Wait. There was no such thing as a “Ranch” home in 1918

Before she was rediscovered, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elizabeth Murphy House had been  forgotten and was hidden in plain sight, and along the way, confused as a “ranch.”

Sales records show that the home was listed in 1918, 1942 and 1972 as a cottage  “designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” but that in 1993, due to concern by estate sellers that its historic nature – and the implied obligations  – would dampen buyer enthusiasm, the house was listed for sale as a “Charming 6 room ranch with room to grow.” Here is the newspaper listing:

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So between 1972 and 2015, this historic home simply confused the experts. For example, when a village tax assessor visited in 1993, blind to the home’s Wrightian pedigree, he wrote:

“building is unusual in that its age is at odds with its style (ranch, contemporary, architecture)”.

The inspector could see that something strange and special had happened here, but could not be sure what it was. He must have known that in 1918, there was no such thing as a “ranch” style home, and yet, here was something way ahead of its time.

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This is where Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision and influence on the American working class is clear and apparent. He was thinking – forty years before anyone else – of lush walkable neighborhoods featuring long, low affordable prairie style homes with shadowy eaves, banks of windows, grassy yards and built-in gardens. And he designed a first example in 1916 then sold the design to Elizabeth Murphy and she built the prototype in young Shorewood Wisconsin in 1918. Of course, suburban neighborhoods made up of ranch homes were a thing of the 1950s and 1960s. (Incidentally, Angela and I both grew up in homes and places like these.)

Ironically, when neighborhood kids visit on school field trips, as they have been doing this week, some will inevitably call this 101-year old city house “modern” and “cool”; different than their own family flats and bungalows and more like what they see when they take trips to the suburbs.

 

New colors, roof, gutters and a forensic report

With every plan to repair something on this old house comes an urgency to study and document what is learned in the process. We took a good portion of the month August to replace an out-of-date roof and leaky listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing photos since.

Sidebar: the project went without a hitch – on time and under budget – in good part due to the skill and care offered by Peter Halper and Aaron Stark; two fine and patient craftsmen who are willing to work alongside handy homeowners. Highly recommended.

Along the way, we confirmed a few things and learned a few more.

1.) We knew that the pebble-dash stucco on the exterior walls had been covered by cedar shake sometime in the 1930s. We were unsure, however, if that stucco might be salvageable one day, and this project would answer that question. We would expose it on at least three surfaces to inspect. Unfortunately, the stucco seems too far gone for restoration, but as much from nails as from weathering. When nailing strips and shingles were fastened to the surface, it was as if the house was thrown into a battlefield line of fire and the pebble dash is now riddled with holes. A restoration would take months if not years, and never result in a uniform and sound surface.

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2.) A 1929 photograph showed the chimney covered in diamond-shaped shingles only ten years after original construction. We wondered if that was evidence that it the chimney had never been surfaced with stucco, despite Wright calling for it in his specifications and drawings.

Indeed, deconstruction exposed pebble dash and confirmed that it was the original chimney surface.

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Coincidentally, a very early photograph appeared just as the project was happening and combined with the physical evidence confirmed both a pebble dash chimney and cedar shake as the first roofing material. With these pieces of evidence, we can conclude that the builder was taking care to adhere to specifications written by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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(Photo courtesy: Claudia Reinhardt Johnson)

3.) Sometime in the 1970s, the soffits and fascia were clumsily covered with tin flashing and over the years, it had warped and worn poorly. We expected to find something worse underneath, like dry-rotted wood. Instead, we were pleased to find that shingles and tongue-and-grooved bead board had been used tastefully when the home was re-sheathed in the 1930s, and that it was both serviceable and attractive. So ninety-year-old materials have been reclaimed and today, look as new.

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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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A quality roof by Frank Lloyd Wright

We have started our major project for the year, removing 1970s tin flashing in order to  expose and restore the 1930s cedar soffits and facia. We will paint the entire house in appropriate Prairie colors, replace the 25-year old shingled roof (near the end of its life), and importantly, upgrade the ugly, dysfunctional gutters, which have been flimsy, leaky and sagging and not up to the task. Our new gutters will be period and architecturally appropriate and work better.

