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 the part 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 part number 60-455 would be assembled as the 54th step. 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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Subtle things matter

We were lucky to visit another American System Built Home (ASBH) last week. Linda’s loving care is evident in her model AA202. Her house is for sale and we hope it lands in the hands of an equally-compassionate steward.

During the tour, we confirmed that our home and the AA303 share many details, including common millwork, like the base-board shoe trim.

DSC_7339Base trim wood is among most abused in a home; kicked with feet, knocked with chairs and vacuums, and suffering sun, carpet abrasion and inattentive re-finishing. Linda was careful to match the trim in her renovations and maintained it to a very high standard. We have been gradually doing the same. First, we matched the design in rooms where it had been lost, like in the bathroom and under kitchen cabinets.

Now, we’re repairing damaged or marred sections of the original shoe trim. Where we can save the original wood, we do. Where we can’t, we have made exact reproductions using age-appropriate reclaimed birch and the amber shellac finish found throughout the home.

Studying the original milled woodwork reveals the functional brilliance of the design. Specifically, the only 90° angle is on the corner where the trim and wall meet. A 93° angle on the bottom back edge ensures a tight fit on both the wall and floor seams. Importantly, the more acute 87° angle on the top lip ensures a high contrast sun shadow to create a subtle horizontal line at the very base of a wall.

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Subtleties like these come at a price. In order to recreate the geometries, a woodworker must fine-tune a table saw to run three precise subsequent passes in which the blade height, width and angle come together to create a seamless inset 30° angle. A gap or an overshoot can’t be repaired, so mistakes create expensive scrap of priceless wood.

While removing and repairing a section yesterday, we were reminded that we’re not the first to experience this cutting challenge. One hundred years ago, a millworker at the Arthur L Richards Co. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s marketing partner and supplier of pre-cut lumber for ASBHs) made sure to take credit for his/her work with an ink imprint – complete with typo – on the back of one board. It has been cleaned up and nailed back in place, securing the story for a future steward to rediscover.

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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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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.