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 We took a good portion of the month August to replace an out-of-date roof and leaky listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing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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Sixteen Russell Barr Williamson designs less than one mile from FLW’s Murphy House

We had the privilege of visiting with Dorothy Hoffman again, the lifelong friend of Teddy Kibbie, who grew up in our Elizabeth Murphy House. Dorothy visited a little over a year ago with Kathy Kean, from the Shorewood Historical Society.

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With this visit, we hoped to explore other relationships in the neighborhood when the Elizabeth Murphy House was new.

For example, Dorothy’s parents, who lived on the 4200 block of Ardmore, were friends with Russell Barr Williamson, the noted architect who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and Arthur L Richards on the construction of the Bogk House and the Munkwitz Apartments before going into business for himself. Russell Barr (as he was fondly called by family and friends) didn’t work on the Elizabeth Murphy house, since it was built after he left Wright’s employment and moved temporarily to Kansas City in 1917 to 1918*. A year later, Williamson returned to the neighborhood to build his own home and studio about 10 blocks from here, earned his Wisconsin architect’s license, and then designed the 1921 Eggers Cottage and the 1922 Richards Bungalow, both within a few hundred feet of here.

Importantly, Wright’s former assistant Williamson would play a large role in shaping the aesthetic of Village of Shorewood.

In total, Russell Barr Williamson designed 16 homes within the 1 square mile that is Shorewood Wisconsin. As of today, just one has been dismantled and the rest are private residences. Here they are, organize by year constructed and proximity to this Elizabeth Murphy House, which is designated with a white star and the year 1918 in the southeast quadrant.

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Dorothy recalls Mr. Williamson visiting her family home when she was a child. She said he was a big, friendly man who consumed large quantities of her father’s sandwiches and beer and who had a “lot of money” — not surprising given his booming local business.

Every morning we wake to this view of Williamson’s lovely Egger’s Cottage, a cinder-bock Prairie Design. This photo was taken from our front window. and are reminded that it is a small neighborhood with a big history.

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* Barr Williamson Jr., Russell, Russell Barr Williamson Architect – A Collection, 2000, The Barr Brand.

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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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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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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