Emphasizing the horizontal

‘The horizontal line is the line of domesticity.’

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Horizontal lines are everywhere in this home. They guide your eye, contain your thoughts, and quiet your mind.

They are found in the trim, the eaves, the flower box, the banding, the shelves, between windows and in the overhangs. Layers of horizontal lines stack like cherished books on a nightstand, one upon the next.

After a year of living here, we stumbled upon more horizontal lines in a subtle, but historically significant place: the masonry of our small fireplace.

We learned, while touring the Gordon house in Oregon (a Usonian house designed in the late 50’s and built after Frank’s death), that Frank often insisted that grout in the vertical seams of a brick wall be smoothed to the brick surface, while grout in the horizontal seams be inset, creating an effect of horizontal stripes, as opposed to stacked cubes. It’s a common feature of Usonian homes, which are between 20-40 years younger than this home.

Often, Usonian brickwork is of large-form cinder block and is painted, like this wall of the Gordon House. (Here, he went so far as to extend seams between layers of brick into the trim between wood siding; calling your eyes to trace an unbroken horizontal line until they land, gently, on the nearby trees and shrubs.)

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The same treatment is found in the Elizabeth Murphy House too, but it is so subtle that it is easily missed. First, the bricks are small and there are only a few of them. Then, the idea is executed in two different ways:

  1. Within the narrow columns beside the fire-box, vertical seams are grout-filled to de-emphasize the vertical, while…
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  2. … in the wall of brick above the firebox, the bring is tightly spaced, leaving no room for grout. The brick-to-brick seams are smooth on their own and the horizontal pops.
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We wonder: were these two approaches combined experimentally? Or was “smooth” specified by the architect and then executed in different ways by the construction team?

Either way, we’re looking at Frank’s fingerprints in the grout. He seems to be toying with an idea that would move in and out of his work for another 50 years.

Art glass during art class

Fourth graders from nearby Atwater School have been visiting this week. Mrs. Hayes, their Art Teacher, is collaborating with The Madison Children’s Museum and experts from Taliesin to create an expeditionary curriculum that includes field trips to the museum and into Shorewood neighborhoods to study organic architecture and compare it with other traditions. After their trips, the kids will fashion facades from clay. Their work will be displayed in the school and some may be featured in the district ‘art night’ later this school year.

So most afternoons this week, students, teachers and parent chaperones have taken a winding path through Shorewood to find and catalog architectural details like spires and gables, to see nearby houses by Wright’s apprentice Russell Barr-Williamson, and finally, to tour and learn about this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed American System Built House. It’s a privilege to have them visit.

We’ve heard many comments:

“It feels modern in here.”

“It smells like Lasagna.”

“Where’s the door?”

“The windows look like roses.”

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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?