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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.