For Frank: function followed form

A proud wide chimney adorns the roof on the Elizabeth Murphy House. Up close, it is a thing of beauty: large hand-soldered copper panels tie a massive superstructure to cream city bricks. You can see the copper panels from space. As with other prairie-influenced designs, the chimney sets the tone for the rest of the house. It is intentionally dramatic, like Frank’s fine pork pie fedora. It is also a fake. A facade.

It took a visit to the attic to uncover the dirty secret. That, incidentally, was no mean feat. While the house would get an inflated chimney, it wasn’t designed to have an attic at all.

This American System Built House (A203) was one in a family of designs with similar footprints that had either a flat roof (A201), a gabled roof (A202), or a hip roof (A203).  The design drawings below show the concepts as drawn by Mr. Wright, but flipped, to allow for an optional left side front door.

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Key is the fact that a flat roof might be available at all, squeezing out any attic. So Frank didn’t draw an attic door. But this hip-roofed version has a space above the ceiling, so a door was added, perhaps by the builder as an afterthought. (The builder’s stamp is on the back of said door, as if to claim it as his own.) The door is buried high in a tiny coat closet.

We had done a structural inspection of the attic space while looking at the house before buying it, but today’s visit was to uncover more clues about the house. Most interesting: proof that the chimney is all talk and almost no action. It is 480 cubic feet of theatrics surrounding a measly 24 inch brick flue. All form, almost no function. Why?

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Frank’s vision for the American System Build Houses was affordable beauty, and this chimney is exactly that: an effort to minimize material and labor costs while making something different, desirable and timeless.

We think that the house would not be the same without its big, fake chimney.

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What do you think?

 

Downsizing with Frank

It is widely known that Frank Lloyd Wright scorned Greek Revival and Victorian designs, with their small cluttered rooms and halls crammed with thick drapery, cabinets, table and stuffed couches. Indeed, sparsity is the essence and the ethos of the American System Built (House), and especially this Model A203. Frank didn’t want the Elizabeth Murphy House to be filled with junk.

Coincidentally, we landed here in part because of a burning desire to downsize. We had hoped to shrink footprints for some time, and Frank forced the issue.

To start, our previous house was 2,300 square feet. This one is just over 1,200. To wedge ourselves into it, we sold or gave away between 30 and 45% of our possessions, including books, furniture, records, tools, toys, clothes, utensils and trinkets. The work is ongoing.

The Elizabeth Murphy house has four small closets, just enough space in dining and kitchen cabinets, and one small book shelf. Rooms are abundant with windows and passages to invite sunlight and conversation, but lack walls for chests or shelves to hold knick-knacks or collections. Part of organic design, we’re learning, is that spaces are sensory, social and evocative; meant for people, not things.

We’ve observed two new behaviors in response to the Wright way:

1.) We’re highly selective about what we keep and display. Never-to-be-read books don’t make the shelf-space cut, and then, go to a library or used book store. A picture must mean something to get a nail. Sometimes a decision to hang something – like a towel hook, for example – takes weeks.

2.) More interestingly, we’ve begun what a friend recently called “just-in-time” living. Instead of stocking up on staples, or getting more of something that we might need because we’re at the store (like fasteners, soap, mulch, milk), we have learned to carefully estimate our immediate need, and buy only what is required. The result: we spend less, store less, and consume less.

The idea of downsizing seems so contemporary. So Millennial, trendy and mod. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Frank was thinking of it over a hundred years ago.

 

“How to build a warm, strong and dry house”

We called a remodeling contractor friend and told him we’d purchased a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and he asked “… should I congratulate or scold you?”

Our experience, so far, belies the popular myth that Wright homes are leaky and cold. This little house is (knock on wood) dry and without a draft. Credit, we think, goes to the use of Byrkit Lath to sheathe both the interior and exterior walls and ceilings.

Patented and marketed starting in 1890, Byrkit was pitched as a stronger, longer lasting, easier to install substrate on which to apply plaster.

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Byrkit Lath in profile.

It’s an ingenious idea: tongue and grooved boards are milled with trapezoidal slots into which wet plaster is pressed, locking the system together, setting and sealing it as it dries. The result is a waterproof wall with incredible strength that is relatively lightweight.

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Void free plaster locks mated Byrkit Lath to form a super-strong wall, or in this case, ceiling.

A modern metaphor is the use of closed-cell foam core materials covered in carbon-fibers impregnated with epoxy in boats, cars and rockets. The hollowness creates lightness. Interlocking fibers create strength. The uniform thin-walled surfaces create stiffness and structural integrity.

By specifying Byrkit Lath in this and other American System-Built Houses, Frank Lloyd Wright may have secured this home’s legacy. In addition to creating a dry, strong and warm space that stands straight and true to this day, he may also have dissuaded major renovation. To drill a hole for a code-required exhaust vent in our new WC required a $26 masonry bit and a $26 diamond saw.

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References: Mike Lilek, 2015, “2106 Newton Avenue Shorewood, Wisconsin, An American System-Built House Model A203, Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect”

“Where is the door?”

Most posts have been about interior spaces in the Elizabeth Murphy House. The days are warming, so soon we’ll turn our attention to the outside. What are we planning?

This is the original marketing drawing of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built House A203 design:

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Notable features include long lines, fine trim, and an intentional tension: “where is the door?” 

Here is how we found the home last fall.

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Come Spring, we’ll be making investments in walks, rails, paint, lighting, and glass. We can imagine something like this:

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Some of the keys:

  • We are exploring period colors and looking to other homes for cues. We’ve not decided yet.
  • We will remake the lines: the trim, proportions and details where they were lost.
  • We will deemphasize the garage, which was added in the 70s.
  • We’ll minimize entry confusion by removing the west steps. The door is on the east side.

Many decisions. Much anticipation. Appreciate your feedback.

Details, details.

A gallery of the little things in the Elizabeth Murphy House. Angles, lines, layers, light. We will continue to add images as time and opportunity allow.

Many more images at our Instagram! Hope you’ll follow and share.

 

Wood as it should be treated

Remarkably, no piece of wood in the interior of The Elizabeth Murphy House was painted. Moreover, most wood surfaces are undisturbed from the moment they were set in place by the carpenters a hundred-years ago.

We understand from an old-school cabinetmaker that the birch was originally rubbed with a steel wool and a vinegar solution to release the wood’s tannins to create a dark tone, and then covered with two coats of amber shellac to make it glow.

We’ve been able to replicate the technique where there was wear and tear with good results. Here in the kitchen, for example, the knobs have returned to as-designed (they were 70s cheapies) and finished to match.

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