Tracking the restoration and preservation of a 101-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright house

So as not to lose track, we’ve started a list of projects completed at the Elizabeth Murphy House since late 2016 and we will link to before-and-after photos and posts as they become available.

  1. Removed faux brick from kitchen alcove and re-plastered and painted
  2. Leveled concrete walk slabs and replaced front steps
  3. Removed secondary walk and steps and planted grass
  4. Removed and replaced wrought iron with red cedar railing
  5. Removed carpet and parquet floor from sleeping porch, repaired, conducted forensics on materials and paints, and repainted in original color
  6. Removed carpet from bedroom floors and refinished
  7. Removed linoleum from kitchen floor, hallway floor and basement steps and refinished
  8. Replaced kitchen appliances (stove, fridge, dishwasher)
  9. Repainted basement room floor, doors and walls
  10. Removed out-of-code wiring on walls and in closets and removed ceiling fans in bedrooms
  11. Removed two window air conditioners, repaired window frames and replaced glass
  12. Removed 1970s front door and screen and replaced with restored unused door and new wood screen
  13. Removed window air condition from entry way ceiling and converted to glass/screen window
  14. Repaired Pebble-Dash damaged by air conditioner installation (1990s)
  15. Removed and replaced warped kitchen and breakfast-nook cabinet shelves
  16. Removed all galvanized supply plumbing in the house and re-plumbed with copper
  17. Patched and repainted every interior wall
  18. Repaired cracked basement floor
  19. Removed over-sized radiator in kitchen
  20. Gutted bathroom to the studs and joists, completed period-appropriate renovation including re-framing, plumbing, electrical, ventilation, plaster, fixtures, trim, finishes, medicine cabinet, lights, tile, and heated floor
  21. Replicated interior finishing technique to refinished and reverse WC door
  22. Repaired, restored and replaced shoe trim as required
  23. Added floor drain, shower stall, toiled and exhaust fan in basement utility room
  24. Added hanging cabinets in basement utility room
  25. Removed faux eyebrow roof over garage, replaced trim and parged concrete
  26. Removed ornate stucco decoration and parged foundation all around
  27. Removed exterior electric outlets
  28. Replaced driveway lights
  29. Replaced damaged garage door
  30. Added accent lighting for sleeping room ceiling
  31. Replaced all ungrounded outlets with grounded devices
  32. Add ground-fault protection as required by code and best practices
  33. Replaced breakfast nook light fixture
  34. Replaced kitchen light fixtures
  35. Added drain tile, repaired foundation and improved grading around crawl-space
  36. Removed overgrown vegetation and invasive weeks and trees and replanted front and back gardens
  37. Repaired and replaced exterior trim in appropriate material
  38. Added flower-box cantilevers 
  39. Added light grid American System-Built ornamentation on front facade
  40. Repaired glazing in all exterior windows
  41. Replaced missing lead work on front windows
  42. Reroofed (tore off and replaced.)
  43. Built replica breakfast nook table
  44. Removed aluminum soffit and fascia covers, restored, replaced and repainted 1930s wood bead-board and trim
  45. Removed warped gutters and downspouts and replaced with period-appropriate, Wright-specified hanging gutters
  46. Repainted and re-stained exterior: from gray with white trim to goldenrod with brown trim
  47. Removed weathered cedar shake from chimney and replaced with new and re-stained

To learn more about the house and its history, attend a free presentation at the Shorewood Public Library a 7pm on September 17th.

Here is a before-and-after picture from 2016 to today, September 5th, 2019.

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Preserving Shorewood’s Rich History

County Supervisor Chris Abele’s tone-deaf decision to buy and destroy a historically important lakefront home in Shorewood was so tragic and awful that we hope it costs him his position. A key ingredient of competent governance is enthusiastic stewardship of important local assets: the art, architecture and natural environments that define our culture.

We should all vote against him.

However, it is important that we do not allow our anger to create a system that punishes the very stewardship that most of us agree we want.

Stewardship is not a product of special oversight placed on historic homes. It comes, instead, from a shared commitment to storytelling, passed between generations and among neighbors.

Historic homes begin with a mark against them. As evidence, consider that the Elizabeth Murphy house languished unsold in a hot market once it had been identified as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, precisely because prospective buyers were concerned that they would not be able to afford the basic upkeep, given its significance. They were worried about regulation creating downward pressure on value and upward pressure on upkeep. Their worries were not without merit.

Old homes require special care, time and money to keep them safe and useful. Old historically-important homes, like Abele’s now pulverized Eschweiler-designed mansion, require a deeper level of care: sensitivity to the architectural DNA and the importance of the artifact, a respect for former caretakers, and a willingness to spend the time to understand and share context. Abele didn’t have the patience for any of these things. He just wanted a view.

However, we have seen firsthand that many, if not most village residents understand  that stewardship flourishes in communities that reward the care-taking of all of the homes in a neighborhood.

Shorewoodian families enthusiastically care for homes and apartments ranging from Art Deco to Tudor, Mid-Century-Modern to Prairie, and of course, the Milwaukee-flat and Milwaukee-bungalow, and together, these gems form the priceless portfolio of real estate that is our shared village, a place that many see as a cultural beacon in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

In response to the Abele catastrophe, the village would do well to promote the concept of the preservation easement, which would provide owners and sellers of historic homes with the support to ensure that their important properties are protected by carrying forward both the burden and the benefits of pedigree. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a preservation easement binds future buyers to protect the historic elements and the spirit of the home in return for modest qualified tax relief. There might be fewer buyers of a home that has an easement, but those who are willing begin their shift understanding their role in historic preservation. This is something we plan to do with the Elizabeth Murphy House whether the village steps up or not.

Programs and people who value culture, not reactive ordinances, are what foster a dynamic and sustained environment of care-taking.

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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Subtle things matter

(March 10, 2019: Conclusions in this post have since been corrected/updated, given new evidence.)

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 AA202 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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