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 We took a good portion of the month of August to replace an out-of-date roof and listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing photos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 is too far gone to be repaired, but as much from nails as from weathering. When nailing strips and shingles were fastened to the surface in the 1930s, it was as if the house was thrown into a battlefield line of fire and the pebble dash is now riddled with holes that have expanded, in some cases, to canyons. A restoration to the original material 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 eleven 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.

Courtesy: Shorewood Historical Society

Instead, deconstruction exposed pebble dash and confirmed that it was the original chimney surface.

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Coincidentally, a very early photograph appeared (posted by a neighbor on Facebook) just as the project was getting underway and this image, combined with the physical evidence, confirmed both a pebble dash chimney and cedar shake as the first roofing material. So we can conclude that the builder was taking care to adhere to specifications written by Frank Lloyd Wright, but the buyers elected to make changes very soon after construction. Why were the original surfaces covered up so quickly? Had something gone wrong? Future reporting will explore this possibility.

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(Photo courtesy: Claudia Reinhardt Johnson)

3.) Finally, 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 applied 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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Additional renovation and interior images can be found on Instagram. Follow our progress at: https://www.instagram.com/elizabethmurphyhouse/.

*1929 Image Courtesy: Shorewood Historical Society.

Wait. There was no such thing as a “Ranch” home in 1918

Before she was rediscovered, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Elizabeth Murphy House had been  forgotten and was hidden in plain sight, and along the way, confused as a “ranch.”

Sales records show that the home was listed in 1918, 1942 and 1972 as a cottage  “designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” but that in 1993, due to concern by estate sellers that its historic nature – and the implied obligations  – would dampen buyer enthusiasm, the house was listed for sale as a “Charming 6 room ranch with room to grow.” Here is the newspaper listing:

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So between 1972 and 2015, this historic home simply confused the experts. For example, when a village tax assessor visited in 1993, blind to the home’s Wrightian pedigree, he wrote:

“building is unusual in that its age is at odds with its style (ranch, contemporary, architecture)”.

The inspector could see that something strange and special had happened here, but could not be sure what it was. He must have known that in 1918, there was no such thing as a “ranch” style home, and yet, here was something way ahead of its time.

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This is where Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision and influence on the American working class is clear and apparent. He was thinking – forty years before anyone else – of lush walkable neighborhoods featuring long, low affordable prairie style homes with shadowy eaves, banks of windows, grassy yards and built-in gardens. And he designed a first example in 1916 then sold the design to Elizabeth Murphy and she built the prototype in young Shorewood Wisconsin in 1918. Of course, suburban neighborhoods made up of ranch homes were a thing of the 1950s and 1960s. (Incidentally, Angela and I both grew up in homes and places like these.)

Ironically, when neighborhood kids visit on school field trips, as they have been doing this week, some will inevitably call this 101-year old city house “modern” and “cool”; different than their own family flats and bungalows and more like what they see when they take trips to the suburbs.

 

Learn more about the tiny Frank Lloyd Wright house in Shorewood, Wisconsin

Neighbors, friends and the historically curious are invited to attend a presentation – chock full of photographs, tales of stewardship and mysterious backstories – about the historic Elizabeth Murphy House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Shorewood, Wisconsin. You’ll feel as if you’ve been on a virtual tour!

This event is co-sponsored by the Shorewood Historical Society, the Shorewood Public Library and the Shorewood Senior Resource Center and will be held on Tuesday, September 17 at 7PM in the Village Center (3920 N. Murray Ave.)

This special event is free and open to the public and coincides with the launch of the Shorewood Historical Society’s “In-House Research” project, which will be open for inspection on September 17.  From the society’s newsletter:

“The Society has collected and organized all of its home research materials in the Sheldon Room in the Village Center in order to better assist Shorewood homeowners who wish to research their homes.”

Contact (414) 847-2726 or email shorewoodhistory(at)yahoo.com with questions about this event and others.

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 nearby Bogk House and the Munkwitz Apartments before going into business for himself.

After Williamson left Wright’s employment, he 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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Subtle things matter

(March 10, 2019: Conclusions in this post have since been corrected/updated, given new evidence.)

We were lucky to visit another American System Built Home (ASBH) last week. Linda’s loving care is evident in her model AA202. Her house is for sale and we hope it lands in the hands of an equally-compassionate steward.

During the tour, we confirmed that our home and the AA202 share many details, including common millwork, like the base-board shoe trim.

DSC_7339Base trim wood is among most abused in a home; kicked with feet, knocked with chairs and vacuums, and suffering sun, carpet abrasion and inattentive re-finishing. Linda was careful to match the trim in her renovations and maintained it to a very high standard. We have been gradually doing the same. First, we matched the design in rooms where it had been lost, like in the bathroom and under kitchen cabinets.

Now, we’re repairing damaged or marred sections of the original shoe trim. Where we can save the original wood, we do. Where we can’t, we have made exact reproductions using age-appropriate reclaimed birch and the amber shellac finish found throughout the home.

Studying the original milled woodwork reveals the functional brilliance of the design. Specifically, the only 90° angle is on the corner where the trim and wall meet. A 93° angle on the bottom back edge ensures a tight fit on both the wall and floor seams. Importantly, the more acute 87° angle on the top lip ensures a high contrast sun shadow to create a subtle horizontal line at the very base of a wall.

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Subtleties like these come at a price. In order to recreate the geometries, a woodworker must fine-tune a table saw to run three precise subsequent passes in which the blade height, width and angle come together to create a seamless inset 30° angle. A gap or an overshoot can’t be repaired, so mistakes create expensive scrap of priceless wood.

While removing and repairing a section yesterday, we were reminded that we’re not the first to experience this cutting challenge. One hundred years ago, a millworker at the Arthur L Richards Co. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s marketing partner and supplier of pre-cut lumber for ASBHs) made sure to take credit for his/her work with an ink imprint – complete with typo – on the back of one board. It has been cleaned up and nailed back in place, securing the story for a future steward to rediscover.

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