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 We took a good portion of the month August to replace an out-of-date roof and leaky listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing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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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.

What is it like to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright House?

Many words come to mind.

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.

Surprise.

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?

Wonder.

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.

Gratitude.

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