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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
* 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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.