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.
Save the date!
The Elizabeth Murphy House will be featured in a presentative at the 2018 Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy Conference: “Preserving Wright’s Legacy in Wisconsin” on the morning of Saturday Oct 13, 2018, between 9-11:30am.
The talk, entitled “How Wright Learned to Separate Art and Automation” will be part of the conference Education Series. From the abstract:
We will suggest, using new photographs of details, original
drawings, evidence collected during deconstruction in and around the house,
and historic references and timelines, that Wright orphaned the house and
left the ASBH program to preserve reputation and to buy time to think about
whether art and mass-production could coexist at all.
We hope to see you in Madison in the fall!
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.
We reported that 4th graders from Atwater School visited the Elizabeth Murphy House as part of an Experiential Learning Art Education Curriculum. Here is their report on the experience, and the amazing work they created during the project. Wait for it.
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.
The Elizabeth Murphy House is mentioned and pictured in the Wall Street Journal today.
Read: Is That a Frank Lloyd Wright? Prove It – The Wall Street Journal.
It was great to spend a morning with photographer Sara Stathas, Joe Picciolo and previous steward Pat Wisialowski (pictured) to get this great shot.
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.
What do you think?