Unfinished Business – Wright’s Cantilevers

Elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ASBH Model A203 design either never made it into the Elizabeth Murphy House, or, perhaps, were lost to reconstruction events sometime during her hundred year history. One missing element: decorative flower box cantilevers  shown here in Wright’s drawings:

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The details have been missing from the house since perhaps 1939 (the oldest known image), and certainly since the 1950s. It is unclear if they were included in the original construction.

2106Newton 1933 appraisal card

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In the drawings, the extended flower box crown is important to the flow of the facade, anchoring the main windows of the living area wall while stretching the edges of the built-in garden. The house looks boxy without it. We studied the drawings to find the geometries and proportions and matched the materials of the existing flower box trim (cedar) to construct new (or replacement) cantilevers.

Here is a before picture:

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And an after picture:

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The drawings show simple open extensions of the flower box crown with what appeared to be lateral braces. Were these braces meant for hanging baskets? With the project complete and some time to study its effects, we think that Wright’s main objective was to cast traveling angular shadows, lifting the house out and up, mirroring the louvres and art glass motif, and emphasizing, again, light, nature and the horizontal.

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“How to build a warm, strong and dry house”

We called a remodeling contractor friend and told him we’d purchased a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and he asked “… should I congratulate or scold you?”

Our experience, so far, belies the popular myth that Wright homes are leaky and cold. This little house is (knock on wood) dry and without a draft. Credit, we think, goes to the use of Byrkit Lath to sheathe both the interior and exterior walls and ceilings.

Patented and marketed starting in 1890, Byrkit was pitched as a stronger, longer lasting, easier to install substrate on which to apply plaster.

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Byrkit Lath in profile.

It’s an ingenious idea: tongue and grooved boards are milled with trapezoidal slots into which wet plaster is pressed, locking the system together, setting and sealing it as it dries. The result is a waterproof wall with incredible strength that is relatively lightweight.

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Void free plaster locks mated Byrkit Lath to form a super-strong wall, or in this case, ceiling.

A modern metaphor is the use of closed-cell foam core materials covered in carbon-fibers impregnated with epoxy in boats, cars and rockets. The hollowness creates lightness. Interlocking fibers create strength. The uniform thin-walled surfaces create stiffness and structural integrity.

By specifying Byrkit Lath in this and other American System-Built Houses, Frank Lloyd Wright may have secured this home’s legacy. In addition to creating a dry, strong and warm space that stands straight and true to this day, he may also have dissuaded major renovation. To drill a hole for a code-required exhaust vent in our new WC required a $26 masonry bit and a $26 diamond saw.

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References: Mike Lilek, 2015, “2106 Newton Avenue Shorewood, Wisconsin, An American System-Built House Model A203, Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect”

Honey, I tore off the front of the house.

Elizabeth Murphy must have thought cars were not necessary. The house she had built had no garage or carport. Indeed, in 1917, trolleys ran north, south and west from Shorewood. Frank Lloyd Wright may have assumed that the middle class – for whom American System Built Houses were designed – would always prefer public transportation.

Here is the house from across the street in 1952.

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But in the 1970s, the then owners needed to park a car. They excavated part of the front yard and under the sleeping porch to create a driveway and garage. Thankfully, they did it without disturbing anything in the house above.

In an attempt to tie the garage to the house, an eyebrow roof was added to the facade held up by two large stuccoed columns. Over the years, the columns shifted and the brow sagged, like a lazy eye. Indeed, cracks, angles, and layers of caulk may have caused inspectors to assume that the house’s foundation was compromised, when in fact, the facade was the only thing moving. It’s as if the house was rejecting a transplant.

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In preparation for the Wright and Like 2017 Tour, we hoped to clean it up. I would, at a minimum, grind out and patch the ugliest cracks. As layers came off and the extent of the effort to mask the mess became clear, I decided, instead, to tear it all off. As sledge hammer hit cinder block, you could hear the home breathe a sigh of relief. Angela returned from errands to a bit of a surprise.

So for the rest of the weekend, we poured new concrete, parged walls, and cut and painted matching trim. Today, the Elizabeth Murphy House stands tall and straight, and ready for tour-goers.

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