The System within the System

Wright and his team at Taliesin delivered over 900 drawings to contractors to support the construction of about thirty American System Built Homes (ASBH) built between 1915 and 1918, including this home. Many of the drawings are in the Avery collection at Columbia University. Others are at the Getty Museum.

Citing this vast body of work, ASBH historians have called the ASBH project the largest single design effort by Frank Lloyd Wright. We’re finding evidence to suggest that Wright  and Arthur L. Richards, his marketing partner, may have seen the heavy lift as a necessity.

Specifically, it was not economic or practical for Wright to visit or send an assistant to ASBH job sites, which could be anywhere and happen concurrently. Lacking architectural supervision, a builder needed as much clear instruction as could be delivered remotely. So no matter how small the home to be built, each project would require in-depth plans, including drawings, detailed bills of materials with a complex numbering system, inventory management and instructions for assembly. Thus, over 900 drawings.

As evidence, see an inventory numbering system, along with quantities and sequencing stamped and drawn on the back of a section of trim in the image below.

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Presumably, 350 feet of milled lumber of the the shape called 60-455 would be assembled as the 54th step. (It is interested that Wright’s drawings call this item number B-11. Did Richards and Wright have their own lists?) The stamp was used at the lumber yard to control stock of a specific geometry. The colored pencil explained what was required to build a specific model of home. Historians with evidence to support or refine this interpretation are invited to comment or email.

Finally, so dependent on instructions like these were Richards and his subcontractors that Richards pleaded to Wright sometime in 1917, when Wright had gone to Japan to design and build the Imperial Hotel:

“every minute of your time is needed here… …you can make more money making plans”

Shortly after reading these words, Wright terminated his agreement with Richards to design ASBHs. The Elizabeth Murphy House was among the last in the program to be started, and was certainly the last to be finished. More on that in future posts.

Beauty in an imperfect system

A legendary local cabinet maker walked into the kitchen, gazed upon the original upper cabinets and exclaimed “magnificent!” They are simple boxes, built in place one hundred years ago and still housing plates and cups and carrying the prints and patina from  thousands of oily fingers opening and closing the doors. As seen above, the deeper cabinets get less attention than those handier to the person needing a bowl.

The carpentry is basic. Butt and mitre joints are held fast with nails; no glue. One cabinet is deeper than another. Shelves are held up by stepped bevelled supports and can be adjusted up or down.

These American System-Built Homes were part of a “system” conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright and his project partner Arthur L. Richards, whose job it was to sell and supply materials to independent contractors who would assemble the pre-cut kits on site.

In our case, a carpenter named Herman Krause contracted to build the house but didn’t finish it. Instead, he walked from the job-site after 18 months and sued the buyers for back payments. There had been material shortages and cost overruns. We’re reminded of these tense times every time we get a coffee cup. As Krause was hurriedly installing kitchen cabinets just before walking away, he used the last imperfect scraps of birch to make this door, leaving deep milling scars from Richard’s lumberyard saw-blade for all to see. It’s something a cabinet-maker would never do, unless he wanted to make a point.

The “system” wasn’t working.

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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?

 

 

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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Back to School

Fourth graders, teachers and parent chaperones from Atwater School visited again last week. It has become a fall tradition at the Elizabeth Murphy House. Importantly, the field trip is part of an architectural experience facilitated by Mrs. Hayes, their Art Teacher, who helps the kids to compare and contrast Wright’s organic design philosophies to other design approaches and in the context of history, culture, nature and materials. It is not just a field trip. After studying neighborhood homes and details of Wright’s work, the kids create their own.

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Waiting turn.

The kids were terrific: asking excellent questions, respecting the fragile pebbles in the porch,  and sharing their own interpretations. When asked what they see in the art glass motif, one kid raised his hand and declared, “A Man With a Hat.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 3.20.04 PM  It is almost as if Frank was here.

 

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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“According to Plans, Specification and Drawings made by Frank Lloyd Wright”

Court Case records available at the Milwaukee County Historical Society offer more clues to why Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t mention this house after sending plans to Elizabeth Murphy (via the Richards Company) to build it. Elizabeth, wife of Loan Broker Lawrence Murphy, would act as General Contractor, and hired a Carpenter, Herman Krause Jr, to construct the house. Quickly, the project was mired in payment disputes, liens and work stoppages that would take years to unravel in court.

Murphy agreed to pay Krause $3400 to build the house in 1917 and before it was complete, sold it to Arthur Kibbie for just over $5000 in 1919. Krause walked from the job before it was finished. The Kibbies bought an incomplete home from Elizabeth Murphy.

Moreover, knowing that the Murphys, speculators, paid something for the land, it wasn’t much of a return on investment. It is unclear if Wright was paid at all.

These must not have been good signals for the American System Built Homes project.

This will be the subject of another, longer post and a talk that we will give at the upcoming Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy Annual Conference, in October 2018.

Milwaukee Country Circuit Court Case No. 56129 is on file in the Historical Society’s Research Library.