Art glass during art class

Fourth graders from nearby Atwater School have been visiting this week. Mrs. Hayes, their Art Teacher, is collaborating with The Madison Children’s Museum and experts from Taliesin to create an expeditionary curriculum that includes field trips to the museum and into Shorewood neighborhoods to study organic architecture and compare it with other traditions. After their trips, the kids will fashion facades from clay. Their work will be displayed in the school and some may be featured in the district ‘art night’ later this school year.

So most afternoons this week, students, teachers and parent chaperones have taken a winding path through Shorewood to find and catalog architectural details like spires and gables, to see nearby houses by Wright’s apprentice Russell Barr-Williamson, and finally, to tour and learn about this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed American System Built House. It’s a privilege to have them visit.

We’ve heard many comments:

“It feels modern in here.”

“It smells like Lasagna.”

“Where’s the door?”

“The windows look like roses.”

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“Where is the door?”

Most posts have been about interior spaces in the Elizabeth Murphy House. The days are warming, so soon we’ll turn our attention to the outside. What are we planning?

This is the original marketing drawing of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built House A203 design:

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Notable features include long lines, fine trim, and an intentional tension: “where is the door?” 

Here is how we found the home last fall.

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Come Spring, we’ll be making investments in walks, rails, paint, lighting, and glass. We can imagine something like this:

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Some of the keys:

  • We are exploring period colors and looking to other homes for cues. We’ve not decided yet.
  • We will remake the lines: the trim, proportions and details where they were lost.
  • We will deemphasize the garage, which was added in the 70s.
  • We’ll minimize entry confusion by removing the west steps. The door is on the east side.

Many decisions. Much anticipation. Appreciate your feedback.

Details, details.

A gallery of the little things in the Elizabeth Murphy House. Angles, lines, layers, light. We will continue to add images as time and opportunity allow.

A Wrightian Reset?

Frank Lloyd Wright admired the simple stone gothic structures of rural Italy, but called Renaissance spaces unnatural and demoralizing. Greek columns used after the ancient Greeks were bad copies, especially in the new world. He wrote, “The democracy of the man in the American street is no more than the gospel of mediocrity.”

So he made it his mission to stop the “unfair use of borrowed forms” and the “endless string of hacked carcasses” popping up in New York and cities trying to be like New York.

About his own Taliesin, Wright wrote; “there must be a natural house, not natural as caves and log-cabins were natural, but native in spirit and making, with all that architecture had meant to make whenever it was alive in times past.” Organic design was from the earth up and in parallel with it.

The American System-Built Houses (ASBH), drawn by Wright during his time at Taliesin, represent his first full effort to bring organic design to common people, but may also suggest a struggle between art and standardization. Wright was willing to explore mechanization and standardized material, but only while also insisting that modern need not be repetitive, symbolic or out of reach, but must be organic and grounded. His designs would prompt a “reaction to the Old that we call the New.”

For example, the Elizabeth Murphy House adheres to the Prairie principle that the “horizontal line is the line of domesticity.” It features the unbroken line at door height that is now familiar and classically American.

Still, Wright seemed to be barely tolerating developers and their subdivisions. In 1914, he ranted about speculators, the enemy of art; profiting from the average American man or woman who wants something different but “wants it in a hurry.”

Experts have written that Wright may not have known that The Elizabeth Murphy House  even existed. Perhaps the developer didn’t want Wright to know about it. Is this a clue? Could our little orphaned home mark the hundred-year anniversary of a giant Wrightian reset?

I imagine a tense, terse relationship with a developer making a house meant to be flipped. Wright wasn’t blind to speculation and must have been worried that without a direct client relationship, his original art might not necessarily land in the hands of devotees. He might have been learning that automation and culture are not, after all, symbiotic. Indeed, in 1916, Wright turned away (for a time) from democracy, and its inherent mediocrity, toward an opportunity for creative disruption so large as to need a monarchical benefactor. During the year (1917) that the tiny Elizabeth Murphy House was built, Wright was in Japan working on the massive six-year Imperial Hotel project. By 1918, the Elizabeth Murphy House was offered for sale in a classified advertisement as a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed bungalow, “new and ready for occupancy.”

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Sources:

The Southwest in the Midwest

Decades ago, Uncle John found a Two Grey Hills rug while on a visit to New Mexico. He generously passed it to us, and it fits, perfectly, on the olive pine floor in the sleeping porch, in both color and spirit.

At night, shadows thrown from Prairie art glass mix with Navaho patterns in a way we think Frank might approve of.