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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