Preserving Shorewood’s Rich History

County Supervisor Chris Abele’s tone-deaf decision to buy and destroy a historically important lakefront home in Shorewood was so tragic and awful that we hope it costs him his position. A key ingredient of competent governance is enthusiastic stewardship of important local assets: the art, architecture and natural environments that define our culture.

We should all vote against him.

However, it is important that we do not allow our anger to create a system that punishes the very stewardship that most of us agree we want.

Stewardship is not a product of special oversight placed on historic homes. It comes, instead, from a shared commitment to storytelling, passed between generations and among neighbors.

Historic homes begin with a mark against them. As evidence, consider that the Elizabeth Murphy house languished unsold in a hot market once it had been identified as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, precisely because prospective buyers were concerned that they would not be able to afford the basic upkeep, given its significance. They were worried about regulation creating downward pressure on value and upward pressure on upkeep. Their worries were not without merit.

Old homes require special care, time and money to keep them safe and useful. Old historically-important homes, like Abele’s now pulverized Eschweiler-designed mansion, require a deeper level of care: sensitivity to the architectural DNA and the importance of the artifact, a respect for former caretakers, and a willingness to spend the time to understand and share context. Abele didn’t have the patience for any of these things. He just wanted a view.

However, we have seen firsthand that many, if not most village residents understand  that stewardship flourishes in communities that reward the care-taking of all of the homes in a neighborhood.

Shorewoodian families enthusiastically care for homes and apartments ranging from Art Deco to Tudor, Mid-Century-Modern to Prairie, and of course, the Milwaukee-flat and Milwaukee-bungalow, and together, these gems form the priceless portfolio of real estate that is our shared village, a place that many see as a cultural beacon in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

In response to the Abele catastrophe, the village would do well to promote the concept of the preservation easement, which would provide owners and sellers of historic homes with the support to ensure that their important properties are protected by carrying forward both the burden and the benefits of pedigree. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a preservation easement binds future buyers to protect the historic elements and the spirit of the home in return for modest qualified tax relief. There might be fewer buyers of a home that has an easement, but those who are willing begin their shift understanding their role in historic preservation. This is something we plan to do with the Elizabeth Murphy House whether the village steps up or not.

Programs and people who value culture, not reactive ordinances, are what foster a dynamic and sustained environment of care-taking.

What is it like to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright House?

Many words come to mind.

It is Captivating. We feel an Obligation; the need to be Vigilant, Attentive, Protective and Careful. But three words best describe living in this place. Those words are Surprise, Wonder and Gratitude.

Surprise.

The Elizabeth Murphy House is located in the heart of the most densely populated square mile in the state of Wisconsin, but you’d never know it. Guest’s eyes widen when they enter, as if they have come upon deer grazing an unmarked clearing while on a north woods walk. They will remark that the space is serene – more like a campfire made in that clearing than a city house – lifting its occupants physically and spiritually with quiet, warmth, color and places for conversation and meditation.

Living here is both practical and magical at the same time. You can get your work done, but only in between surprises. For example, as you go about a morning routine – pouring coffee, dressing and making the bed – you might be called to watch new sunlight marching through the house. In spring, the light is bright and white and bounces floor to ceiling. But in the fall, when the low sun and oak leaves shift the spectrum towards orange, contrasts sharpen, colors pop and the house feels and looks warmer. It is telling you that winter is near, but all will be well. Can that have been planned?

Wonder.

On a recent October morning, a yellow sunbeam caught the mantel for three minutes; no more. It had not happened before and has not happened since. This slice of light lit the artwork of a young and talented sketcher, Mr. John O’Neill Jr., who visited last year with his family. A few days after their visit, we received a lovely hand-made thank you card which has been on the mantel since. His choice of gold to color the sky and windows was confirmed on this morning by the sun. John’s art reminds us that gratitude is something best shared.

Gratitude.

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Back to School

Fourth graders, teachers and parent chaperones from Atwater School visited again last week. It has become a fall tradition at the Elizabeth Murphy House. Importantly, the field trip is part of an architectural experience facilitated by Mrs. Hayes, their Art Teacher, who helps the kids to compare and contrast Wright’s organic design philosophies to other design approaches and in the context of history, culture, nature and materials. It is not just a field trip. After studying neighborhood homes and details of Wright’s work, the kids create their own.

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Waiting turn.

The kids were terrific: asking excellent questions, respecting the fragile pebbles in the porch,  and sharing their own interpretations. When asked what they see in the art glass motif, one kid raised his hand and declared, “A Man With a Hat.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 3.20.04 PM  It is almost as if Frank was here.