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 We took a good portion of the month of August to replace an out-of-date roof and listing gutters while also restoring soffits, fascia, some of the shake and painting all around and we’ve been compiling notes and organizing photos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

IMG_9155

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.

IMG_9143

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.

IMG_1572

(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.

IMG_9215

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.

A quality roof by Frank Lloyd Wright

We have started our major project for the year, removing 1970s tin flashing in order to  expose and restore the 1930s cedar soffits and facia. We will paint the entire house in appropriate Prairie colors, replace the 25-year old shingled roof (near the end of its life), and importantly, upgrade the ugly, dysfunctional gutters, which have been flimsy, leaky and sagging and not up to the task. Our new gutters will be period and architecturally appropriate and work better.

Frank Lloyd Wright took special care in specifying the gutters on American System-Built Homes and it paid off. These houses typically did not leak. He wanted the gutters to handle the volume of water and to last a long time; key to a good roof.

He directed that the factory would provide and the contractor would then install “…galvanized iron gutters and down spouts wherever and as indicated on drawings.” 

He was careful to include sufficient flow and a proper destination for the water, specifying the number of down spouts and “connecting same to the drainage system and so installed as to comply with the requirements of the city sanitation department.”

He directed that those gutters and down spouts should be properly treated for long life: “shall be given two coats of lead and oil point to match stained wood work.”

And finally, he wanted the materials to be of the highest quality. He wrote that “lead shall be pure white lead. National Lead, or equal. Oil shall be pure kettle boiled linseed oil. ” 1

We have taken delivery of some 200 feet of half round 6″ gutters and smooth round galvanized downspouts, exactly the shape and size as originally seen on the house (but subsequently removed and replaced with cheapies sometime in the last 70 years.)

The raw metal of our new vintage gutters is to be painted, as Wright directed, to ensure long life. Of course, we won’t be using lead paint. But we’ll come close in terms of performance.

IMG_9118

We started by removing the oil residue left by the factory with dish detergent and then we etched the surface with white vinegar and let it dry. We have applied an oil-based bonding primer, and will finish it with two coats of enamel paint in a color that matches the original exterior trim paint color, still visible in the sunroom, and that will reappear on the whole house again soon. The old gutters will come off on Monday, and the new ones should be installed sometime in the next week or so.

We’ll post more images as the project progresses here and at our Instagram page.

IMG_1567

1.Specification of materials and labor required for the American Model ____ in accordance with drawings prepared by Frank Lloyd Wright Architect, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) FLWFA Specs Box 2 1112-1903 –

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.

IMG_7485

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.

DSC_7403

 

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:

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 10.25.40 AM

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

IMG_5908

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:

IMG_6256 2

And an after picture:

DSC_7303

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.

DSC_7305

“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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 7.52.47 PM
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.

IMG_5641
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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 7.53.06 PM

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.

IMG_5908

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.

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-7-15-30-am

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.

DSC_5687