After fourth graders from Atwater School visited the Elizabeth Murphy House, they returned to Mrs. Hayes’ Art Class to create Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architectural tiles, and added their own flare. Two fine examples are on display at the Shorewood Library, in the Shorewood School District Art Show, which continues ’til mid-week.
We’re impressed with some of the important details. Here, a bank of windows creates a wall of light:
…and in this piece, horizontal lines are key elements, and the door is hard to find:
Frank continues to inspire.
‘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.)
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:
- Within the narrow columns beside the fire-box, vertical seams are grout-filled to de-emphasize the vertical, while…
- … 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
What do you think?
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.
Frank Lloyd Wright tried to bring modest, sturdy, but beautiful homes to the working class in two very different programs. His first attempt, the American System Built Houses (ASBH), of which our Elizabeth Murphy House is one, lasted from approximately 1915 to 1917. We think Elizabeth Murphy may have been the final nail ending the ASBH program. He tried again with the “Usonian” houses, starting in 1934 and continuing with homes built even after his death, like the Gordon home in Oregon.
The designs differ architecturally, as one would expect from work done a generation apart. ASBH designs are rooted in Louis Sullivan’s teachings, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Wright’s prairie interpretations. They were groundbreaking at the time. ASBHs were a clear break from the victorian style that dominated neighborhoods; appearing like a sporty two door hatchback among dump trucks.
The later Usonian homes are sleek, modern forms built with local materials: mostly stone and wood and a wide range of frugal innovations, like carports and heated floors. They still look futuristic.
Despite the differences, there is evidence that Wright was shooting at a common target with the ASBH and Usonian programs: affordability.
Alfred and Gladys Kibbie, first owners of the Elizabeth Murphy House, paid $5,000 for it in 1918.
Then, in 1934, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs challenged Wright to design a home that could be built for $5,000, and Wright answered with the home called Usonia One, in Madison, Wisconsin, though not without cutting some corners. It is said that Usonia One was constructed with bricks skimmed from the Johnson Wax headquarters, since it was running over budget.
A few weeks ago, while we worked on the facade, a car pulled up and a friendly gentleman emerged. He introduced himself as a Kibbie descendant. His mother Virginia, the youngest Kibbie daughter, had been courted by her high school sweetheart (and this man’s father) on our front steps. We talked for a time about the house and his family history and learned that Alfred and Gladys felt strongly about affordability too. In 1941, the Kibbies sold this house to subsequent owners for the same price they had paid decades years before. Their grandson explained that his grandparents didn’t think it right to profit from a modest, sturdy, but beautiful home designed for the working class.
So while Frank was probably thinking that the magic $5,000 threshold would never be met again, this little home, and its generous caretakers, made it happen for another family.