Pause, don’t Dash

* Featured image by Sara Stathas, for the Wall Street Journal.

We’ve adopted a new method when visitors visit: instead of dashing through the Sleeping Porch, we’re now closing the porch door and pausing in the space to consider the Pebble-Dash. It’s worth taking the time to take it in.

It is said that Wright first saw and appreciated Pebble-Dash (also called RoughCast) on a visit to San Diego and thought it might work well for the exteriors of American System Built Homes. The method was popular in maritime climes and praised for low cost, good looks, and uniform durability.  Pebble-Dash starts with plaster applied to brick or lath, and while wet, multi-colored Pebbles are Dashed onto the surface. Colors are what you happen to get from the quarry at the time. Here, we see grey, tan and black quartzite, granite and sparkly biotite.

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It isn’t clear that Pebble-Dash was a good idea for frame construction in Wisconsin. Experts tell us that the exteriors of the houses on the Burnham Block were all recovered within 20 years of construction and there is photographic evidence that this house had shingles over the original surface by about 1935 (fourteen short years after the first owners moved in), presumably due to rapid deterioration. One might surmise that Pebble-Dash over brick becomes a uniformly mineral-based wall, contracting and expanding at about the same pace, and therefore, staying together. However, Pebble Dash over wood lath might crumble in freezing winters since wood and rock don’t dance well together. Wright may have specified Byrkit Lath to try to prevent trouble, but it doesn’t appear he was successful.

Regardless, the unpainted Pebble-Dash in the Elizabeth Murphy House may be the last example of the original exterior of an American System Built House, anywhere. This sleeping porch — once open to the outside — was converted to an enclosed and heated space (probably in the 30’s) and the Pebble-Dash in it has been preserved in almost original condition. The ceiling is spectacular:

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Starry night

Thus, the deliberate pause to take it in. When you’re in this space, you’re in history. A history of trial and error and experimentation that would’ve been lost and forgotten, if the clocks had not been paused about 80 years ago.

What not to miss on your 30 second tour

Let’s be clear. You can see the entire Elizabeth Murphy House in 3o seconds. It’s tiny.

But there are places to pause and things not to miss. Here are a few:

1.) Once you find the door, notice that two people can’t enter the house at the same time. The passage is too narrow and steep. It asks you to be quiet, deliberate, and think about what is coming next.

2.) When you pass through the narrow space and pause in sleeping porch, imagine dozing there on a soft rug looking up at the twinkling stars. The quartzite pebbles in the pebble-dash stucco on the ceiling blink in bright white and rainbow hues all night long.

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3.) When you enter the house from the porch, you’ll be nearing the end of your path of discovery.  As you shed your boots, hat and coat and say hello – something that usually happens in a foyer – you’re standing in the center of the house.

And there you will need to decide: Are you feeling social? Go left, where the spaces are sunlit and soar up and out and you’ll find friends and conversation. Or are you feeling quiet and introspective? Then turn right into the intimate spaces; the bedrooms and bath.

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4.) Stand to the left of the fireplace mantel and spin around slowly. This is the spot where you can see out in all directions. North; a Wisconsin woods. East and West; neighbors and friends. South; an expansive city skyline that connects the house to the street and  you to the community.

Then thank Frank, as we do each day.


* The Elizabeth Murphy House is a private residence in a quiet neighborhood, so tours are  by invitation only, excepting special events. Please respect the privacy of the owners and the neighbors.

The home will be featured on the 2017 Wright and Like Tour. Learn more here.

What about that stucco?

We’ve written about the pebble-dash stucco before. Experts have said that it might not just be in the sleeping porch, but also outside, under the cedar shake. We guessed that the material might not have held up well in Wisconsin winters, and needed to be removed and replaced mid-life.

Then, a strange twist: the recently shared image of the home in 1933 told us that the house was covered with cedar shingles before 1933, a scant 16 years after it was built. Might it have always been sided? No – it’s in the porch. Did the stucco fail that fast? It’s still fresh in the porch too. Well, relatively fresh. It’s 100.

Or, did the Kibbies not like the pebble-dash and cover it for aesthetic reasons only, thereby protecting it for 90 years?

The ongoing bathroom remodel offered an opportunity to learn more. While drilling from inside-out for a required ventilation fan, we ran into concrete. Then, this weekend, we uncovered a small section of an outside wall and found the original pebble dash, in seemingly decent shape (it’s a mightly small sample.)

Here is said sample, along with the shake that covered it in the first and last colors.

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So what next for the exterior? This architectural archeological dig has just begun.