Frank Lloyd Wright took special care in specifying the gutters on American System-Built Homes and it paid off. These houses typically did not leak. He wanted the gutters to handle the volume of water and to last a long time; key to a good roof.

He directed that the factory would provide and the contractor would then install “…galvanized iron gutters and down spouts wherever and as indicated on drawings.” 

He was careful to include sufficient flow and a proper destination for the water, specifying the number of down spouts and “connecting same to the drainage system and so installed as to comply with the requirements of the city sanitation department.”

He directed that those gutters and down spouts should be properly treated for long life: “shall be given two coats of lead and oil point to match stained wood work.”

And finally, he wanted the materials to be of the highest quality. He wrote that “lead shall be pure white lead. National Lead, or equal. Oil shall be pure kettle boiled linseed oil. ” 1

We have taken delivery of some 200 feet of half round 6″ gutters and smooth round galvanized downspouts, exactly the shape and size as originally seen on the house (but subsequently removed and replaced with cheapies sometime in the last 70 years.)

The raw metal of our new vintage gutters is to be painted, as Wright directed, to ensure long life. Of course, we won’t be using lead paint. But we’ll come close in terms of performance.

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We started by removing the oil residue left by the factory with dish detergent and then we etched the surface with white vinegar and let it dry. We have applied an oil-based bonding primer, and will finish it with two coats of enamel paint in a color that matches the original exterior trim paint color, still visible in the sunroom, and that will reappear on the whole house again soon. The old gutters will come off on Monday, and the new ones should be installed sometime in the next week or so.

We’ll post more images as the project progresses here and at our Instagram page.

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1.Specification of materials and labor required for the American Model ____ in accordance with drawings prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright Architect, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) FLWFA Specs Box 2 1112-1903 –

Learn more about the tiny Frank Lloyd Wright house in Shorewood, Wisconsin

Neighbors, friends and the historically curious are invited to attend a presentation – chock full of photographs, tales of stewardship and mysterious backstories – about the historic Elizabeth Murphy House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Shorewood, Wisconsin. You’ll feel as if you’ve been on a virtual tour!

This event is co-sponsored by the Shorewood Historical Society, the Shorewood Public Library and the Shorewood Senior Resource Center and will be held on Tuesday, September 17 at 7PM in the Village Center (3920 N. Murray Ave.)

This special event is free and open to the public and coincides with the launch of the Shorewood Historical Society’s “In-House Research” project, which will be open for inspection on September 17.  From the society’s newsletter:

“The Society has collected and organized all of its home research materials in the Sheldon Room in the Village Center in order to better assist Shorewood homeowners who wish to research their homes.”

Contact (414) 847-2726 or email shorewoodhistory(at)yahoo.com with questions about this event and others.

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.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elizabeth Murphy House to be featured in 2019 OSHER presentation

Public tours of this private residence are exceedingly rare. However, you can learn more about The Elizabeth Murphy House and its place in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and legacy, by attending a presentation on Friday, June 14, 2019, at 12:30pm at the Hefter Center at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Seats are limited. Registration opens on May 15th. 

The program is part of the summer series at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at UWM’s School of Continuing Education.

Here is the abstract:

How Frank Lloyd Wright Built an Artistic Legacy From a Tiny House

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first foray into affordable housing is frequently overlooked, just as the Elizabeth Murphy House (American System-Built Model A203) was forgotten until rediscovery in 2015. The well-preserved tiny home boasts fundamental Wright design concepts, but also reveals shortcuts and cover-ups – evidence of misunderstandings, overruns and angry buyers – and the markings of an experimental idea stuck on the launchpad that Wright regretted, would downplay, and later, correct. Using photographs, drawings and historic timelines, this presentation clarifies Wright’s decision to orphan the ASBH program and how his subsequent work and legacy would be launched by the experience.

Learn more here: https://uwm.edu/sce/courses/how-frank-lloyd-wright-built-an-artistic-legacy-from-a-tiny-house/