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 We took a good portion of the month August to replace an out-of-date roof and leaky listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing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