners of other American System-Built Homes, we have heard that the shoe moldings were installed in two different ways: (1) with the long edge vertical, as shown in this image, and (2) with the long edge attached to the floor. In fact, new friends Jason and Michael reported during a visit to the Elizabeth Murphy House that they see the molding attached both ways in their Delbert Meier House. We have heard that homes in the Chicago area generally sport the long edge down, and while visiting the AA202 in Madison last fall, we noted that all shoe moldings in it are attached with the long edge up.

So one goal during a recent visit to the Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library to view ASBH drawings was to understand the original specification and intent for this detail and to try to explain the inconsistencies.

1.) According to the drawings, the shoe trim was number B-11 in the ASBH part numbering system.

2.) No drawing in the Avery collection shows the trim installed with the long edge attached to the wall. Indeed, at least 5 separate drawings show it installed with the long edge down. Here is a sample, from a drawing for the ASBH model E-4.

ASBH E-4 Drawing, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives : architectural drawings, ca. 1885-1959. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).

Therefore, inconsistent treatments by installing contractors one hundred years ago and still visible in the remaining homes today suggest one of two possibilities. Either:

1.) subcontracting carpenters misinterpreted the architect’s intent and installed as their intuition or experience suggested. This might have happened based on limited instructions passed from Frank Lloyd Wright, his support team or the Richards Company.

2.) or, some individual contractors, like Herman Krause Jr., who built this house, took it upon themselves to over-rule the written or drawn instruction (none of the drawings for our home – a model A203 – show a guideline or the detail.)

Finally, we empathize with the men assembling these houses who were faced with these choices while building homes on fixed contracts.

Milling angles of the shoe trim suggest that the long edge belongs on the wall side, since the effect is to create a horizontal line. Flipped down, the result is that the shoe trim becomes a dust-catcher, a toe-stubber, and a place where chairs legs would quickly wear damage into the decor. Wright may have thought the visual impact of a wider foundation at the walls and doors was worthy of such compromise.

Such would be the risk of leaving some decisions to chance, and, more importantly, of creating an unsupervised system.

Do any ASBH owners or experts have additional clues that might explain how these building choices were made?

Image Courtesy: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives : architectural drawings, ca. 1885-1959. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York).


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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 10.55.55 AM

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).

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 10.54.50 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 11.09.28 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 11.11.17 AM.png

Something to give thanks for. – 11/22/2018.

PS: Mark Hertzberg: do you have that AMC Pacer image?



Elizabeth Murphy In the News

The Elizabeth Murphy House is mentioned and pictured in the Wall Street Journal today.

Read: Is That a Frank Lloyd Wright? Prove It – The Wall Street Journal.

It was great to spend a morning with photographer Sara Stathas, Joe Picciolo and previous steward Pat Wisialowski (pictured) to get this great shot.


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.