* Featured image by Sara Stathas, for the Wall Street Journal.
We’ve adopted a new method when visitors visit: instead of dashing through the Sleeping Porch, we’re now closing the porch door and pausing in the space to consider the Pebble-Dash. It’s worth taking the time to take it in.
It is said that Wright first saw and appreciated Pebble-Dash (also called RoughCast) on a visit to San Diego and thought it might work well for the exteriors of American System Built Homes. The method was popular in maritime climes and praised for low cost, good looks, and uniform durability. Pebble-Dash starts with plaster applied to brick or lath, and while wet, multi-colored Pebbles are Dashed onto the surface. Colors are what you happen to get from the quarry at the time. Here, we see grey, tan and black quartzite, granite and sparkly biotite.
It isn’t clear that Pebble-Dash was a good idea for frame construction in Wisconsin. Experts tell us that the exteriors of the houses on the Burnham Block were all recovered within 20 years of construction and there is photographic evidence that this house had shingles over the original surface by about 1935 (fourteen short years after the first owners moved in), presumably due to rapid deterioration. One might surmise that Pebble-Dash over brick becomes a uniformly mineral-based wall, contracting and expanding at about the same pace, and therefore, staying together. However, Pebble Dash over wood lath might crumble in freezing winters since wood and rock don’t dance well together. Wright may have specified Byrkit Lath to try to prevent trouble, but it doesn’t appear he was successful.
Regardless, the unpainted Pebble-Dash in the Elizabeth Murphy House may be the last example of the original exterior of an American System Built House, anywhere. This sleeping porch — once open to the outside — was converted to an enclosed and heated space (probably in the 30’s) and the Pebble-Dash in it has been preserved in almost original condition. The ceiling is spectacular:
Thus, the deliberate pause to take it in. When you’re in this space, you’re in history. A history of trial and error and experimentation that would’ve been lost and forgotten, if the clocks had not been paused about 80 years ago.
Let’s be clear. You can see the entire Elizabeth Murphy House in 3o seconds. It’s tiny.
But there are places to pause and things not to miss. Here are a few:
1.) Once you find the door, notice that two people can’t enter the house at the same time. The passage is too narrow and steep. It asks you to be quiet, deliberate, and think about what is coming next.
2.) When you pass through the narrow space and pause in sleeping porch, imagine dozing there on a soft rug looking up at the twinkling stars. The quartzite pebbles in the pebble-dash stucco on the ceiling blink in bright white and rainbow hues all night long.
3.) When you enter the house from the porch, you’ll be nearing the end of your path of discovery. As you shed your boots, hat and coat and say hello – something that usually happens in a foyer – you’re standing in the center of the house.
And there you will need to decide: Are you feeling social? Go left, where the spaces are sunlit and soar up and out and you’ll find friends and conversation. Or are you feeling quiet and introspective? Then turn right into the intimate spaces; the bedrooms and bath.
4.) Stand to the left of the fireplace mantel and spin around slowly. This is the spot where you can see out in all directions. North; a Wisconsin woods. East and West; neighbors and friends. South; an expansive city skyline that connects the house to the street and you to the community.
Then thank Frank, as we do each day.
* The Elizabeth Murphy House is a private residence in a quiet neighborhood, so tours are by invitation only, excepting special events. Please respect the privacy of the owners and the neighbors.
The home will be featured on the 2017 Wright and Like Tour. Learn more here.
It was a sleeping porch originally; a rectangular open air space under the hip roof but separated from the main living area by art glass windows and a heavy birch front door. The intent was to have a place to sit or sleep outside while still being mostly inside. Sometime in the 60s someone added windows and a new front door and turned it into a den. Floors were covered with thick carpet and wood parquet.
The pebble-dash stucco that was once on the exterior of the house is still on the interior walls and ceiling of the sleeping porch, perhaps because it had been protected from wear and tear. The dated floors, low light, and the gray walls conspired to make the room seem more cavelike and quirky than airy and woodsy. At first, we didn’t know what to make of the space.
So on moving day, we tasked a team to pull up the carpet and tile and found a perfect, glorious tongue-and-groove cypress floor with the original olive paint intact. With a color-matched fresh coat and some indirect lighting, the spirit of the room is renewed.
There is no wondering what FLW was thinking. It is like reclining on the patio of a north woods cottage watching the stars twinkle overhead.